Book about blacks and sports deserves a look

February 13, 2002|By Gregory Kane

IT'S ARGUABLY the most important book written in the past 10 years about American race relations. But it hasn't been discussed nearly as much as it deserves.

The book is Darwin's Athletes. Its nerve-rattling and potentially invidious subtitle is "How Sport Has Damaged Black America and Preserved the Myth of Race."

John Hoberman's work contended that African-Americans have a fixation on sports that helps reinforce the pernicious negative racial stereotype that says blacks are physically endowed but not the sharpest knives in the intellectual drawer. That kind of thinking, Hoberman wrote in the 1997 book, is especially damaging to African-American youth.

"The sports fixation damages black children by discouraging academic achievement in favor of physical self-expression, which is widely considered a racial trait," Hoberman asserted. "Some educators understand that the self-absorbed style promoted by glamorous black athletes subverts intellectual development. A school for black boys in Chicago has therefore adopted a policy of stylistic abstinence: `No gum-chewing is allowed. No sagging pants. No sunglasses, biker pants or tank tops. No earrings worn by boys. No designs carved in the hair' - in short, a complete repudiation of the showy male style flaunted by many black stars. Such policies confront an intense peer pressure that equates academic excellence with effeminacy and racial disloyalty and identifies `blackness' with physical prowess."

Most African-American "leaders" steer clear of this topic. When they mention sports at all, it's to chide the National Football League, National Basketball Association and Major League Baseball about the lack of black coaches or managers or front office personnel. But challenge the notion that blacks' obsession with sports is doing us harm? Heaven forfend.

"The book was discussed widely in 1997," Hoberman said of Darwin's Athletes. Hoberman, a white Germanic languages professor at the University of Texas at Austin who also teaches a course called "Race and Sports," said his book disturbed some of his black colleagues in the sports studies field.

"Why?" I asked him during a telephone interview yesterday. "Because it's the truth?"

"Remember, you said that, not me," Hoberman answered from his University of Texas office.

What prompted the call to Hoberman is Rick Reilly's Sports Illustrated column in the Feb. 4 edition. Titled "White Like Me," the column was filled with Reilly's white-guy angst.

Black athletes make fun of white guys, Reilly groused. There was former heavyweight champion Mike Tyson, challenging a distinctly Caucasian reporter to fight and calling him a "white so-and-so" in the process. (No, you don't want to know the second word.)

There was Los Angeles Lakers center Shaquille O'Neal talking about "white boys," black NBA star Vince Carter's reference to white NBA star Wally Szczerbiak's race, and Reilly wondering why folks aren't as upset as he is.

Here's a theory: It's not the subject folks don't take seriously. It's a Sports Illustrated writer kvetching about it. This is the same magazine that took years to feature a black model in its swimsuit issue and still more years to put one on the cover.

These are the same geniuses who tried to push a guy named Tony Mandarich, then a fine offensive lineman in college football, as a white hope in boxing. In Sports Illustrated's book about the history of basketball, the editors paid tribute to pro teams from different eras. The Boston Celtics who won 11 of 13 NBA championships with the great African-American center Bill Russell were, to SI folks, "the Red Auerbach Celtics." (Auerbach was the coach.) The Celtics who won three NBA titles with Larry Bird playing and African-American K.C. Jones as the coach became "The Larry Bird Celtics."

There are white guys who have legitimate gripes. Reilly, or anyone else at SI, isn't one of them. Or, as Shaq might tell him, "I ain't feelin' ya, son."

Neither is Hoberman.

"Reilly's an entertainer," Hoberman said. "It was a clever column. It was well-written, but it's a generic white guy's column. He couldn't have written it if he had taken into consideration what [columnist Leonard] Pitts [in yesterday's Sun] points out - the power differential between blacks and whites."

Years ago, Hoberman noted, Isiah Thomas, then an NBA star with the Detroit Pistons, said that if Celtics star Larry Bird were black, white sports writers would consider him just another player.

"Those comments," Hoberman contends, "were more important than Shaq ragging on a white guy. Shaq's remark was teasing, a light put-down. Only oversensitive white guys would take it to heart."

The comments Reilly noted were, in Hoberman's view, "permitted verbal compensation for an enormous racial imbalance." But Reilly's greatest disservice may have been to trivialize a topic Hoberman raised so seriously and eloquently in his book. Folks should read it instead.

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