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, 1997).

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 facts.

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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 judgment.

Dennis Rodman, too, comes in for some scathing comments in Darwin's Athletes. 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 Aaron.

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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