Are sports in America seen through a racial lens? No more and no less than anything else in this country. “Racial stereotypes still are so prevalent” in sport, admitted University of Minnesota Sociology Professor Doug Hartmann, whose main interest is race and diversity in sport.
Hartmann, the author of two books — Race, Culture & the Revolt of the Black Athlete, and Ethnicity and Race: Making Identities in a Changing World — was the May 15 featured speaker at the monthly Sports & Education Alliance breakfast at Heritage Park Senior Center in North Minneapolis. He explained, “The images [of Black athletes] that we think are positive…, a lot of times those images still are deeply racialized.”
America’s Black athletes either are celebrated heroes or assigned scoundrel scarlet letters. “People are quick to judge and racialize” Black athletes, said Hartmann.
“There’s a good Black athlete and a bad Black athlete. [But] even if you get the good Black athlete, the ways their Blackness is constructed as good, even if nobody says it, these stereotypes are bad.”
The “good” stereotypes that fans sometimes use include: “[Black] athletes are good because they are not like others in the community,” noted Hartmann. “Even the positive images reinforce the deep assumptions about physicality, genetic or biological.
“The ways White America celebrates sports are still tied to real, individualistic assimilation of ideas about race relations.”
For example, New England quarterback Tom Brady is suspended four games after an investigation concluded that he was “at least generally aware” of using deflated footballs in a playoff game last year. Brady generally has been seen as a good guy, and the fallout thus far has been mixed.
But we all know if a Black quarterback remotely thought about taking air out of footballs he’d be like Adrian Peterson, who was recently reinstated after being charged last fall with too-harshly disciplining his son. The Vikings star almost immediately was reclassified as an evil ogre.
“The lens turns really quickly” on Black athletes, noted the professor of this country’s historically racial good-guy-bad-boy paradox, which most of us know is not just restricted to sports in our society.
The professor afterwards told the MSR, “This is the bad side nobody wants to hear — no matter how many opportunities you’ve got through sports, sports is still part of a much larger society and racial system, and it is still bound up with a lot of racism. It’s never just sports, but sports and society.”
Sports can be used either for educational purposes or to “put pressure on institutions for larger change or call attention on inequalities, [but] that doesn’t happen automatically. It can be a catalyst for social change,” stated Hartmann. “If we just think it’s about being great on the field, it actually can go the other way.
“If we just focus on sports, I think it can reinforce some of the worst kind of stereotypes and create misunderstandings about the real lived experiences of most Black folk in the world and in our neighborhoods,” concluded Hartmann, who currently is finishing a book on Midnight Basketball programs in the U.S.
“Sport is a powerful resource. It’s an arena, especially in the Black community, where we have opportunities and we have successful leaders. [But] just being a great athlete or having a great team isn’t really going to make social change.”
Charles Hallman welcomes reader responses to firstname.lastname@example.org.