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Race: The Undeniable Specter of Sports

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The polemical and controversial, yet always astute, Spike Lee takes aim at the racial politics of professional sports.  More precisely, the famed director helped launch the journalism program at his alma mater, Morehouse, to address what him and several others describe as "a modern day journalistic apartheid," that is current sports journalism.

Lee's comments suggest that race (and in my opinion, gender, too) continues to be the undeniable specter of sports.  The facts seem pretty strong.

A study released last summer at the request of the Associated Press Sports Editors found dismal figures for the industry. Blacks held only 6.2 percent of the sports writing jobs. Out of more than 300 newspapers surveyed, just five had a black sports editor.

Yet, Lee's push for more representation of black journalists goes beyond inclusion; he urges for a more nuanced representation of black athletes.  Drawing on the recent NFL draft and the Brady Quinn vs. JaMarcus Russel debates (which sounds a lot like the Bird vs. Magic debates of the 80s, see Todd Boyd's Am I Black Enough for You: Popular Culture from the Hood and Beyond for some insightful analysis on this comparison and its racist inheritances and legacies), Lee discusses how 19th century biological ideas of race continue to inform how we think about not just black and white athletes but about black and white people in general: black people are physically gifted, BUT the white people are intelligent.  Some say that that sucks for white people because they're never taken seriously as athletes.  Hmmm, given the choices of being considered smart or dumb, I think being considered "athletically gifted" is a curse in disguise.  Even Etan Thomas from the Washington Wizards chimes in with some thoughtful considerations of social segregation and its impact on writing and black representation.

Although Lee's argument is a recycling of arguments made through the last few decades, its resonance still holds water in current debates of the race politics of sports journalism and to a larger extent, sports.  His argument easily goes beyond the "pulling the race card' in my opinion, because it's a question of accountability as much as it is about unequal access to journalistic opportunities.  As we've seen recently seen from sports fans and bloggers bloggin on the Warriors playoff run, peoples' knee jerk reaction to upset and aggressive black masculinity is to fall back to racist cookie cutter representations of the black brute in clear opposition to a clean cut static white image of wealth and properness (is that a word?).  

I'm not making excuses for Stephen Jackson's meltdowns in several of the games.  Nor am I condoning JRich and Baron Davis' antics responding to the refereeing.  Heck, I'll probably be the one and only fan of the Warriors to say they're a "dumb" team considering the amount of unforced errors they committed against Utah (which probably comes with inexperience in high pressure situations).  But how often do we continue to hear the common stereotype that black players lack the "IQ" compared to their cerebral White counterparts (the Dunleavy debates are a good example)?  I'm not saying white athletes don't have to contend with stereotypes too, which many athletes have said have come to their disadvantage in sports, too.  I don't doubt it.  

The debate should shift away from "oppression olympics" discourse.  It should also shift from trying to find a "truth" to whether there is a difference between white and black players, because that debate just reeks of some eugenicist, phrenology thinking that goes black to the logics of slavery and finding a way to justify Africans as the perfect slave.  Some might say that "cultural sensitivity" training that many corporations seems to deploy to avoid any lawsuits might help the situations.  Not likely, because it still doesn't get at the real problems of race.  Like Lee says, the focus should center on the uneven representations of black and white athletes, but also the uneven amount of black and white sports journalists.  This points to a larger problem of racial and social segregation (institutionally and sometimes self-imposed) that continues to haunt the U.S. today.  

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