Scoring athletes by race is a no-win game

March 30, 1998|By Jack B. Moore

SOMEHOW I can't get worked up much about whether black athletes are better than white athletes. While I'm a fan of many sports, and as a kid enjoyed playing a variety of games, no one in any of my families (the one I was born into and the one I helped produce) has been anything like a great athlete or has possessed an identity determined by the word "athlete," so the issue lacks immediacy. I relate to it as a distant entertainment, the way blimp pilots must relate to the Super Bowl. I wonder, really, to how many Americans is it relevant?

But I am intrigued by the periodic crack-of-doom (for white people) arguments and portentous theorizing that erupt around the topic, because it blends into one handy controversy two of our country's most popular obsessions: race and sports.

Inevitably, pronouncing about sports dominance and even proposing counter arguments seems racist. Maybe we should just cheer that after so long, black athletes have a chance to play, excel, make excessive amounts of money, to beat up a boss like Ty Cobb did, all elements of the American Dream.

Now everyone's wild about March Madness, the NCAA tournament that displays lots of great, black basketball players. Too bad for white folks there isn't similar excitement about the NCAA baseball playoffs featuring a lot of white players. At least until Princeton was eliminated, white alumni such as Richard Stengel in Time could wallow in Tiger delight seeing white guys who score "at least 1,100 on their SATs, whose parents have houses with two-car garages, and who think about business school, not the NBA," run up victories using a retro "system designed for white boys who can't jump."

No fire in the belly

Sports Illustrated reported on the Incredibly Shrinking White Athlete a short while back, printing statistics and serious sociopolitical attitudinal surveys to back up its lament about lazy, intimidated white guys who'd rather tool around the 'burbs than compete with black kids on the hardwood. Eighty percent of NBA and 67 percent of NFL players are black. Only 17 percent of major-league baseball players are black, but then there's another 20 percent Latino players for Roger Clemens to worry about.

Sports Illustrated sticks to "mainstream games," discounting "sports that in the U.S. are played primarily by whites, such as soccer." Try this: Discount basketball as proof of black dominance because it's a sport "primarily played by African Americans." So, millions of white kids playing the fastest growing team sport in the United States can't be used to balance out slackers who won't go near a basketball court. But maybe white people should shy away from citing heavy white involvement in "minor" games such as golf, because Tiger Woods is among the top money winners.

Does black dominance in major spectator sports constitute a threat to white athletes? If it does, that is a problem for the individual, beleaguered white athlete to deal with, through counseling and further education to learn about how absolutely invalid theories of racial inheritance are, and how important practice, effort and desire are to success in sports. Talk to Larry Bird. Observe the impact of environment upon the human organism.

White men can jump

Sports should be about doing your best, competing at the highest level, and in the biggest spectator sports, playing as part of a team. Most fans want to watch the best, not the best white or black athletes. I hope game players want wins, not white or black wins.

Want a real problem? Think about what Isocrates said in sports-mad Greece: "If all the athletes would acquire twice the strength they now possess, the rest of the world wouldn't be better off, but let a single person attain to wisdom and all will reap the benefit who are willing to share the insight."

Ahh -- did I hear somebody ask, "What's it portend for whites that in the past few years, Toni Morrison and Derek Walcott have won the Nobel Prize in Literature?" But can they slam dunk?

Jack B. Moore is a member of the Institute on Black Life and a professor of English at the University of South Florida.

Pub Date: 3/30/98

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