In sports, harmful racial myth survives

March 22, 1998|By GREGORY KANE

The day may come when I can go to the Maryland public high schools wrestling tournament and not notice the race of the place-winners. Unfortunately, that day has not yet arrived. How could it, with the debate about supposed black athletic superiority still raging?

So there I sat in the stands at Western Maryland College in early March, enjoying some superb wrestling but noting that Ivan Hardnett and his twin brother, Brandyn -- of Gwynn Park High in Prince George's County -- were black, as was W. T. Aye of North County High in Anne Arundel County. Hammond's Vaymon Dennis, an ornery little 112-pound African-American cuss, wrestled his way to a championship. Some 27 of 156 place-winners were black, or about 17 percent of the total.

My main concern was that Baltimore would finally get a wrestling champion, and I wasn't especially picky about what color he was. (Dennis "Stringbean" Perry of Dunbar came in second, thus thwarting my hopes that Baltimore would have a wrestling champion.) So why was I engaged in keeping stats by race on place-winners? Why, because of my ever reliable friends at Sports Illustrated, of course. For whatever reason, they keep dredging up the issue of whether or not blacks are superior athletes.

"Whatever Happened to the White Athlete?" the Dec. 6, 1997, cover story of the magazine read.

"They're on the wrestling mats, more often than not pounding the stuffing out of their black opponents," I said to myself at Western Maryland, with, I'm sure, more than a bit of sarcasm in my voice. If any sport should dispel the myth of black athletic superiority, it's wrestling, which pits strength, agility, balance and speed against strength, agility, balance and speed. Wrestlers superior in any number of these categories usually win. That blacks participate in wrestling in proportionate numbers -- not disproportionate ones as they do in football, basketball and track -- and do not dominate the sport should be instructive and end the debate forever.

It hasn't, of course. SI devoted 25 pages to the "white boys as geeks" theory. "Unsure of his place," one quote from the story goes, "in a sports world dominated by blacks who are hungrier, harder-working and perhaps physiologically superior, the young white male is dropping out of the athletic mainstream to pursue success elsewhere."

You yearn to grab the nearest and strongest painkiller when you read stuff like this. Even more distressing was reading further into the story. In football, some coaches aren't even letting whites play positions like wide receiver and cornerback. Those are now black positions, the thinking goes. That comes as a shock to me, growing up as I did believing that Baltimore Colts split end Raymond Berry was the greatest man ever to catch a football. In fact, I still believe it. A very few black receivers today may be as good as Berry was. But none is better.

Basketball, of course, is supposed to be the sport where blacks really dominate. That's the common belief. That belief is a fantasy. We need only go back to the 1988 Olympics for proof, when an all-white Soviet team ran a bunch of hand-picked, supposedly superior American blacks clean off the court. I saw it coming before the Olympics even started and predicted a Soviet victory. Why, friends asked me. The Soviet team is better, I said. How so, they asked.

"Better," I said, annoyed. "As in superior, more adept, more proficient, surpassing in competence. Is there any one of these definitions of 'better' you don't understand? Because I believe there may be several others."

That Soviet victory has been purged from our collective memory. There remains only the unproved notion that blacks are superior athletes. So pervasive is it that the idea afflicts young black males, about 57 percent of whom, according to a survey reported in the SI story, believe they can make a career of professional athletics. Only 17 percent of these youths believe they can be lawyers. Anyone wondering why young black males rank at the bottom of the academic rung had best consider how such beliefs don't necessarily make for good study habits.

I sat in the stands at Western Maryland after Perry came within four points of giving Baltimore public schools their first wrestling champion and despaired that there would ever be one. Most city public schools can't even get enough guys out to fill all the weight classes. City public school basketball teams have no such problems, yet another testament to the fact that all too many young black males think they were born with basketballs in their hands.

Pub Date: 3/22/98

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