Illustrating Racism in Sports: Sports Illustrated

IN THE 1990s, the U.S. media made much to-do about so-called genetic differences between “white” and “black” athletes. One prominent example is the cover story in a December 8, 1997 issue of Sports Illustrated titled “What Ever Happened to the White Athlete,” which is exposed by JOSHUA BRISSON in his essay below. Sports Illustrated discuses a supposed “black” takeover of professional sports and the demise of the “white” athlete in  that country. Although published 15 years ago, the cover story concentrates different pseudoscientific and racist theses that continue to be promoted today. The fact that the media highlights genetics, cites a handful of sports (football, baseball, basketball, track and field) as “proof” and omits mention of the effect of social conditions – saying nothing for instance about the very real issue of state-organized and institutional racism and the elimination of any opportunity to participate in sport and recreation by the vast majority of the people in the United States – is worthy of note.  In fact, such “explanations” are equivalent to the pseudoscientific “gene” explanations long given for everything from poverty to aggression. People should be vigilant against such so-called science. As is always the case, the key question is who benefits from acceptance of the claims made. When the claims let the monopolies and sport cartels off the hook for their inhuman activity, it is crystal clear that the beneficiaries are not the people. – Tony Seed

By JOSHUA BRISSON*

FOR THE PURPOSE of cultivating a better understanding of the effects of racial ideologies in the 21st century my intention is to investigate race and racism in the context of sports and the sports media. In this context, racial ideologies are enduring and determine how people are portrayed based on racial categorization in sports media. Whether intended or unintended, racial ideologies become self-perpetuating with the assistance of popular discourse and sports stories that reflect these ideas (Denham, Billings, & Halone, 2002).

One such an example is the cover story in a 1997 issue of Sports Illustrated titled “What Ever Happened to the White Athlete.” Sports Illustrated is the predominant American sports media print franchise owned by media conglomerate Time Warner. The extent of its influence in shaping opinion can be gauged by the fact that the self-titled weekly magazine currently has over 3.5 million subscribers and is read by 23 million adults each week, including over 18 million men (Wikipedia).

Although published 15 years ago, the cover story concentrates different pseudoscientific and racist theses and continues to be discussed today. Sports Illustrated discuses a supposed “black” takeover of professional sports and the demise of the “white” athlete in  that country. This paper will show that the article has a white-centered perspective, and that it falsely asserts that “black” athletes are innately superior physically and are taking over sports. Moreover, as a consequence of the biological determinism and pseudoscientific racism that is reflected in the article, “black” athletes are victim of discrimination and institutional racism. My argument is that through reinforcing and reifying “white” and “black” folk taxonomies this article inaccurately portrays the reality of racism in sports in the U.S.A.

“The white athlete… ruled the American athletic scene for much of the century… discouraged by the success of black athletes, who have come to dominate sports in spectacular fashion” (Price, 1997, p.33).

The “What Ever Happened to the White Athlete?” article was written by Sports Illustrated author S.L. Price. In the article Price discuses what he perceives as the dominance of “blacks” in sports. He proposes that “blacks” are taking over sports, while “all indications are the white athlete will continue to fade steadily” (p.35). He proposes that through sports “blacks” have crossed racial lines by becoming sports heroes. Consequently, they have quickly begun to dominate and push out “white” athletes, which previously enjoyed sport domination. Price’s writing reflects a common discourse in the sports media, which suggests that “blacks” are simply better athletes than “whites” (Denham, Billings, & Halone, 2002). He supports this claim with statistics showing that “blacks” in the U.S.A are overrepresented as athletes. He points out that only 13 per cent of the U.S. population are “black,” but they represent a total of 17 per cent Major League Baseball (MLB) players, 67 per cent of National Football League (NFL) players, and 80 per cent of National Basketball Association (NBA) players. Although Price provides some possible socio-economic reasons for the apparent overrepresentation of “blacks” in professional sports, he ultimately suggests that “blacks” are innately physically superior. “The black players are superior…They’re built, they’re buffed. We work out to get a body like that, and they just come out naturally buffed” (Price, 1997, p.38). This quote from a former “white” NBA athlete Rony Seikaly used by Price reflects this notion.

Although Price takes up the investigation of the apparent dominance of “blacks” in sports the focus of this article is not to celebrate “black” success. Rather, Price is seemingly concerned for the future of “white” athletes. 

By reinforcing “black” and “white” folk taxonomies through a white-centered perspective, Price identifies the dominance of “black” athletes in sports as a problem. In this article Price uses and reinforces an existing white-centered world view. White-centeredness is used in order to view and judge the world of sports. Price (1997) suggests “all indications are that the white athlete will continue his steady fade” (p.33). Although Price takes up the investigation of the apparent dominance of “blacks” in sports the focus of this article is not to celebrate “black” success.  Rather, Price is seemingly concerned for the future of “white” athletes. Price’s white-centered perspective is reflected by his apparent concern over the success of “black” athletes. The success of “black” athletes is only alarming to Price because whiteness in society has been constructed to be the standard or norm (Dyer, 1997, p.3). In contrast to the norm of “white” success, “non-white” or “black” success in sports is considered exceptional and warrants the need for some of explanation.

Price seems to suggest that if the number of “blacks” in sports is not controlled the traditional “white” athlete stock will be diluted.

Price’s white-centered attitude is similar to ethnocentrism outlined by Shanklin (1994) in Anthropology and Race. Shanklin defines ethnocentrism as “the belief that one’s own people or life-ways are better than all others” (p.3). In this article Price is reinforcing the ethnocentric idea that “whiteness” is a human norm by using “whiteness” as a standard from which everything else is viewed, judged and identified as different (Dyer, 1997, p.3).  Moreover Price’s article reflects a Neo-Malthusian ideology by implying that the population of “blacks” in sports are increasing, seemingly out of control (Shanklin, 1997, p.82). Price seems to suggest that if the number of “blacks” in sports is not controlled the traditional “white” athlete stock will be diluted. Thus, it appears that Price may be identifying this pattern so some action or steps can be taken to correct or mitigate this effect.

Throughout the article Price reinforces existing “black” and “white” folk taxonomies. The concept of race employed by Price is identical to the “biracial” conception Shanklin (1994) suggests is dominant in the U.S. This conception conceives of only two races based primarily on skin colour, “white” and “non-white” (p.18). Throughout the article Price considers the use of two racial categories – “black” and “white.” He also follows, it appears, the dominant conception of race in the U.S.A known as the “one drop” principle. This principle asserts that “one drop of Negro blood makes you Negro” (Shanklin, 1994, p.18). For example, Price (1997) considers “Latinos… many of whom are also black” (p.33). Although race is not a sound biological fact (Shanklin, 1994), Price treats race in this way.

In the article Price reinforces the dominant discourse in the sports media surrounding inherent “black” athletic superiority, “blacks dominate sports because they are faster, quicker, better… They possess superior athletic skills and have thus transformed the way sports are played” (Price, 1997, p.38). Although Price provides data to show that “blacks” are overrepresented in the MLB, NFL, and NBA, he makes misleading claims. First he advocates that “there just seem to be more black athletes than white” (Price, 1997, p.34). Nevertheless, in 1997 “whites” represented 77 per cent of all athletes in the MLB compared to only 13 per cent of African-Americans. Moreover, Price (1997) claims that “the white athlete will continue his steady fade” (p.35), but since 1997 the percentage of “white” athletes dropped by only 1 per cent more that African-Americans in the NFL and NBA combined (The Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sports, 2010).

In order to reinforce his claim that “blacks” are naturally better athletes, Price attempts to reify “black” and “white” folk taxonomies through biological determinism or pseudoscientific racism. Biological determinists attempt to prove or claim that science can demonstrate that mental and physical abilities can be attributed to racial groups (Shanklin, 1994, p.110). As Price points out, “certainly there is a chuckling acceptance, among both blacks and whites, of the inability of whites to leap high and run fast. It’s not that whites won’t play anymore, the thinking goes: It’s that they can’t.” (Price, 1997, p.38). In the context of sports, biological deterministic ideas such as the ones Price reinforces claim that an athlete’s mental and physical abilities are biologically determined and are inherently linked to race.

In order to reify the “black” and “white” folk taxonomies Price asserts that “blacks” have innate physical supremacy over “whites.” Overlooking scientific evidence to the contrary, Price persists in reinforcing the idea of inherent “black” athletic superiority. As Price (1997) points out, “while the scientific jury, faced with intriguing preliminary evidence, still debates whether black athletes possess innate physical advantages, the white athlete works in a world that seems already convinced of the answer” (p.40). According to Shanklin (1994) many works of influential nineteenth and twentieth-century biological determinists have been discredited. Nevertheless, Price and others maintain that “certain capacities and talents are innate” (p.112).  Coakley and Donnelly (2009) point out that media content such as Price’s article reinforce pseudoscientific racist ideas. The dominate racial ideology implies that a “black” athletes success are attributed to natural physical ability, thus scientists want to study “black” athletes’ in order to discover what physical traits are the cause of “black” athletes success. On the other hand racial ideology in the U.S considers “white” success as a result of intelligence, superior preparation and cultural factors, thus scientists don’t want to study “white” bodies (p. 265).

One area where “black” and “white” folk taxonomies are reinforced is through position stacking in sports. There is evidence of position stacking in both the NFL and MLB, which is manifested in two ways – centrality and position type (The Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sports, 2010). Firstly, position stacking based on centrality sees “whites” holding more central positions. Central positions are considered positions that have a higher impact on the outcome of the game. For example, “white” athletes hold the majority of pitching and back catcher positions in the MLB as well as kicker and quarterback positions in the NFL. These positions are thought to have the most impact on the outcome of the game. On the other hand more peripheral or secondary positions are held by “black” athletes such as outfielders in the MLB and running backs in the NFL. Secondly, there are positions that are considered thinking or intellectually oriented and positions that are considered power, or physically oriented. In this case “whites” hold more positions attributed to thinking, and “blacks” hold more positions attributed to physicality (Eitzen & Sage, 1993).

Although Price points out the African-American population is over-represented as athletes in the NBA, NFL and the MLB, this observation is misleading because it misses the fact that racism still exists in these sports. There is overwhelming evidence of institutional racism in the NBA, MLB and NFL. According to Pratricia Collins, Institutional racism is “a system of beliefs and behaviours by which a group defined by race is oppressed, controlled, and exploited because of presumed cultural or biological characteristics” (Shanklin, 1994, p.111). Price (1997) highlights the success and fame of players such as Michael Jordan. He also suggests that “whites” have become a minority in sports in order to claim that racial lines are being broken down, “that a white majority calmly accepts minority status in one of its most cherished social institutions is itself a measure of progress” (p. 33).  Price overlooks the existence of racism by failing to show that sports institutions are hierarchical. While “black” players may be the majority as athletes in the NBA and NFL “whites” are the majority in the MLB and are overwhelmingly overrepresented in upper level management (The Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sports, 2010). By overlooking the “white” majority in all other categories in sports such as ownership, managers, CEOs, and coaching he misses that “black” athletes play for and generate revenue for “white” owners and companies (Coakley and Donnelly, 2009, p.266).

In order to cultivate a better understanding of racial ideologies in the context of sports this paper analysed the content of Price’s Sports Illstrated titled “What Ever Happened to the White Athlete.” In the article Price falsely asserts both that “black” athletes are innately physical superior and are taking over sports. I found that “black” athletes are victim of discrimination and institutional racism due to biological determinism and scientific racism. Finally, I believe that these findings show that racism in the U.S.A is still present today and has a foothold in sporting institutions. This is reflected in the persistence of a “black” and “white” dichotomy in American sports. Moreover, this dichotomy is enabled to persist because the powerful sports media such as the Sports Illustrated promotes and reinforces the dichotomy. S.L. Price’s article inaccurately portrays the reality of racism in sports in the U.S.A., while it reinforces and reifies a “black” and “white” dichotomy.

Works cited

Coakley and Donnelly. (2009). Sports in Society: Issues and Controversies. Toronto: McGraw-Hill Ryerson.

Denham, Billings, & Halone. (2002). Differential Accounts of Race in Broadcast Commentary of the 2000 NCAA Men’s and Women’s Final Four Basketball Tournaments. Sociology of Sport, 19(3).

Dyer, R. (1997). White. London and New York: Routledge.

Eitzen & Sage. (1993) Sociology of American Sport. Dubuque: Brown & Benchmark Publishers.

Shanklin .(1994). Anthropology and Race. Belmont: Wadsworth Publishing Company.

The Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sports. (2005). The 2004 Racial and Gender Report Card: National Basketball Association retrieved from

http://web.bus.ucf.edu/documents/sport/2004_racial_gender_report_card_nba.pdf

The Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sports. (2010). The 2010 Racial and Gender Report Card: National Basketball Association retrieved from http://web.bus.ucf.edu/documents/sport/2010_NBA_RGRC.pdf

The Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sports. (2005). The 2004 Racial and Gender Report Card: Major League Baseball retrieved from http://web.bus.ucf.edu/documents/sport/2004_racial_gender_report_card_mlb.pdf

The Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sports. (2010). The 2010 Racial and Gender Report Card: Major League Baseball retrieved from http://web.bus.ucf.edu/documents/sport/2010_MLB_RGRC.pdf

The Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sports. (2005). The 2004 Racial and Gender Report Card: National Football League retrieved from http://web.bus.ucf.edu/documents/sport/2004_racial_gender_report_card_nfl.pdf

The Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sports. (2010). The 2010 Racial and Gender Report Card: National Football League retrieved from http://web.bus.ucf.edu/documents/sport/2010-NFL-Racial-and-Gender-Report-Card.pdf

*Joshua Brisson is a student at Dalhousie University, Halifax, Nova Scotia. His article is a paper originally submitted in Dr. Robin Oakley’s course “Ethnicity, Nationalism and Race” in May 2011 and has been slightly edited for this publication.


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