State of the Debate: Who's Afraid of Michael Jordan?


John Hoberman, Darwin's Athletes: How Sport Has Damaged Black
America and Preserved the Myth of Race
(Houghton Mifflin,

Dennis Rodman (with Tim Keown), Bad As I Wanna Be (Delacorte
Press, 1996).

Kenneth L. Shropshire, In Black and White: Race and Sports
in America
(New York University Press, 1996).

One of the blackest players ever to play professional basketball
was white.

"Even though he wasn't fast and he didn't go for fancy dunks
or anything like that," Dennis Rodman writes in Bad As
I Wanna Be
, "[Boston Celtic Larry] Bird was one of the
few white guys who could play what people call the 'Black Game.'"
Rodman, who is black, here puts the lie to the sometimes invidious
distinction between "black" and "white" basketball.
According to this classification scheme, the quintessence of black
playing style is Michael Jordan: spectacularly athletic, highly
kinetic, and perhaps above all, very vertical. No white man can
fly like Air Jordan. The quintessence of white playing style,
on the other hand, is Larry Bird: relatively slow, heavily reliant
on the long-range jumpshot, a good passer, and completely nonvertical—the
proverbial white man who can't jump.

This understanding is widespread even among white athletes. Scott
Brooks, a white point guard who plays for the New York Knicks,
says, "You have to be a realist. White people can't jump
as high." African-American athletes subscribe to it: O.J.
Simpson, Carl Lewis, Hall of Fame baseball player Joe Morgan,
and current baseball superstar Barry Bonds have all claimed physical
superiority for blacks. Sportswriters, armed with the empirical
observations of years on the beat, also believe in racial athletic
differences. In addition to the ignorantly racist comments of
the variety that got television football analyst Jimmy "the
Greek" Snyder fired from CBS in 1988 ("The black is
a better athlete to begin with because he's been bred to be that
way because of his thigh size and big size"), there are the
more measured statements like this one from the book 48 Minutes
(1987), by two distinguished basketball columnists, Bob Ryan
and Terry Pluto:

The NBA is perhaps the only arena of American life where to be
white is to be immediately judged inferior. [It is] unnecessary
to have a Ph.D. in kinesiology to realize that the average black
player can jump higher and run faster than the average white player.
. . .

People in basketball don't really care why that is. They
just know it's so, and they act accordingly.

It is into this strange context, in which most major sports fans—openly
or not—acknowledge racial difference in athletic performance while
many policymakers and politically correct theorists do not, that
Rodman's book arrives. Rodman does not deny that blacks dominate
basketball. His distinction between blacks and whites, however,
is not about athletic style but about attitude. "When you
talk about race in basketball, the whole thing is simple: a black
player knows he can go out on a court and kick a white player's
ass," he writes. "What I'm talking about is attitude,
and the black player has been conditioned to think he can take
the white guy whenever he needs to."

By grouping Bird with black players, Rodman is attributing any
racial difference in ability not to innate physical characteristics,
but to a socially conditioned attitude that leads to more intensity,
more practicing. This attitude—an overweening confidence combined
with a strong drive to dominate other players—is not entirely
race-specific. Bird clearly had it. All-Star Utah Jazz point guard
John Stockton, who is white, has it. And so, unquestionably, does
Michael Jordan. If more black players than white ones have this
attitude, it is for the simple reason that they're driven to it
by lack of alternative opportunities. "The black guy from
a poor background . . . sees two ways out of poverty: sports or
drugs. . . . The white guy from the suburbs doesn't have the same
motivation to succeed in sports." In sum, Rodman says, "Blacks
dominate basketball almost as much as whites dominate hockey.
I don't believe in the science talk of genetics and all that.
I think black dominance has more to do with black guys wanting
it—and needing it—more than the white guy."

Of course Rodman, the flamboyantly tattooed, floridly dyed forward
for the NBA's Chicago Bulls, is perhaps better known for his attention-grabbing
antics off the court than his peerless rebound-grabbing ability
on it. Not everyone will be inclined to take what he says about
issues like race relations seriously, and indeed, much of what
he has written is ridiculous or silly. But by making Bird a practitioner
of the "black game" Rodman—whether he means to or not—deflates
stereotypical racial categories of athletic performance.

In principle, there should be nothing objectionable about
a sentence like this one: "There is not a white star left
in the NBA, nor a white running back worth mentioning in the National
Football League; the idea of a white cornerback in today's NFL
has become virtually unthinkable; a high and increasing
percentage of the batting stars in major league baseball are African-Americans."
Allowing for some arguable qualifications, this is a true statement.
Anyone who denies it either does not follow these sports or has
been frightened by politically correct orthodoxy into repressing

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But grafting observations of this kind onto age-old racial mythology
is objectionable because racism is endemic in our multicolored
society. In this era of The Bell Curve, with its simplistic
understanding of a trade-off between brains and brawn, the danger
is that some of the free-floating racial nonsense in American
culture will attach itself to the thinking of amateur racial theorists.

This age-old racial mythology is not just perpetuated by racist
whites; it's obligingly bought into by many blacks. When the black
Olympic gold medalist sprinter Lee Evans said in 1981, "We
were simply bred for physical qualities," he was not saying
anything substantively different from what Jimmy Snyder, who is
white, said when he got fired from CBS. Many African-American
athletes and intellectuals play up or exaggerate black athletic
superiority, claiming it as a biological emblem of essential blackness
or as the genetic legacy of slavery. In fact, the more wacked-out
margins of Afro centrism are partly built around biological explanations
of superior black athletic prowess. Ironically, white supremacists
and black supremacists both emphasize black athletic superiority.
The only difference is that while black supremacists cite alleged
black biological physical superiority as evidence of a more general
superiority, white supremacists cite it as evidence of lower intelligence
or of a more animal nature.

A 1991 study found that half of Americans polled believed that
blacks "have more natural physical ability" than whites.
Does this mean that half of all Americans are racist? My own favorite
basketball player is John Stockton, the imperturbable point guard
who perennially leads the NBA in assists. Is it significant that
my favorite player is white? I identify with him because he plays
like me (only much, much better): He's not that tall, he doesn't
have great leaping ability, he relies heavily on quickness and
anticipation and on the proverbial "grit and wile."
His skills are manifestly the "white" ones that Rodman
deconstructs in his book.

Is my identification with Stockton racial? Racist? Perhaps, at
least insofar as there is a small part of me that admires Stockton's
ability to compete with and even surpass blacks at the very highest
level. This is something that I cannot do even at the YMCA. But
if my identification with Stockton is racist, it is no more so
than my identification with the Toronto Raptors' 5'10" (tiny
by NBA standards) Damon Stoudamire, another of my favorite players,
is heightist. I like Stoudamire, who is black, because he's short
like me.

When I'm playing at the YMCA, black players dominate on the court.
They are usually faster and stronger than the white players, can
jump higher, and can shoot better. It is primarily black approbation
I find myself seeking when I perform on the court because in the
basketball universe, blacks set the terms. Blacks are the authority.

Is this racist? Indirectly, yes, because it is only in sports
(and perhaps some areas of entertainment) that blacks enjoy this
elevated position in the social hierarchy. The exalted status
that I (and other people, white and black) accord to blacks on
the basketball court does not generally extend into other realms.
My own deference to black superiority on the court is not racist
in the sense that I then expect blacks to be fundamentally inferior
in some other area. But the limitation of blacks' privileged status
to sports has obliquely racist effects because it leads to the
fetishization of black athleticism. This fetishization, disseminated
by the mainstream media, is then absorbed and accepted by both
blacks and whites. And as blackness becomes indelibly associated
in the public mind with athleticism, racial mythology (Rodman's
"science talk of genetics") inevitably worms its way
into the mix, leading to reductively biological explanations of
phenomena such as lower black IQ scores or the predominance of
blacks on the welfare rolls.

What's more, as athleticism becomes valorized as the essence of
blackness, thousands of inner-city kids, for whom other avenues
to a middle-class existence are largely inaccessible, pour all
of their energy into becoming the next Michael Jordan or Emmett
Smith. Meanwhile, the probability that only one or two out of
ten thousand black kids will go on to a successful professional
sports career gets ignored. As a Louisiana high school coach put
it in 1968, "A white kid tries to become President of the
United States, and all the skills and knowledge he picks up on
the way can be used in a thousand different jobs. A black kid
tries to become Willie Mays, and all the tools he picks up are
useless to him if he doesn't become Willie Mays."

I've tried to locate my prejudices with such precision
here not to expiate my racial guilt but to illustrate one of the
main arguments of John Hoberman's Darwin's Athletes: How Sport
Has Damaged Black America and Preserved the Myth of Race
the most intelligent and provocative book on race and sports since
Harry Edwards's 1968 Revolt of the Black Athlete. Hoberman's
book is also, however, energized by an angry moral fervor that
occasionally borders on the maniacal. Reading Darwin's Athletes,
its biting gladiator's prose relentlessly cutting racists down
to size, one sometimes wants to grab the author by the lapels
and ask him, Can't a white coach ever be just a white coach, and
not a symbol of colonial oppression? But Hoberman, a professor
of Germanic Languages at the University of Texas who has written
extensively on sports performance, clearly has a deep knowledge
of his topic. Abundantly footnoted, and with a good bibliography,
the book will be useful to scholars and general readers alike.

Hoberman's book comes out at a propitious time: the fiftieth anniversary
of Jackie Robinson's debut with the Brooklyn Dodgers. Over the
last 50 years, people have touted professional sports as an emblem
of integration and as a beacon of better race relations to come.
Hoberman will have none of this. He believes that this rosy vision
of sports is part of society's need to whitewash the true state
of race relations in America. Hoberman notes with characteristic
acidity: "[T]he presence of large numbers of black athletes
in the major sports appears to have persuaded almost everyone
that the process of integration has been a success. This sense
of closure is an illusion that is rooted not in the fact of racial
equality but in a combination of black apathy and white public
relations efforts."

Hoberman asserts, in effect, that white people need to admire
black men on the playing field to justify their condescension
to blacks off the field. According to Hoberman, white hyperbole
extolling sports integration is really just "white auto-intoxication
that is fed by the impossible dream of being rid of conflict as
a factor in everyday life." Elsewhere he writes, "The
Jackie Robinson story has long served white America, and liberals
in particular, as a deeply satisfying combination of entertainment
and civic virtue that has simultaneously permitted disengagement
from less tractable and more important interracial tasks, such
as the pursuit of educational and military equality." No
one, not racists, not white liberals, is spared Hoberman's withering

Dennis Rodman, too, comes in for some scathing comments in Darwin's
. Hoberman deplores the self-aggrandizing antics of
the mercurial Rodman as contributing to the notion of the black
athlete as racial clown. But as much as Rodman's public preening
serves to reinforce the idea of black athlete as a subhuman cultural
oddity, his arguments weirdly parallel Hoberman's. "I'm nothing
more than a sports slave," Rodman says, making conscious
reference to the plantation-like racial imbalance in the NBA between
coaches and executives (who are overwhelmingly white) and players
(who are overwhelmingly black).

Hoberman, who is white, makes the same analogy. The implication
is that despite the huge sums of money that a black pro player
like Rodman can earn in salary and endorsements, the arrangement
that wins him these benefits is still part of the legacy of slavery
and Jim Crow racism: Put the black players on the court and watch
them perform for their white managers, owners, coaches, and fans;
take them off and they still must suffer the depredations of racism
and second-class citizenship.

The mission of Kenneth Shropshire's In Black and White:
Race and Sports in America
is to ask why this arrangement
exists. Shropshire, a business school professor and former college
football player, takes a less sinister view than Hoberman of the
racial imbalance between the front office and the playing field.
For this reason, In Black and White is less interesting
than Darwin's Athletes. For the same reason, it may be
more useful.

Shropshire begins by citing a 1995 study. Blacks comprise 12 percent
of the U.S. population, but they make up 19 percent of the players
in professional baseball, 68 percent in football, and 80 percent
in basketball. There are however, no African-American majority
owners or league commissioners, and African Americans make up
only 7 percent of team presidents in the NBA, and zero percent
in both the NFL and major-league baseball (MLB). In 1995, blacks
comprised 19 percent of NBA coaches, 7 percent of NFL coaches,
and 1 percent of MLB coaches. Between 1990 and 1992, a period
during which pro basketball was 75 percent black, the NBA hired
25 head coaches. None was black. And the first black NFL head
coach, Art Shell, was not hired until 1989, more than 40 years
after Kenny Washington, a roommate of Jackie Robinson at UCLA,
signed with the Los Angeles Rams in 1946.

A variety of factors, including bald racism, have led to white
dominance of front-office jobs. Charles Murray would likely say
that it's a simple case of whites being better suited for more
cerebral tasks, but Shropshire argues that the main reason for
the imbalance is straightforward. People in the sports industry
work long hours. If you're going to be working long hours alongside
other people, you're going to want those people to be your friends.
And people tend to have friends of the same race. Shropshire quotes
former San Francisco Forty-Niners coach Bill Walsh: "[Hiring
is] a very fraternal thing. You end up calling friends, and the
typical coach hasn't been exposed to many black coaches."

According to this argument, the real problem is that deeply entrenched
"networks of recruitment" don't extend to include black
people and the solution is to open the hiring networks to minorities.
But how best to do this? Operating from the premise that completely
color-blind policies do not work, Shropshire's view echoes Justice
Harry Blackmun's famous dissent in Regents of the University
of California v. Bakke
(1974): "In order to get beyond
racism, we must first take account of race. There is no other
way. And in order to treat some persons equally, we must treat
them differently." Yet Shropshire stops just short of advocating
standard affirmative action. This is because the situation in
pro sports is unique.

One of the stronger arguments against affirmative action is that
it elevates some blacks to positions that they are not qualified
for. This hurts the company doing the hiring, as well as the more
qualified white person who did not get the job, not to
mention the black person (and black people in general) who must
shoulder the resentments and suspicion of the other two parties.
In short, the problem with affirmative action in corporate America
is that it is not clear that there are currently enough qualified
blacks to make the policy more effective than it is harmful. This
is unequivocally not the case in professional sports, where the
applicant pool of very qualified blacks is large. Most NBA coaches,
for example, are former pro players. Thus African-American applicants
for coaching or management positions have had the same skill and
leadership training as the whites who get hired. So if we are
to deploy affirmative action policies in pursuit of equality in
the coaching ranks, it will be to correct not lack of merit but
rather lack of opportunity. And the choice of Ray Rhodes, the
Philadelphia Eagles black head coach, as NFL Coach of the Year
in 1995, his first year at the helm, nicely illustrates that when
the opportunity is available, an African American can take full
advantage of it. Shropshire's prescription for broadening opportunity
is a combination of remedies: enforcement of antidiscrimination
laws; executive actions by the league presidents to encourage
minority hiring; player union lobbying, including strike tactics;
and white acceptance of black leadership.

Shropshire, who is black, is much less critical of American
society than Hoberman is. Shropshire's book is generally free
of rancor; Hoberman's is obstreperously bitter. Hoberman says,
for example, that there is something emasculating about the packaging
of black athletes in professional sports marketing. They're not
supposed to be scary. Peter de Jonge points out that the NBA has
improved its image among the white middle class with "a series
of unthreatening yet bigger-than-life cartoon superheroes called
Magic, Michael, Charles, and Shaquille." NBA commissioner
David Stern has even compared Magic Johnson and Michael Jordan
(whose co-stars in the recent movie Space Jam were Warner
Bros. cartoon characters) to Walt Disney's Mickey and Goofy, and
Nike promotes Orlando Magic guard Anfernee Hardaway's shoes with
a street-talking, anthropomorphic puppet named Li'l Penny. Yet,
paradoxically, promotions for the NBA and many advertisements
that feature black athletes emphasize such conventions of black
street culture as brazen trashtalking and threatening poses, which
reinforce the image of the black male as violent criminal. NBA
players exhibit all the accoutrements and attitudes of ghetto
drug culture and thus glorify them in the eyes of black and white
youth (hip-hop style is as in vogue in white mall culture as it
is in the inner city); but at the same time, black players are
presented to the white audience as unthreatening. Whites can love
the NBA because it presents blacks as loud and athletic without
being dangerous.

So how did we arrive at the point where the pinnacle of black
accomplishment is a man who puts a ball through a hoop for a living?
In 1897, when W.E.B. Du Bois addressed black athleticism, it
was to warn against blacks' lack of physical fitness, which
was thought to reflect badly on the race. Hoberman demonstrates
via numerous historical examples that the black superathlete is
not an ineluctable biological phenomenon but rather a product
of cultural circumstances. Whether blacks are perceived as superior
or inferior in physical abilities—and at different times in American
history they have been seen as both—doesn't matter: Whites always
interpret black physicality as a sign of weak character, low intelligence,
and moral slackness. Both the deficient black organism of the
nineteenth century and the superior black organism of the twentieth,
Hoberman demonstrates, have signified lower status for blacks.

Blacks too have fixated on the black body as a symbol of black
pride, doubly reinforcing its highly charged racial symbolism.
Black sports superiority, or the black body, is meant to stand
in for all the areas in which African Americans perceive themselves
to be inferior. Shelby Steele calls this overvalorizing of sports
achievement "compensatory grandiosity." Black intelligence,
in this imagining, is not inferior; it is simply part of a different
"cognitive style," more effectively directed toward
physical expression (music, dancing, sports) than toward academic
pursuits, which are the province of white people. It is not hard
to see how this thinking can damage both black people as individuals
and society as a whole.

But is it possible that "natural" or genetic
factors do contribute to black dominance of certain sports? Even
though Hoberman advances powerful arguments for the preponderance
of social and cultural factors in establishing black athletic
dominance, he does leave open the possibility that some biological
or physiological component might contribute to black superiority
in some sports. For example, he points to differences in
the way that people of different ethnicities metabolize drugs
and racial differences in bone density that might wrongly be interpreted
as signs of disease. Politically correct blindness to these facts
serves no purpose. But most of what passes for science on the
subject of race—about length of heel bones or amounts of subcutaneous
fat—is absolute bunk. The boldest he says anyone can confidently
venture is that there may be bioracial components of athletic
significance but that such hypotheses "are not even close
to scientific confirmation, and there is no scientifically justified
reason to tie such plausible athletic traits to mental aptitudes."
It's harder to determine what Hoberman thinks we should be doing.
Outlawing professional sports? Being more assiduously truthful
about physiological differences between the races? Educating people
better? Making sure blacks have more and better opportunities
than a 1-in-5,000 shot at the NBA?

Hoberman contends that the growing belief in black athletic superiority
has led to profound anxiety for whites in the West, for whom white
European preeminence has always included presumption of physical,
as well as moral and intellectual, superiority. For example, cricket
matches in the nineteenth century were seen as symbolic racial
competitions in which colonial masters asserted their dominance
over native subjects. In the twentieth century, with former colonies
dominating England between the wickets, international cricket
has come to serve as a "dramatic and often politicized theater
of white athletic decline." Today, Hoberman writes,

White fatalism about racial athletic aptitude marks the end of
a certain kind of racial prestige that was originally vested in
the colonial male. In the United States, the slogan "white
men can't jump" . . . exemplifies a gallows humor that acknowledges
the twilight of white athleticism and whatever this portends for
the supposedly beleaguered Caucasian male. The scenario for white
decline can have a seductive appeal for those of liberal temperament,
because it seems to present at least a minimal redistribution
of status amounting to compensation for centuries of racial oppression.

Hoberman's book is fascinating and damning. But his view
of professional sports is so unrelentingly critical that it obscures
the fact that sports can be a benign, even democratic force. In
the preface to In Black and White in America, former San
Diego Charger tight end Kellen Winslow writes: "On the field
of play the rules are clear, defined, fair, and unambiguous."
The playing field is the ultimate meritocracy: Two points by
Michael Jordan count no less than two points by Larry Bird; a
home run by Babe Ruth has no more value than a home run by Hank

Even if professional sports do contribute heavily to the overvaluing
of black athleticism, it remains the case that professional sports
leagues are among the few places where blacks and whites interact
consistently and successfully on a prominent stage. And, speaking
from personal experience, nothing establishes a (superficial,
anyway) transracial bond more quickly than a backdoor pass to
a man cutting to the hoop for a lay-up. The sporting arena remains
one of our few (flawed, to be sure) models of racial cooperation.

But if the playing field is a meritocracy, it is also a place
where we project our misunderstandings and stereotypes onto the
players. Unless we take race into account, racial delusions may
take us in.

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