Open Mic: Sports in Black and White

Andrew StevensCorrespondent IJune 5, 2008

Few topics provoke more emotional responses that those regarding race and race-relations.  As much as the United States would like to pretend otherwise, race is as part of American life as apple pie and baseball.  It should come as no surprise, then, that the comments made by Willie Randolph regarding seemingly racially-motivated criticism has lead to reactions from across the sports world.  Talk radio lines burned for days about whether or not he was right, and fans called to either: a) defend Randolph and his comments, or b) criticise him, but with carefully couched statements about how said criticism wasn't racially motivated. 

It's hard to believe that there are legions of bigots in the Mets fan base, each itching to find a way to lampoon Randolph because of his background.  The Mets have a black manager, an Hispanic general manager, and a team that has a great deal of Hispanic players (as discussed in a previous article, baseball is becoming more and more Hispanic).  When the Mets won the division two years ago, no one cared about the race/ethnicity of the management or players on the team.  Now that the Mets have struggled in all facets of the game, the boo birds and critics are out in force.  Winning, however, is a cure-all that can act beyond the scope of race and prejudices, real and imagined.  Once the Mets start winning, the criticism will fade to irrelevancy.

Yet, it does not take a great deal of imagination to see race as an element in other sports.  Donovan McNabb (NFL quarterback, who is African American) is held to outrageously high standards in Philadelphia, and there is some question about how his race adds to the pressure.  To be fair, Philadelphia is a notoriously tough sports town (this fan base once booed Santa Claus, remember).  Philly also has a court underneath the football stadium, to immediately prosecute the most unruly fans.

But McNabb, were he Caucasian, would simply be another good-to-great quarterback who has yet to win the Big One.  He's held to higher standards.  Much of this is because McNabb is carrying the torch for other black football players who are either QB's now or would like to be in the future.  Not too long ago, there were questions about whether or not a black man could play the position.  It was suggested, quietly and otherwise, that African Americans did not have the "skill-sets" (a carefully-worded racial statement) to play the position.  Some of these feelings may linger in fans.  Even today, you can count the elite black quarterbacks in the NFL on one hand.  

Now that McNabb and many others have  shown the bigots wrong, critics need to take a deep breath.  There are only no more than sixty or so people today who are currently NFL quarterbacks.  They know how difficult the position is.  Football is tough enough to play on the field.  Criticism because of one's race makes it that much harder off of it.

The National Baseball Association is a league that generates a great deal of interest both in the United States and abroad.  One can find NBA players and fans in Europe, China, and South America.  The majority of American-born players, however, are African-American.  Even a causal observer of the NBA would have to be lost to not see race as an issue in the NBA. 

David Stern, the longest-tenured Commissioner in American sports (NBA commish since the mid-1980's), has a league that has produced some of the talented and iconic sports figured in the last 25 years.  Magic Johnson.  Michael Jordan.  Kobe Bryant.  These names roll off the tongue as casually as Mantle, Mays, and Maris did a generation ago for baseball fans.  However, one needs to look into the stands during a game to see where problems for the NBA may lurk.  Almost all of the fan-base (read: paying customers) is white.  Yet talent on the floor is mostly black.

The issue for Stern continues to be a bridging the disconnect between players on the floor and fans.  It's difficult for a middle-class suburban white person to relate to the majority-black players.  The culture, dress, upbringing and lifestyle of the two are radically different.  Many players grew up in outrageous poverty and are now multimillionaires.  Fans in the stands did not, for the most part, have these wild swings of income during their lives.  Tattoos and other accouterments that are commonplace with many NBA players are seen as aspects of a rap-influenced lifestyle that many white suburbanites are not comfortable with. 

To alleviate these fears, Stern has enacted a dress code for the players.  He wants the league to be more "professional" and appear more straight-laced.  Much of this is good.  The NBA is a business, and the players, regardless of how they feel about it, are part of a multi-billion dollar corporation.  How they can appeal to the paying customers is as much a part of their game as the triangle offense and the three-point play.

Baseball, the NFL, and the NBA are three of the biggest sports in America, and have a global reach.  Race will continue to be a factor in all three.  The beauty of these leagues, however, is that sports are a great social and economic equalizer.  White suburban kids play baseball with Hispanics from poverty-torn Caribbean islands.  African-Americans from poor urban upbringings play basketball with immigrants from Eastern Europe, or even China.  In these environments, no one cares about the background of a teammate or a rival.  It's only fans that see race and ethnicity.  Barack Obama, the current Democratic presidential nominee, has campaigned on the idea that America can get beyond race and work on the issues that matter.  Perhaps some of the more reactionary sports fans should listen more closely to what Mr. Obama has to say.