Where innuendo is always welcome
Athletes are all kinds of things to all kinds of people. When Charles Barkley told the world, “I am not a role model,” in the early 90s, Sir Round Mound conveniently ignored the fact that he really didn’t have a choice in the matter1. The media savvy athlete—along with the biblically inspired one—knows that they have the capability to shape their image in whatever way they so choose and that it is better to act on cultural perception than to be a product of it. Despite the fallacy inherent in telling others what they should view him as, Barkley’s Nike campaign was the conscious development of an anti-hero. Instead of letting journalists dictate what the narrative of his basketball personality was going to be, as was illustrated in “the spitting incident2”, Barkley and his handlers decided to shift the national discussion from individual culpability to societal responsibility. But, regardless of what the Charles Barkleys of the world say, athletes are held to a different ethical standard than the average member of the American workforce. In return for our unyielding adulation and the tacit acceptance of a system where men and women are paid more many for putting a ball into a hoop or goal than most people make in a year of labor, we demand that these people act like upstanding citizens when they’re in public.
For those specific athletes who have the added burden of being a minority within their own sport (or even within society at large), the scrutiny on their conduct is even more intense. One can argue about the “fairness” of their situation ’til the cow comes home, but the fact remains that anyone who is a trailblazer or isolated phenomenon within their sport is going to have their feet put to the fire. A perfect example of this is the black quarterback in the NFL. For the pioneers in the sport, men like Marlon Briscoe in the 1970s and Doug Williams or Warren Moon in the 1980s, there was no margin for error. A press corps and fan base who had lived through Jim Crow and George Wallace wasn’t sure that an African-American man had the intellectual capacity to play quarterback in the NFL and before his Washington Redskins were scheduled to play the Denver Broncos in Super Bowl XXII, the media asked Williams just about every inane question regarding his race and the the game of football one can imagine3. Even more amazingly, football analyst and renowned Las Vegas bookie Jimmy The Greek had been fired by CBS two weeks earlier for saying on a broadcast that black athletes were biologically superior to white athletes because they had been bred that way during slavery4. Williams and the black quarterback fraternity of that era had to have impeccable judgement and character, just as Jackie Robinson and Bill Russell had to decades earlier, to steer the national attention away from their race and towards their playing ability. Had Warren Moon behaved the way Michael Vick has during his career, I can all but guarantee you that the black quarterback would not be as ubiquitous as it is today.
As a nation, we seem to have gotten over our racial hang-ups within the realm of sport5, but issues of gender seems to be a different matter all-together. A perfect example of the backwards relationship between gender and sport in this country is Danica Patrick. Let me start off by acknowledging that Danica is the most successful female driver that Indycar has ever had. Yes, there were great women drivers before her like Lyn St. James and Sarah Fisher, but none of her predecessors ever won an Indycar race as Danica has or finished as high in the standings as Danica did in 2009 (5th). With that being said, Danica has only one race victory in her entire Indycar career (The 2008 Indy Japan 300) as she transitions into driving in the NASCAR Nationwide Series full time, along with some Sprint Cup starts. Compare that with the last Indycar driver to successfully make the switch to NASCAR, Sam Hornish Jr., who left after compiling three IRL Championships and a Indianapolis 500 victory in 2006. Another driver to make the transition to NASCAR smoothly is Juan Pablo Montoya, who entered NASCAR with a CART championship, Indianapolis 500 title and seven Formula One wins on his resume. And yet, if you ask the average American who Sam Hornish Jr. or Juan Pablo Montoya are, you’re likely to get blank stares while Danica’s name is extremely recognizable6. Why was Danica the face of a racing league that she never got close to winning? The answer’s simple and damning for the state of professional women’s sports: it’s because she’s hot.
Since 2003, Patrick has posed twice for the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue and once for FHM Magazine (you can see one of the photos from that shoot on the right side of the screen. Notice how she tastefully only shows the upper portion of her butt crack). As one of the spokeswomen for GoDaddy.com—along with that manic drill instructor from The Biggest Loser—she helps find new and innovative ways for women to rip their clothes off on television. In about two weeks, Danica will start in The Daytona 500 (assuming she qualifies), when she has never started a Sprint Cup race and has finished in the top 5 once in 25 Nationwide races the past two years. Her driving in The Great American Race will have about 25% to do with her racing ability and about 75% to do with her name recognition and her performance in the swimsuit competition. It’s a shame too, because she was beginning to make a name for herself in Indycar based not on her sex or her looks, but based on her abilities as a driver. Now, she’s more model than role model and the underlying message of her success is that talent can get you far, but good looks and a come hither look can get you a lot farther.
1. One would hope that America heeded his words since most parents don’t want their children to grow up to be overweight basketball analysts with no filter, a gambling problem and a predilection to challenging 67-year old referees to footraces.
2. For the uninitiated, Barkley was suspended without pay and fined $10,000 for spitting on a little girl in the stands during a game against New Jersey in 1991. Barkley had been attempting to spit at a heckler who had been shouting racial epithets at him during the game, but missed.
3. However, the most famous question asked of Williams never actually happened. Legend has it that a journalist asked him, “How long have you been a black quarterback?” but it turns out that Williams misunderstood the question, which was, “Doug, obviously you’ve been a black quarterback your whole life. When did race begin to matter to people?” People only reported Williams’ response to the question, thus propagating the myth.
4. The exact quote is, “The black is a better athlete to begin with because he’s been bred to be that way, because of his high thighs and big thighs that goes up into his back, and they can jump higher and run faster because of their bigger thighs and he’s bred to be the better athlete because this goes back all the way to the Civil War when during the slave trade’n the big… the owner… the slave owner would, would, would, would breed his big black to his big woman so that he could have ah, ah big, ah big, ah big black kid see…”
5. I mean this is the most generalized way possible and in no way mean to imply that racism in sports is “over,” as demonstrated most presciently by the John Terry situation in England. During a match against Queens Park Rangers in October, the Chelsea defender allegedly called opposing defender Anton Ferdinand a “f**king black c**t” and, a “f**king knobhead,” whatever that is. Since then, Terry has been stripped of his captaincy of England’s national team, which prompted the resignation of fthen England manager Fabio Capello. Terry is not out of the woods yet, as he is scheduled to stand trial for a “racially-aggravated public order offense” in July. Oh, and to make things juicier, Anton Ferdinand’s brother Rio traditionally has started in center defense along with Terry for England.