Where innuendo is always welcome
When it comes to matters of race in this country, sport has always been the way we dipped our toes in the water of progressivism to see how it felt. We had no issue with lauding American Indian1 Jim Thorpe as the “greatest athlete in the world” when he was winning gold medals in the 1912 Olympics I Stockholm, but we didn’t have any intention of altering the Dawes act and actually giving American Indians sovereignty or equal rights. Likewise when Jesse Owens gave Hitler an ulcer at the 1936 Berlin Games by dusting the Fuhrer’s boys by a country mile, Americans were thrilled, but not thrilled enough to let him ride the guest elevators up to a banquet in his honor at the Waldorf-Astoria; the fastest man in the world still had to use the freight elevator in the back. With few exceptions, men and women of color were allowed to compete in interracial athletic competitions years before they were afforded their civil liberties.
Yet, here we sit, 64 years after Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier and the national debate on race has taken a different flavor to it. With the inclusion of The Rooney Rule2 in the NFL and the slow increase in African-American coaches within the NCAA, it appears as though the only major cultural equity hurdle left for organized sport is GLBT rights. But, even the “gay/lesbian” issue within sports is different than prior civil rights struggles because of the way professional (and to a lesser extent, collegiate) sports’ views on the subject compare to the rest of society. When the Cleveland Browns signed African-Americans Marion Motley and Bill Willis in 1946, the nation at large was not receptive to any notions of integration or racial equality. However, in the wake of the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell and a surge in pro-civil union sentiment, it appears that Americans in 2011 are by and large supportive of GLBT rights, especially when you don’t mention religious marriage. Meanwhile, of the over 4,000 professional athletes in the NFL, MLB, NBA, NHL, MLS and PGA Tour, none of them are openly gay. The conceit that there are no gays in professional American sport is about as believable as the idea that Prince Fielder is a vegetarian. You don’t tip the scales at 285 lbs by eating soy cutlets and you don’t yield a 0% homosexuality rate by playing sports that involve tons of dude-on-dude contact and countless hours in a locker room with a bunch of guys built like Charles Atlas.
What got me on this whole tangent was an article by J.A. Adande on ESPN LA about the new look Lakers, and by new look, he means honkified. For the first time since the late 70s, the Lake Show features 5 American-born, white guys: Steve Blake, Josh McRoberts, Luke Walton, Troy Murphy and Jason Kapono. While the huge influx of international talent like Pau Gasol, Manu Ginobli, Dirk Nowitzki and Mehmet Okur has made a huge impact on the league, it has created a new racial dynamic within the NBA. These players are not really considered to be “white,” even though their pigment might suggest otherwise. Instead of being seen as “white”, they’re “Spanish” or “Argentinean” or whatever their nationality happens to be3. It is the same way with the difference between African-American and African players. Take Luol Deng for instance: phenomenal defensive player, has a lot of heart, always good for 15+ points and some key boards and he is not “black.” The man was born in South Sudan, sent to Egypt as a boy and eventually ended up coming of age in Great Britain before moving to the States. His experience and upbringing have virtually nil to do with Black America, so to qualify him as “Black” because his skin color is more like Dwayne Wade ‘s than Andrei Kirilenko’s is a mistake.
The white basketball star has become an endangered species within the modern landscape of professional basketball. Not since the World Champion Boston Celtics teams of the 1980s has a franchise regularly featured five white guys on the court at the same time4. Since that time, the list of white NBA players has been about as short as Chris Mullins’ crew cut. The last instance I could find of a team playing five different white players in the same game was in a January 2009 contest between the Toronto Raptors and Indiana Pacers, a club who until recently had wrested control of the league’s whitest roster honors5. Just as an example of how few white players there actually are in the NBA, three of the players involved in that game—McRoberts, Murphy and Kapono—are now with the Lakers. This leads me to believe that caucasian ballers are the basketball equivalent of the Band Aids that got traded for a case of Heineken in Almost Famous.
I never have to worry about race affecting my perception of the Lakers because I despise them with every fiber of my basketball being, but, that isn’t always the case. If I’m honest with myself, I find myself admitting that I often find myself rooting for a player or team in part because they’re white. However, the catch is, that white athletes have to already be marginalized within their given sport. For example, I find myself rooting for most white running backs or wide receivers in the NFL. With every single other position on the football field, I could give a shit, but I am instantly drawn to any white skill player. Then again, when it comes to baseball and hockey, I find myself pulling for African-American players. So, what is the common thread behind these seemingly racist cheering tendencies of mine?
The answer, like that of many questions in my life, is Rocky Balboa. Or, more accurately, the man who Sylvester Stallone based Rocky on, Chuck Wepner. The Bayonne Bleeder, as he was known to his contemporaries for his proclivity to gush torrents of blood during his fights, was an overweight schlub of a heavyweight fighter from New Jersey whose main talent was that he could take a punch better than anyone else in the country. The man wasn’t so much white as he was pink and his hue was complimented by a thinning mop of reddish hair and a handlebar mustache. Like his cinematic likeness, Chuck took Muhammad Ali (Apollo Creed) a full 15 rounds, sending the champ to the canvas once in the 9th round. Yet, it would be overly simplistic to say we love Chuck Wepner/Rocky Balboa because he was white. Primarily, we love Wepner because, objectively, he had no business being in the same arena as Ali, much less taking him the distance. It’s for the exact same reason why we were so captivated when a 45-year old George Foreman took his Buddha-looking body and beat the daylights out of Micheal Moorer, a man young enough to be his son, for the Heavyweight title.
Race informs how I view sports, for good or for ill. I have a hard time seeing how anyone could filter it out. The first time you watched a NASCAR race and Juan Pablo Montoya’s name popped up on the screen, don’t tell me you didn’t think to yourself, “What the shit is a Colombian doing at a NASCAR race?”6 We notice race like we notice all our defining characteristics. It’s just that it comes with more baggage than appraising someone’s hair color or shoe size. Unless you happen to be a ginger, like Andy Dalton. In which case you better have a strong arm and a good sense of humor.
1He was actually half-caucasian (from his mother), yet was raised as an American Indian, attending Carlisle Indian Industrial School and attempting to fight for the rights of American Indians until his premature death at age 41 as the result of alcoholism.
2The Rooney Rule, which was established in 2003 and was named after Steelers owner Dan Rooney, states that an NFL team must interview at least one minority candidate for an open head coaching position before hiring someone.
3This is not a hard and fast rule. For instance, one would certainly categorize Steve Nash as white even though he is Canadian and not American. Plus, any nation that speaks English, has an NBA team and gave the world Pamela Anderson can’t be that foreign.
4During their World Championship season in 1986, the Celtics often trotted out the uber-pasty lineup of (G) Danny Ainge, (G) Rick Carlisle, (F) Larry Bird, (F) Kevin McHale, and (C) Bill Walton. In case you were wondering, all three members of that frontcourt were named to the list of the Top 50 Players in NBA history.
5Sadly, because the supreme overlords of the internet clearly don’t care as much about a mediocre bunch of white basketball players, I was unable to ascertain whether Josh McRoberts, Troy Murphy, Mike Dunleavy, Jeff Foster and Travis Diener all played at the same time. Although, it claims McRoberts racked up 6 personal fouls in only 5:24 of playing time, which is quite remarkable.
6Of course, I’m giving hypothetical you the benefit of the doubt and granting that you knew enough about Formula 1 racing to know that Montoya was in fact Colombian, thus avoiding hypothetical you’s embarrassment at bungling a guess at his nationality.