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Playing the game the “right” way

The different standards for white and non-white athletes

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Nothing gets old, crotchety, white dude sports journalists or announcers angrier than seeing a player “disrespect the game” by celebrating too exuberantly. Close behind on the crotchety-white-dude scale is when a player yells at his teammates and makes a scene, becoming a ‘problem’ or ‘bad character’ for the team. I’m not even going to beat around the bush here: most of the time, the player they discuss doing this is not white and/or a foreigner.

Simply put, white players in three of the four main North American sports – baseball, football, and hockey – are given much more latitude in how they can act on and off the playing field. Basketball, a sport where 78 per cent of male players and 69 per cent of female players are black, is noticeably different in this respect, in that it is a sport wherein behaviours are not as scrutinized in general. But in the other three sports, white players are far less scrutinized for their expressions of celebration and anger.

The best example of this came last month, when Dez Bryant, a wide receiver for the National Football League (NFL)’s Dallas Cowboys was spotted by cameras shouting at his teammates on the sidelines. The announcer for the game, Brian Billick, started ripping into Bryant, chastising him for distracting his teammates while also deriding them – even though Billick couldn’t hear a word of what Bryant was saying. Soon after, mic’d up footage of Bryant’s apparent ‘meltdown’ surfaced, wherein it was revealed that Bryant was yelling words of encouragement to his teammates, especially quarterback Tony Romo. “We’re the best in the league at this!” he repeatedly told Romo, a phrase that obviously marked Bryant as a bad teammate. As Deadspin later pointed out in a post titled “You Can Get Away With Acting Like Dez Bryant If You’re Tony Romo,” Romo has regularly chewed out and embarrassed his teammates on the field, and has been given laudatory treatment by announcers for being a fiery and intense leader. When Bryant, a young black man, does it, it’s what Billick calls “a temper tantrum.” When Romo, a white guy, does it, it’s the sign of a great field general.

If you think that difference is there because of a positional difference – quarterbacks are inherently allowed to do that sort of thing, or something, while wide receivers aren’t – then take a look at comparisons between Cam Newton, the Carolina Panthers quarterback, and Tom Brady, the New England Patriots quarterback. Newton, black, has been dogged by accusations that he has a poor attitude since before he was drafted into the NFL, with one scout calling him “immature” among a laundry list of other faults. Since he’s been drafted, his sideline demeanor has been watched feverishly, and he is constantly criticized for poor body language or getting down on his teammates. Brady, on the other hand, is white, and gets cast into the same “fiery leader” archetype when he yells and screams at his teammates. Newton is the petulant one with the attitude problem, while Brady is the guy who just cares too much – all he wants to do is win.

The NFL is also plagued by media figures getting uppity about celebrations, mostly, again, by black players, though some white players have not escaped this scrutiny. The league already has celebration rules in place, so no one can have too much fun on the field, but plenty of media members chastise players when their celebrations go over some imaginary boundary line that’s “too far.”

In hockey, a sport with significantly fewer non-white players, the focus is often shifted onto Europeans. To take one example, Nail Yakupov, a Russian forward for the National Hockey League (NHL)’s Edmonton Oilers, is constantly attacked by the media for his lack of effort – sometimes rightly, oftentimes wrongly. This is mostly because his highly offensive style of play doesn’t always match the North American ideal of hard-working, ‘gritty’ hockey players. But what was most galling was a moment early in last year’s season in which Yakupov scored a crucial, late goal against the defending Stanley Cup Champion Los Angeles Kings. The then 19-year-old Yakupov celebrated exuberantly, sprinting down the ice and sliding on his knees. Don Cherry and other assorted old white guys of the media pounced on Yakupov for not acting like “he had been there before,” and making a mockery of the game. While the celebration was out of the ordinary, compared to most hockey celebrations, Yakupov’s actions received particular attention because he’s Russian, and wasn’t playing the game the ‘right’ – read ‘Canadian’ – way. And that’s in addition to the many media members who call Russians or other Europeans “enigmatic” or say that they have “attitude problems.” The few non-whites in the sport are also often heavily scrutinized; P.K. Subban, a black defenceman for the Montreal Canadiens, is often unduly criticized for his “brash” demeanor on and off the ice, even while he acts like most other young hockey players.

Baseball, a sport that has become increasingly filled with Hispanic players at the Major League Baseball (MLB) level, is nearly as bad, though less overtly. Sports journalists and, often, many of the players still cling to the “unwritten rules” of the game, which enforce a strict code of basically not celebrating anything. While not always targeting minorities, the “unwritten rules” – again, mostly referred to as playing the game the “right way” – enforce a strict code on players, reinforcing the staid, conservative ways of the past. This is a form of institutional racism – the codes of the game themselves restrict those who do not fall in with traditional, mostly white behaviours of humility and respect. This sort of stringent focus on the code was seen most in this year’s National League Championship Series between the St. Louis Cardinals and the Los Angeles Dodgers. Fans and St. Louis media members constantly harped on the Dodgers for not following a perceived code of play. These transgressions included celebrating important plays on the field, admiring a home run, and, in general, being too exuberant. This was even more pronounced due to the fact that the Dodgers are a West Coast team, as opposed to the Cardinals’ conservative, Midwestern home, and the fact that the Cardinals had more ‘hard-working’ white players, while the Dodgers had more young black or Hispanic players who, according to buzzkills everywhere, weren’t ‘acting like they had been there before.’

These problems of racial bias are tied to a couple of factors: the desire for all athletes to be humble and the politics of respectability. Since athletes are in a privileged position in society – they’re often paid millions of dollars to play a game – there is some expectation that they should be humble, and respect their opportunity. While a good idea in theory, in practice, it leads to people chastised for having personality. It enforces a level of sameness – you’re lucky to be here, so just keep your head down and play. More pressingly, for non-whites, the idea of respectability is in play. If they act out in any way that goes against the status quo, or plays into easy stereotypes – think of Dez Bryant as the ‘angry black man’ – then they are rejected. The force is for players to act more like their ‘respectable’ – read ‘white’ – counterparts, who show humility and never make a scene, or so the story goes.

Sports media has a lot of influence over how players are perceived – in fact, they control almost all of that perception. Stories where non-white players are criticized for their attitude, or told to play the game differently, are forms of control and coercion, part of a system that seeks to homogenize non-white athletes into a group more appealing to the conservative world of sports. So it’s up to the fans, and to the media, to reject the lazy, uninformed, and often racist characterizations of players who go against the grain. Who knows, we might get to see more of who these people really are.