‘Colorblind racism’: Language of sports filled with barely disguised bigotry

A memorable scene from Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing is Lee character’s argument with a White man over the latter not recognizing the Black players he liked, such as Magic Johnson, as being just as Black as Lee is. The late Kirby Puckett was hailed a Minnesota hero but once he was charged with — but later cleared of — a crime, he suddenly became Black and virtually remained that way until his death.

This is “colorblind racism,” which exist among non-Black fans.

“It does exist,” admits author and Washington State University professor David J. Leonard. “It is embedded into our language, our system [and] our institutions. When someone says, ‘A player is a thug,’ they don’t need to be specific” on which player they are referring to, he adds.

Most of us know that “thug” is code for Black.

“We can use that term ‘thug’ in a colorblind [way] without a specific reference to race, and it still conveys racial meaning and has consequences,” continues Leonard, who recently published After Artest (SUNY Press) was discussed in the May 31 “View” column. “The notion of a thug has been talked about and represented in the media for decades and has racialized that term.”

Conversely when people discuss an athlete’s playing intelligence, such as “basketball IQ,” it is code for White.

Colorblind racism in sports isn’t just practiced by fans. White sportswriters and columnists are regular practitioners — some deftly disguise it while others boldly highlight it in their published work. It is mindlessly yakked over the airwaves by White sports talk hosts, co-signing those White listeners seeking affirmations for their racist attitudes and beliefs.

During the NBA lockout last year, Black players “were demonized” by sports media, recalls Leonard. They also were called greedy, yet the still richer owners aren’t similarly called that despite the fact that ticket prices and other costs related to attending a game haven’t gone down.

LeBron James was princely hailed upon his arrival in 2003 until he left Cleveland for Miami. Although the departure occurred almost three years ago, it’s hard to find anyone saying anything positive about him without mentioning “The Decision.” There were fans who rooted against the Heat and for Oklahoma City in this year’s Finals, not because the Thunder was the better team but simply because they hated James, who now is Black in their eyes.

ESPN, one of the NBA’s biggest corporate sponsors, “has played a role in the perpetuation of the stereotypes, in terms of what sort of language they used” when referring to Black players, says Leonard. “These stories become a way to not only indict an individual but to indict an entire group, whether it be NBA players or hip hop or young Black males. But these stereotypes existed before ESPN, but that doesn’t let ESPN off the hook.”

Team executives and marketing types also practice colorblind racism as well. “Clearly the NBA is seeking a marketable, modifiable White player” to promote as a superstar, believes Leonard. Marketing types blatantly push a White player with “wholesome” looks — Kevin Love and Ricky Rubio as two local examples — over a Black player who’s a superstar but his looks (i.e., tattooed from top to bottom) don’t reach the White fan’s comfort level.

Colorblind racism isn’t just in the NBA but all sports where Blacks reside. Because a Black player can dunk, catch or run like the wind, it doesn’t simply disappear; it’s deeply embedded in our society like a racist big brother.

Sadly, there are too many Black players who are blind to colorblind racism: They naively believe their mad athletic skills have transcended race. Or the more money they make, the less colorblind racism will affect them.

So long as they keep their noses clean and their mouths closed, they’re cool. But as soon as trouble finds them or vice versa, they are summarily demoted back to reality.

Back to Black.


About time

Longtime Minnesota Twins clubhouse guard Ray Cook, who alone watches it for hours during each home game, couldn’t hold back when he showed me something new on his desk — a small laptop. “I don’t know how many inches,” he admitted in describing the screen size.

This columnist two years ago strongly urged Twins officials to furnish him a monitor so he can watch the games — he had one at the Metrodome, the team’s former home, but not one at the new ballpark.

Did you know…?

Name the first NBA champions with at least one Black player. Hint: It isn’t the Boston Celtics. (Answer in next week’s “View.”)

Answer to last week’s question, “Name the St. Paul native who also played with the Fillies”: St. Paul Central graduate Linda Roberts, who also played at Minnesota (1977-81) and left as its all-time leading scorer, was a member of the Minnesota Fillies of the short-lived Women’s Professional Basketball League.


Charles Hallman welcomes reader responses to challman@spokesman-recorder.com.