I should apologize upfront for what I’m sure must seem like blatant hypocrisy, but I think it’s about time that sports coverage moves past questions of race.
Two days before Thanksgiving, Page 2 of ESPN.com ran a story by Jemele Hill titled “Is race still an issue for NFL quarterbacks?” Hill argued that the media and the respective teams’ treatment of Vince Young of the Tennessee Titans, Donovan McNabb from the Washington Redskins and Jason Campbell of the Oakland Raiders reflects a lingering league-wide racism directed against black quarterbacks.
At the time, I remember getting pretty fired up over her argument: that demoting these three players from their starting role to the bench signified a greater scrutiny placed on the performance of black quarterbacks in the NFL. Hill was conscious of the players’ considerable struggles this season, acknowledging “that Campbell played poorly in the games in which he was benched, Young’s antics in Tennessee are largely to blame for his problems with Fisher, and that [Redskins Coach] Mike Shanahan has had difficult relationships with plenty of white quarterbacks in the past.” From here, she goes into a long and convoluted argument about how the manner in which the players were benched reflects tremendous impatience and high standards as compared to those faced by white quarterbacks.
I found myself profoundly disagreeing with her argument, simply based on the obviously terrible performance of these quarterbacks in the instances that led to their benching. But only upon more serious reflection have I uncovered the true problem with Hill’s argument.
When fans watch games — and not just in the NFL, but all sports — are we really seeing players in black and white? The sports world is merely an extension of modern society, complete with all of its prejudices, but as fans, does anyone really consider race and performance to be related? Or even race and coaching decisions?
It’s quite obvious that racism and prejudice still proliferate within modern American culture, but I think that it is high time that articles like the one from Hill face some scrutiny themselves. Hill is not asking the question, “Is race still an issue for NFL quarterbacks?” but rather she is applying statistics and analysis to fit a pre-existing premise that she seeks to promote. By scrutinizing these “trends” in retrospect, they are fit into an agenda that not only distorts their verity, but more treacherously promotes the type of divisive thinking that insidiously creeps into all modern media “analysis.”
Perhaps my view is a bit romanticized, but I cannot imagine that the majority of sports fans would have considered these athletes’ skin color at all relevant to their successes and failures on the playing field. We must accept that a degree of enduring racism does affect their relationships with coaches and owners as well as the media, but the second that we endeavor to measure it, we play into the hands of people that feel that racial division is important.
Conversations like the one started by Hill are futile and divisive. As fans and consumers, we must resist the tendency to engage in arguments such as this, that treat societal racism as a subjective measurement game and seek to apply it where the shoe may fit.
With that said, the onus of responsibility is upon us to see that race and racism become irrelevant in sports. The difficulty of this task is obvious: A poll in the latest issue of Men’s Journal found that the top six most-hated professional athletes in America were all black — Tiger Woods, Michael Vick, LeBron James, Terrell Owens, Chad Ochocinco and Kobe Bryant. Among the noticeably absent are turncoat and steroid user Roger Clemens and the perennial suspect Ben Roethlisberger. Poll results like this fuel such arguments from Hill, or another prominent racism cry from Jesse Jackson in response to Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert’s written tirade after LeBron James left Cleveland.
Jackson’s reaction in particular exemplifies the dangers of fitting what we perceive to be the tenets of racism into a larger agenda in the sports world. His words are as divisive and hateful as they come: “[Gilbert’s] feelings of betrayal personify a slave master mentality. He sees LeBron as a runaway slave.” Does anyone actually believe this?
So at the end of the day, we must be cognizant of racism’s continued presence in sports as in all society, but as conscientious citizens, we have an obligation to recognize as divisive speech that does nothing but add logs to the fading embers of racism’s fire.
Sam Goldsmith is a senior in Branford College.