By Dylan Synder, The Pioneer
I have been a fan of professional sports for as long as I can remember. Watching college and professional football every weekend hasn’t been a hobby; it’s been an obsession.
Growing up my heroes were Jerry Rice, Jeff Garcia, and Julian Peterson. I never read comic books, because my superheroes were real, and they played on Sundays. I remained under the illusion that sports was simply about competing with your teammates and that winning was the only thing that mattered. It took me longer than I care to admit to realize the injustices faced by individuals, and how archaic the system can appear.
A recent study by besttickets.com, which has been featured on Deadspin, ESPN, and the Huffington Post, ran a piece titled “The Unofficial 2014 NFL Player Census”. This piece looked at the physical stature of every position as well as the racial breakdown of the each position, team, and the league as a whole.
Not surprisingly the most common race amongst NFL players is African-American, a group of players that make up almost 70% of the league as a whole. What is unsettling about this number is the difference between black players and black coaches. Certain positions have different racial distributions and different positions have higher tendencies to become coaches, but the divide of 7 of every 10 NFL players being black and 7 out of 8 NFL head coaches being white is concerning. The premise of a group of composed mainly of black men being ordered around in a highly structured atmosphere immediately calls to certain aspects of pre-civil war America.
While discussing the topic of slavery in a class this semester, I was enlightened to the fact that slaves weren’t just used for labor but for entertainment as well. Slaves were woken up in the middle of the night, and subsequently brought in to dance and do other things to entertain their owners.
My immediate thought was, “Do I contribute to a modern exploitation of men, mainly black, when I sit down on my couch and watch football every weekend it’s available?” From there began a decision to examine the issue of race in elite level sports, and how I see my role in perpetuating the idea of people’s bodies as my own entertainment.
From the moment men and women step on the field, court, ice, whatever it may be, their personhood to the general public starts to decline. Their persons are assaulted with every mistake, and they have no escape from the national spotlight. The most amazing thing, something that I am completely guilty of, is the reaction to athlete’s injuries.
Rarely do fans root for anyone to get hurt, but if Percy Harvin were to tear his ACL next week, I would be more concerned with how his injury would affect the Seahawks season rather than thinking the mental and physical anguish Harvin would be be forced to undergo in having been told that his season was over.
Athletes on the field have the unfortunate situation of being worshipped for their abilities as an athlete and completely disregarded for their individual personhood. As with articles I’ve written in the past, as well as the current NFL media cycle, no news is good news when it comes to a player’s off-the-field activity. Even NFL golden boy Russell Wilson admitted to being a high school bully earlier last week, which in light of the recent string of domestic violence cases could tarnish his near-perfect image.
Fans also believe that their favorite athletes owe them something. When pictures of Johnny Manziel partying at clubs in Las Vegas surfaced, the immediate reaction was, “Why is he partying when he has football to prepare for?” These players aren’t allowed to live everyday lives because the public only sees them as a form of entertainment.
When Bulls star Derrick Rose was slow to come back from two knee injuries, fans complained that he didn’t care about the game after he was awarded a large contract. Rarely was the idea that Rose was experiencing a mental block and could be hesitant to return to the court ever brought up after his former invincibility had been challenged.
Many star athletes have been able to reach where they are because of their ability to stay healthy, and returning after a major injury can lead to hesitancy on the court, a quality that can end careers even if the body is ready to return.
Even after athletes are thought of as objects to entertain the masses, there is a racialized stigma all over the sports world effecting people of every color, origin, and creed.
A few things have made me look at sports through a lens of racial inequality that runs though elite sport in the past. The first was several years ago when I learned about the Rooney Rule, an NFL rule stipulating that all teams must interview at least one minority candidate for a head coaching position. I saw this as unnecessary as it was my belief that the best coach would be hired regardless of race.
Then NFL teams began abusing this rule, typically interviewing a token minority candidate with no intention of hiring him. Usually this coach was a lower level position coach internal to a specific team, or a coordinator that flew around the country to satisfy teams need to interview a minority. This was only scratching the surface of really examining what the systemic problems of elite sports meant.
In a recent conversation with Professor Keith Farrington, who helped with this article due to his background in racial sociology and his deep love for the Patriots and the rest of the NFL, this scene was laid out between us.
“A white man sits in a luxury box, looking down on his field on which several men, majority black, sacrifice their bodies to entertain several million people,” I said, “These men are sacrificing their mental and physical futures, and as well compensated as they are, they are millionaires where owners make billions.”
Laid out in these basic terms it is hard not reach into a slavery comparison, whether warranted or not. Professor Farrington sat quietly for a moment, then responded, “I hate to hear it said like that as a fan, but that is one very real way to see what professional sports are in the world.”
Our conversation then moved on to how the NFL can continue to replicate the pre-civil war south when discussing the NFL pre-draft combine. The combine, held in Indianapolis each year, takes stock of how large, how fast, and how smart these players are. The only problem is that only the physical measurements are ever made public. Professor Farrington expressed his concern for how the combine could be seen as a troublesome activity given the historical context.
“It’s tragically similar to a slave auction,” Farrington said “these great men are brought out and tested so that they can later be picked on their physical merits.”
Anyone with cable can watch hundreds of men do the bench press, run a 40-yard dash, and catch a football, but every interview is done behind closed doors. The combine, while I consider it an important pre-draft exercise, could easily draw comparisons to a slave auction in which physical talent is at a premium, but those observing disregard mental
This is a continuing problem in sports, both at the college and professional levels.
Given recent information about Whitman’s lack of racial diversity it is interesting to see what athletes here have to say about the issue of race in athletics on our own campus. I had the opportunity to interview Evan Martin, a Junior basketball player who is also African American, to see what he had to say about the lack of diversity on campus.
“Obviously it isn’t where anybody would really want it to be.” Evan said “But at the same time I don’t think the school is trying to limit diversity in any way.”
Martin went on to say that he thinks that the Whitman basketball program is one of the more diverse in the league.
“I went to a suburban high school, so I’m used to having a pretty white student body, but most of my basketball teams were pretty diverse in terms of color.” Evan said “I look around most of the teams that we play in our conference and they are whiter than ours.”
Sports have been seen as a space where race isn’t supposed to matter, whatever gives a team the best chance to win is the action that gets taken. But at the end of the day different people are searching for different goals.
Owners want to be popular and make money, the coaches want to win to keep their jobs, and most players simply want to make sure they have a job in six months win or lose. The difference in goals leads to teams getting pulled in different directions and strain within the team.
It is very rare for reports to come out about racial strife within a team, the main objective has to be winning for everyone involved, but the racial disparity does need to be looked at. Whether white owners are hesitant and hire black coaches, black players don’t feel like they can become coaches, or whatever reason it may be, the racial inequality amongst these groups it disturbingly large.
Even here at Whitman we have a basketball program that is drastically more diverse than the general student body, which is in no way a knock on either of the teams, but on Whitman. If one of the primary ways we attract racial minorities to Whitman is play sports, we need to refocus on the way we present ourselves and the reputation that Whitman has in the larger College community. ◼︎