Revisiting the Race Issue: What Makes a "Hard-Working" Player?

Daniel McGowinCorrespondent IApril 7, 2009

TAMPA, FL - APRIL 08:  Jayne Appel #2 of the Stanford Cardinal reacts after she was called for a foul against the Tennessee Lady Volunteers during the National Championsip Game of the 2008 NCAA Women's Final Four at St. Pete Times Forum April 8, 2008 in Tampa, Florida. Tennessee won 64-48. (Photo by Doug Benc/Getty Images)

Hate to revisit the race issue, but Connecticut women's basketball coach Geno Auriemma spoke two weeks too late.

Following Connecticut's victory over the Stanford Cardinal on Sunday night, the Hall of Fame coach made a comment regarding the perception of the white players in general, and on the Cardinal team in particular:

"White kids are always looked upon as being soft. So Stanford’s got a tremendous amount of really good players who for whatever reason, because they don’t look like Tina Charles or Maya Moore, the perception out there is going to be, well, they must be soft" (The New York Times).

Now I partially agree with Skip Bayless, who noted that Auriemma told his own players this prior to the game against Stanford in an effort to motivate the Huskies (and to maintain their focus).  But I would add to this that Auriemma is absolutely right when he states that "people on the sports world like to make judgments on people by how they look." 

Skin color is the most visible "look" and therefore many attributes are easily attached to race.  But as Auriemma concludes, that is "grossly unfair."

In the current philosophies of globalization, homogeneity is much more important than difference.  Race, a visible marker of difference, is one such division that is often avoided when discussing unity.

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However, it is worth noting that race and difference is not always a bad thing.  Political scientist Iris Marion Young noted a certain power in difference, especially when the different group is able to define itself.  It is seen as a way of reclaiming one's identity by highlighting the difference that once rendered them inferior.

Additionally, most sociologists have noted that "race" is a social construct based on relationships between peoples.  Many of them hold that there are more differences within one race than there are between two different races.

Nevertheless, many sports fans (including myself from time to time) look at race as a "difference" in a somewhat negative way and we allow ourselves to make generalizations and stereotypes based on what we see rather than results.

White players in most sports are held as being fundamental, who are "students of the game" and through a hard work ethic have made it to the professional ranks.  Black players are held as being skillful and speedy, and have reached the top ranks because of their skill set.  If you want to bring in other "races," you could add Asian baseball players as being fundamental (like whites) and speedy (like blacks) who tend to hit for contact.

Even if these are merely tendencies that one could point to Steve Novak and LeBron James and apply the labels accordingly, there still exists a danger in doing so.  The danger comes not from what the tendencies and labels state but what they do not state, or what they infer.

The late Edward Said was instrumental in pushing forth the idea of "othering."  Developed primarily in his book Orientalism, Said and other academics have outlined how Western powers have "othered" peoples from different parts of the world in order to exert dominance over these people.

For example, if Asia is held as being backwards and barbaric, then what does that make Europe?  Well, based on "othering," Europe would be everything that Asia was not—i.e., civilized.  In other words, you define the other in order to define yourself.

What these simple labels of athletes accomplishes is a sense of othering.  The fundamental white player is not skilled.  The skilled black athlete is not intelligent.  Steve Nash is crafty; Deron Williams is skilled.  One denotes hard work; the other does not.

Granted, not every sports fan automatically attach age-old stereotypes and generalities to players based on race.  Deron Williams is considered to have a strong work ethic; Steve Nash is considered to be skilled.

Nevertheless, it is much easier to generalize and it happens so much that we tend to overlook it and not think about the consequences of doing so.  It is as though we have naturalized these labels and do not critically challenge the notions of the "gutsy" white player or "naturally gifted" black player.  It tends to be accepted unproblematically.

These generalizations fuel some people's longstanding beliefs about what type of players can play which position or in which sport.  This was part of the central thesis of my previous article on race in sports. 

There is an impulse to quantify Ben Woodside as a white basketball player or Donovan McNabb as a black quarterback because the "race" of those sports or positions are already assumed (basketball players are black; quarterbacks are white).

But these impulses are derived from generalities not only about the sport or the position but also race.  It goes like this: Basketball is a "skill" sport and is a "natural" fit for the naturally skilled black athletes and is no place for white athletes.  The quarterback position calls for an intelligent player and is a "natural" fit for the fundamentally sound white player and is no place for a black player.

These generalizations are erroneous and have been debunked time and again.  Yet, this is 2009 and those same stereotypes continue to be made.

Geno Auriemma stood up against one of these stereotypes—white (women) basketball players as "soft"—and even if he was only motivating his Connecticut team, he should be applauded for furthering the discourse on race in sports.  Unfortunately, in attempting to dispel the stereotype, he actually (inadvertently, I believe) used another stereotype by insinuating the Stanford players are hard workers.

Race in sports is a very slippery slope that is difficult to traverse, even when you are attempting to debunk myths.  But it is still one that we should not be afraid to approach, even if we have to do so with baby steps.