George Floyd’s death sparked an unprecedented racial awakening in this country as the half-year global pandemic still rages all around us. Day and night, demands to finally address racial inequalities and social justice issues took over U.S. cities and towns for several weeks. What was then out front and under the spotlight seems now to have returned to the shadows.
The MSR sat in on numerous virtual discussions during the summer of 2020 where the panelists talked race unfiltered, uninhibited and reflective, looking at current events as well as toward the future. This multi-part series examines some of the topics discussed on these Zoom sessions.
This week: Mythbusters 2
Only A Game, NPR’s only sports show, was in one of its final acts before it ceased production last month after 27 years. It held on You Tube “a capstone event,” an hour conversation on racial inequity in sports.
It was moderated by now-former OAG host-executive producer Karen Given and featured Penn State Assistant Professor Amira Rose Davis, former college athlete Russell Dinkins, and The Undefeated’s Derrick Z. Jackson. Let’s subtitle this column “Mythbusters 2” as the follow-up to the third part of our series (Sept. 16).
The four “pulled back the curtains, examining the myths” surrounding sports in this country, said Given in her introductory remarks.
Black males as early as grade school are often told by parents, friends and others in their immediate circle that sports is their pathway to success, noted Jackson, who regularly writes on the intersection of sports, race and culture for The Undefeated. These young men, if they are better than average athletically, are steered on a sports track, coddled by teachers, and pushed by parents in hopes that their skills will get them into college, and eventually to the pro ranks.
Jackson said that any interests these young men might have had in academics rather than athletics “have been eroded and destroyed while they are in elementary school. Studies show Black boys lose interest in school beginning in fourth grade,” said Jackson.
“They pour their heart, soul and intellect into these sports. Kids…go to what society values. They see on television that society values them as ball players.
“Colleges themselves play into the stereotype of Black men as athletes,” he continued. “One out of every 68 White students on a Division I campus is an athlete. What is the ratio of Black men on college campuses? One in two, one in three, one in four, one in five.
“It sends a message to them that they are only on campus for their athletic ability, but also sends a message to the [Black] athletes that they are conditionally accepted on campus because they are athletes,” said Dinkins, a former track athlete at Princeton.
Davis stressed, “Every semester my Black students tell me stories that they are constantly asked what sport they play.” She teaches history and African American studies, and also co-hosts a sports podcast, “Burn It All Down.”
Dinkins, now a Philadelphia-based athletic recruitment and education consultant, recalled that he ran track in his formative years rather than the traditional sports Black men often play [basketball and football] mainly because the local track program emphasized the importance of education and participants eventually earned college scholarships.
“There are certain sports” such as hoops and the gridiron “that are promised as the ticket out, or the one that Black kids are supposed to play,” said Davis.
“We are existing in a system that makes it very hard for upward mobility, then says your value [as a Black person] is only entertainment, whether it’s athletics, acting or whatever,” said Dinkins.
“Sport is…deeply, deeply inequitable,” noted Davis, adding that this is clearly seen at big-time schools where the Black-White athletic graduation gap for most sports is in the double-digits.
All four on the panel agreed with this assessment of deep-seated inequity in the current sport system. There is no quick fix, Given concluded, because the racist myths in sports, even during a pandemic and a current cry for change, are too large and systemic.
Charles Hallman is a contributing reporter and award-winning sports columnist at the Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder.