The Nation PERFORMANCE AND REALITY
RACE, SPORTS AND THE MODERN WORLD

August 10/17, 1998

BY GERALD EARLY



Last year's celebration of the fiftieth anniversary of Jackie Robinson's breaking the color line in major league baseball was one of the most pronounced and prolonged ever held in the history of our Republic in memory of a black man or of an athlete. It seems nearly obvious that, on one level, our preoccupation was not so much with Robinson himself--previous milestone anniversaries of his starting at first base for the Brooklyn Dodgers in April 1947 produced little fanfare--as it was with ourselves and our own dilemma about race, a problem that strikes us simultaneously as being intractable and "progressing" toward resolution; as a chronic, inevitably fatal disease and as a test of national character that we will, finally, pass.

Robinson was the man white society could not defeat in the short term, though his untimely death at age 53 convinced many that the stress of the battle defeated him in the long run. In this respect, Robinson did become something of an uneasy elegiac symbol of race relations, satisfying everyone's psychic needs: blacks, with a redemptive black hero who did not sell out and in whose personal tragedy was a corporate triumph over racism; whites, with a black hero who showed assimilation to be a triumphant act. For each group, it was important that he was a hero for the other. All this was easier to accomplish because Robinson played baseball, a "pastoral" sport of innocence and triumphalism in the American mind, a sport of epic romanticism, a sport whose golden age is always associated with childhood. In the end, Robinson as tragic hero represented, paradoxically, depending on the faction, how far we have come and how much more needs to be done.

As a nation, I think we needed the evocation of Jackie Robinson to save us from the nihilistic fires of race: from the trials of O.J. Simpson (the failed black athletic hero who seems nothing more than a symbol of self-centered consumption), from the Rodney King trial and subsequent riot in Los Angeles and, most significant, from the turmoil over affirmative action, an issue not only about how blacks are to achieve a place in American society but about the perennial existential question: Can black people have a rightful place of dignity in our realm, or is the stigma of race to taint everything they do and desire? We know that some of the most admired celebrities in the United States today--in many instances, excessively so by some whites--are black athletes. Michael Jordan, the most admired athlete in modern history, is a $10 billion industry, we are told, beloved all over the world. But what does Michael Jordan want except what most insecure, upwardly bound Americans want? More of what he already has to assure himself that he does, indeed, have what he wants. Michael Jordan is not simply a brilliant athlete, the personification of an unstoppable will, but, like all figures in popular culture, a complex, charismatic representation of desire, his own and ours.

Perhaps we reached back for Jackie Robinson last year (just as we reached back for an ailing Muhammad Ali, the boastful athlete as expiatory dissident, the year before at the Olympics) because of our need for an athlete who transcends his self-absorbed prowess and quest for championships, or whose self-absorption and quest for titles meant something deeper politically and socially, told us something a bit more important about ourselves as a racially divided, racially stricken nation. A baseball strike in 1994­95 that canceled the World Series, gambling scandals in college basketball, ceaseless recruiting violations with student athletes, rape and drug cases involving athletes, the increasing commercialization of sports resulting in more tax concessions to team owners and ever-more-expensive stadiums, the wild inflation of salaries, prize money and endorsement fees for the most elite athletes--all this has led to a general dissatisfaction with sports or at least to some legitimate uneasiness about them, as many people see sports, amateur and professional, more and more as a depraved enterprise, as a Babylon of greed, dishonesty and hypocrisy, or as an industry out to rob the public blind. At what better moment to resurrect Jackie Robinson, a man who played for the competition and the glory, for the love of the game and the honor of his profession, and as a tribute to the dignity and pride of his race in what many of us perceive, wrongly, to have been a simpler, less commercial time?

What, indeed, is the place of black people in our realm? Perhaps, at this point in history, we are all, black and white, as mystified by that question as we were at the end of the Civil War when faced with the prospect that slave and free must live together as equal citizens, or must try to. For the question has always signified that affirmative action--a public policy for the unconditional inclusion of the African-American that has existed, with all its good and failed intentions, in the air of American racial reform since black people were officially freed, even, indeed, in the age of abolition with voices such as Lydia Maria Child and Frederick Douglass--is about the making of an African into an American and the meaning of that act for our democracy's ability to absorb all. We were struck by Jackie Robinson's story last year because it was as profound, as mythic, as any European immigrant's story about how Americans are made. We Americans seem to have blundered about in our history with two clumsy contrivances strapped to our backs, unreconciled and weighty: our democratic traditions and race. What makes Robinson so significant is that he seemed to have found a way to balance this baggage in the place that is so much the stuff of our dreams: the level playing field of top-flight competitive athletics. "Athletics," stated Robinson in his first autobiography, Jackie Robinson: My Own Story (ghostwritten by black sportswriter Wendell Smith), "both school and professional, come nearer to offering an American Negro equality of opportunity than does any other field of social and economic activity." It is not so much that this is true as that Robinson believed it, and that most Americans today, black and white, still do or still want to. This is one of the important aspects of modern sports in a democratic society that saves us from being totally cynical about them. Sports are the ultimate meritocracy. Might it be said that sports are what all other professional activities and business endeavors, all leisure pursuits and hobbies in our society aspire to be?

If nothing else, Robinson, an unambiguous athletic hero for both races and symbol of sacrifice on the altar of racism, is our most magnificent case of affirmative action. He entered a lily-white industry amid cries that he was unqualified (not entirely unjustified, as Robinson had had only one year of professional experience in the Negro Leagues, although, on the other hand, he was one of the most gifted athletes of his generation), and he succeeded, on merit, beyond anyone's wildest hope. And here the sports metaphor is a perfectly literal expression of the traditional democratic belief of that day: If given the chance, anyone can make it on his ability, with no remedial aid or special compensation, on a level playing field. Here was the fulfillment of our American Creed, to use Gunnar Myrdal's term (An American Dilemma had appeared only a year before Robinson was signed by the Dodgers), of fair play and equal opportunity. Here was our democratic orthodoxy of color-blind competition realized. Here was an instance where neither the principle nor its application could be impugned. Robinson was proof, just as heavyweight champion Joe Louis and Olympic track star Jesse Owens had been during the Depression, that sports helped vanquish the stigma of race.

In this instance, sports are extraordinarily useful because their values can endorse any political ideology. It must be remembered that the British had used sports--and modern sports are virtually their invention--as a colonial and missionary tool, not always with evil intentions but almost always with hegemonic ones. Sports had also been used by their subjects as a tool of liberation, as anti-hegemonic, as they learned to beat the British at their own games. "To win was to be human," said African scholar Manthia Diawara recently, and for the colonized and the oppressed, sports meant just that, in the same way as for the British, to win was to be British. Sports were meant to preserve and symbolize the hegemony of the colonizer even as they inspired the revolutionary spirit of the oppressed. Sports have been revered by fascists and communists, by free-marketers and filibusters. They have also been, paradoxically, reviled by all those political factions. Sports may be among the most powerful human expressions in all history. So why could sports not serve the United States ideologically in whatever way people decided to define democratic values during this, the American Century, when we became the most powerful purveyors of sports in all history?

Both the left and the right have used Jackie Robinson for their own ends. The left, suspicious of popular culture as a set of cheap commercial distractions constructed by the ruling class of post-industrial society to delude the masses, sees Robinson as a racial martyr, a working-class member of an oppressed minority who challenged the white hegemony as symbolized by sports as a political reification of superior, privileged expertise; the right, suspicious of popular culture as an expression of the rule of the infantile taste of the masses, sees him as a challenge to the idea of restricting talent pools and restricting markets to serve a dubious privilege. For the conservative today, Robinson is the classic, fixed example of affirmative action properly applied as the extension of opportunity to all, regardless of race, class, gender or outcome. For the liberal, Robinson is an example of the process of affirmative action as the erosion of white male hegemony, where outcome is the very point of the exercise. For the liberal, affirmative action is about the redistribution of power. For the conservative, it is about releasing deserving talent. This seems little more than the standard difference in views between the conservative and the liberal about the meaning of democratic values and social reform. For the conservative, the story of Robinson and affirmative action is about conformity: Robinson, as symbolic Negro, joined the mainstream. For the liberal, the story of Robinson and affirmative action is about resistance: Robinson, as symbolic Negro, changed the mainstream. The conservative does not want affirmative action to disturb what Lothrop Stoddard called "the iron law of inequality." The liberal wants affirmative action to create complete equality, as all inequality is structural and environmental. (Proof of how much Robinson figured in the affirmative action debate can be found in Steve Sailer's "How Jackie Robinson Desegregated America," a cover story in the April 8, 1996, National Review, and in Anthony Pratkanis and Marlene Turner's liberal article, "Nine Principles of Successful Affirmative Action: Mr. Branch Rickey, Mr. Jackie Robinson, and the Integration of Baseball," in the Fall 1994 issue of Nine: A Journal of Baseball History and Social Policy Perspectives.) Whoever may be right in this regard, it can be said that inasmuch as either side endorsed the idea, both were wrong about sports eliminating the stigma of race. Over the years since Robinson's arrival, sports have, in many respects, intensified race and racialist thinking or, more precisely, anxiety about race and racialist thinking.

Race is not merely a system of categorizations of privileged or discredited abilities but rather a system of conflicting abstractions about what it means to be human. Sports are not a material realization of the ideal that those who succeed deserve to succeed; they are a paradox of play as work, of highly competitive, highly pressurized work as a form of romanticized play, a system of rules and regulations that govern both a real and a symbolic activity that suggests, in the stunning complexity of its performance, both conformity and revolt. Our mistake about race is assuming that it is largely an expression of irrationality when it is, in fact, to borrow G.K. Chesterton's phrase, "nearly reasonable, but not quite." Our mistake about sports is assuming that they are largely minor consequences of our two great American gifts: marketing and technology. Their pervasiveness and their image, their evocation of desire and transcendence, are the result of marketing. Their elaborate modalities of engineering--from the conditioning of the athletes to the construction of the arenas to the fabrication of the tools and machines athletes use and the apparel they wear--are the result of our technology. But modern sports, although extraordinary expressions of marketing and technology, are far deeper, far more atavistic, than either. Perhaps sports, in some ways, are as atavistic as race.

The Whiteness of the White Athlete

In a December 8, 1997, Sports Illustrated article, "Whatever Happened to the White Athlete?" S.L. Price writes about the dominant presence of black athletes in professional basketball (80 percent black), professional football (67 percent black) and track and field (93 percent of gold medalists are black). He also argues that while African-Americans make up only 17 percent of major league baseball players, "[during] the past 25 years, blacks have been a disproportionate offensive force, winning 41 percent of the Most Valuable Player awards." (And the number of blacks in baseball does not include the black Latinos, for whom baseball is more popular than it is with American blacks.) Blacks also dominate boxing, a sport not dealt with in the article. "Whites have in some respects become sports' second-class citizens," writes Price. "In a surreal inversion of Robinson's era, white athletes are frequently the ones now tagged by the stereotypes of skin color." He concludes by suggesting that white sprinter Kevin Little, in competition, can feel "the slightest hint--and it is not more than a hint--of what Jackie Robinson felt 50 years ago." It is more than a little ludicrous to suggest that white athletes today even remotely, even as a hint, are experiencing something like what Robinson experienced. White athletes, even when they play sports dominated by blacks, are still entering an industry not only controlled by whites in every phase of authority and operation but also largely sustained by white audiences. When Jackie Robinson departed the Negro Leagues at the end of 1945, he left a sports structure that was largely regulated, managed and patronized by blacks, inasmuch as blacks could ever, with the resources available to them in the 1920s, '30s and '40s, profitably and proficiently run a sports league. Robinson's complaints about the Negro Leagues--the incessant barnstorming, the bad accommodations, the poor umpiring, the inadequate spring training--were not only similar to white criticism of the Negro Leagues but they mirrored the criticism that blacks tended to levy against their own organizations and organizational skills. As Sol White makes clear in his seminal 1907 History of Colored Base Ball, black people continued to play baseball after they were banned by white professional leagues to show to themselves and to the world that they were capable of organizing themselves into teams and leagues. When Robinson left the Kansas City Monarchs, he entered a completely white world, much akin to the world he operated in as a star athlete at UCLA. It was, in part, because Robinson was used to the white world of sports from his college days that Branch Rickey selected him to become the first black man to play major league baseball. Today, when white athletes enter sports dominated by blacks, they do not enter a black organization but something akin to a mink-lined black ghetto. (My use of the word "ghetto" here is not meant to suggest anything about oppression, political or otherwise.) Although blacks dominate the most popular team sports, they still make up only 9 percent of all people in the United States who make a living or try to make a living as athletes, less than their percentage in the general population.

What I find most curious about Price's article is that he gives no plausible reason for why blacks dominate these particular sports. He quotes various informants to the effect that blacks must work harder than whites at sports. "Inner-city kids," William Ellerbee, basketball coach at Simon Gratz High in Philadelphia, says, "look at basketball as a matter of life or death." In a similar article on the black makeup of the NBA in the Washington Post last year, Jon Barry, a white player for the Atlanta Hawks, offers: "Maybe the suburban types or the white people have more things to do." Much of this is doubtless true. Traditionally, from the early days of professional baseball in the mid-nineteenth century and of professional boxing in Regency England, sports were seen by the men and boys of the poor and working classes as a way out of poverty or at least out of the normally backbreaking, low-paying work the poor male was offered. And certainly (though some black intellectuals may argue the point, feeling it suggests that black cultural life is impoverished) there probably is more to do or more available to amuse and enlighten in a middle-class suburb than in an inner-city neighborhood, even if it is also true that many whites who live in the suburbs are insufferably provincial and philistine.

Nonetheless, these explanations do not quite satisfy. Ultimately, the discussion in both articles comes down to genetics. There is nothing wrong with thinking about genetic variations. After all, what does the difference in human beings mean and what is its source? Still, if, for instance, Jews dominated football and basketball (as they once did boxing), would there be such a fixation to explain it genetically? The fact of the matter is that, historically, blacks have been a genetic wonder, monstrosity or aberration to whites, and they are still burdened by this implicit sense that they are not quite "normal." From the mid-nineteenth century--with its racist intellectuals like Samuel Cartwright (a Southern medical doctor whose use of minstrel-style jargon, "Dysesthaesia Ethiopica," to describe black people as having thick minds and insensitive bodies is similar to the talk of today's racist geneticists about "fast-twitch" muscles) and Samuel Morton (whose Crania Americana tried to classify races by skull size), Louis Agassiz, Arthur de Gobineau and Josiah Nott (who with George Gliddon produced the extremely popular Types of Mankind in 1854, which argued that races had been created as separate species)--to Charles Murray and Richard Herrnstein's most recent defense of intelligence quotients to explain economic and status differences among racial and ethnic groups in The Bell Curve, blacks have been subjected to a great deal of scientific or so-called scientific scrutiny, much of it misguided if not outright malicious, and all of it to justify the political and economic hegemony of whites. For instance, Lothrop Stoddard, in The Revolt Against Civilization (1922), a book nearly identical in some of its themes and polemics to The Bell Curve, creates a being called the Under-Man, a barbarian unfit for civilization. (Perhaps this is why some black intellectuals loathe the term "underclass.") "The rarity of mental as compared with physical superiority in the human species is seen on every hand," Stoddard writes. "Existing savage and barbaric races of a demonstrably low average level of intelligence, like the negroes [sic], are physically vigorous, in fact, possess an animal vitality apparently greater than that of the intellectually higher races." There is no escaping the doctrine that for blacks to be physically superior biologically, they must be inferior intellectually and, thus, inferior as a group, Under-People.

But even if it were true that blacks were athletically superior to whites, why then would they not dominate all sports instead of just a handful? There might be a more plainly structural explanation for black dominance in certain sports. This is not to say that genes may have nothing to do with it but only to say that, at this point, genetic arguments have been far from persuasive and, in their implications, more than a little pernicious.

It is easy enough to explain black dominance in boxing. It is the Western sport that has the longest history of black participation, so there is tradition. Moreover, it is a sport that has always attracted poor and marginalized men. Black men have persistently made up a disproportionate share of the poor and the marginalized. Finally, instruction is within easy reach; most boxing gyms are located in poor neighborhoods, where a premium is placed on being able to fight well. Male fighting is a useful skill in a cruel, frontierlike world that values physical toughness, where insult is not casually tolerated and honor is a highly sensitive point.

Black dominance in football and basketball is not simply related to getting out of the ghetto through hard work or to lack of other amusements but to the institution most readily available to blacks in the inner city that enables them to use athletics to get out. Ironically, that institution is the same one that fails more often than it should in fitting them for other professions: namely, school. As William Washington, the father of a black tennis family, perceptively pointed out in an article last year in the New York Times discussing the rise of tennis star Venus Williams: "Tennis, unlike baseball, basketball or football, is not a team sport. It is a family sport. Your immediate family is your primary supporting cast, not your teammates or the players in the locker room.... The experiences [of alienation and racism] start soon after you realize that if you play this game, you must leave your neighborhood and join the country club bunch. You don't belong to that group, and they let you know it in a variety of ways, so you go in, compete and leave." In short, because their families generally lack the resources and connections, indeed, because, as scholars such as V.P. Franklin have pointed out, black families cannot provide their members the cultural capital that white and Asian families can, blacks are at a disadvantage to compete in sports where school is not crucial in providing instruction and serving as an organizational setting for competition. When it comes to football and basketball, however, where school is essential to have a career, not only are these sports played at even the poorest black high schools, they are also the dominant college sports. If baseball were a more dominant college sport and if there were no minor leagues where a player had to toil for several years before, maybe, getting a crack at the major leagues, then I think baseball would attract more young black men. Because baseball, historically, was not a game that was invented by a school or became deeply associated with schools or education, blacks could learn it, during the days when they were banned from competition with white professionals, only by forming their own leagues. Sports, whatever one might think of their worth as activities, are extremely important in understanding black people's relationship to secular institutions and secular, non-protest organizing: the school, both black and white; the independent, nonprofessional or semiprofessional league; and the barnstorming, independent team, set up by both whites and blacks.

Given that blacks are overrepresented in the most popular sports and that young black men are more likely than young white men to consider athletics as a career, there has been much commentary about whether sports are bad for blacks. The March 24, 1997, issue of U.S. News & World Report ran a cover story titled "Are Pro Sports Bad for Black Youth?" In February of that year Germanic languages scholar John Hoberman published Darwin's Athletes: How Sport Has Damaged Black America and Preserved the Myth of Race, to much bitter controversy. The Journal of African American Men, a new academic journal, not only published a special double issue on black men and sports (Fall 1996/Winter 1997) but featured an article in its Winter 1995/96 number titled "The Black Student Athlete: The Colonized Black Body," by Billy Hawkins. While there are great distinctions to be made among these works, there is an argument about sports as damaging for blacks that can be abstracted that tends either toward a radical left position on sports or, in Hawkins's case, toward a militant cultural nationalism with Marxist implications.

First, Hoberman and Hawkins make the analogy that sports are a form of slavery or blatant political and economic oppression. Superficially, this argument is made by discussing the rhetoric of team sports (a player is the "property" of his team, or, in boxing, of his manager; he can be traded or "sold" to another team). Since most relationships in popular culture industries are described in this way--Hollywood studios have "properties," have sold and swapped actors, especially in the old days of studio ascendancy, and the like--usually what critics who make this point are aiming at is a thorough denunciation of popular culture as a form of "exploitation" and "degradation." The leftist critic condemns sports as a fraudulent expression of the heroic and the skilled in capitalist culture. The cultural nationalist critic condemns sports as an explicit expression of the grasping greed of white capitalist culture to subjugate people as raw resources.

On a more sophisticated level, the slavery analogy is used to describe sports structurally: the way audiences are lured to sports as a false spectacle, and the way players are controlled mentally and physically by white male authority, their lack of access to the free-market worth of their labor. (This latter point is made particularly about college players, since the breaking of the reserve clause in baseball, not by court decision but by union action, has so radically changed the status and so wildly inflated the salaries of many professional team players, regardless of sport.) Probably the most influential commentator to make this analogy of sport to slavery was Harry Edwards in his 1969 book, The Revolt of the Black Athlete. Richard Lapchick in his 1984 book, Broken Promises: Racism in American Sports, extends Edwards's premises. Edwards is the only black writer on sports that Hoberman admires. And Edwards is also cited by Hawkins. How convincing any of this is has much to do with how willing one is to be convinced, as is the case with many highly polemical arguments. For instance, to take up Hawkins's piece, are black athletes more colonized, more exploited as laborers at the university than, say, graduate students and adjunct faculty, who teach the bulk of the lower-level courses at a fraction of the pay and benefits of the full-time faculty? Are black athletes at white colleges more exploited than black students generally at white schools? If the major evidence that black athletes are exploited by white schools is the high number who fail to graduate, why, for those who adopt Hawkins's ideological position, are black students who generally suffer high attrition rates at such schools not considered equally as exploited?

What is striking is the one analogy between slavery and team sports that is consistently overlooked. Professional sports teams operate as a cartel--a group of independent entrepreneurs who come together to control an industry without giving up their independence as competitive entities. So does the NCAA, which controls college sports; and so did the Southern planters who ran the Confederacy. They controlled the agricultural industry of the South as well as both free and slave labor. The cartelization of American team sports, which so closely resembles the cartelization of the antebellum Southern planters (the behavior of both is remarkably similar), is the strongest argument to make about slavery and sports or about sports and colonization. This is what is most unnerving about American team sports as an industry, and how the power of that industry, combined with the media, threatens the very democratic values that sports supposedly endorse.

The other aspects of the sports-damage-black-America argument, principally made by Hoberman, are that blacks are more likely to be seen as merely "physical," and thus inferior, beings; that society's promotion of black sports figures comes at the expense of promoting any other type of noteworthy black person; that black overinvestment in sports is both the cause and result of black anti-intellectualism, itself the result of virulent white racism, meant to confine blacks to certain occupations. Implicit in Hoberman's work is his hatred of the fetishization of athletic achievement, the rigid rationalization of sports as a theory and practice. He also hates the suppression of the political nature of the athlete, and hates, too, both the apolitical nature of sports, mystified as transcendent legend and supported by the simplistic language of sportswriters and sports-apologist intellectuals, and the political exploitation of sports by ideologues and the powerful. As a critical theorist, Hoberman was never interested in proving this with thorough empiricism, and, as a result, was attacked in a devastatingly effective manner by black scholars, who blew away a good number of his assertions with an unrelenting empiricism. But he has got into deep trouble with black intellectuals, in the end, not for these assertions or for the mere lack of good empiricism. Hoberman, rather, has been passionately condemned for suggesting that blacks have a "sports fixation" that is tantamount to a pathology, a word that rightly distresses African-Americans, reminiscent as it is of the arrogance of white social scientists past and present who describe blacks as some misbegotten perversion of a white middle-class norm.

There is, however, one point to be made in Hoberman's defense. Since he clearly believes high-level sports to be a debased, largely unhealthy enterprise and believes that the white majority suffers a sports obsession, he would naturally think that blacks, as a relatively powerless minority and as the principal minority connected to sports, would be especially damaged by it. The black intellectual who most influenced Hoberman was Ralph Ellison; and, as Darryl Scott pointed out in a brilliant analysis delivered at a sports conference at New York University this past April that dealt almost exclusively with Hoberman's book, Ellison might rightly be characterized as "a pathologist" and "an individualist." But he was, as Scott argued, "a pathologist who opposed pathology as part of the racial debate." Yet one of the most compelling scenes in Invisible Man is the Battle Royal, a surreal perversion of a sports competition in which blacks fight one another for the amusement of powerful whites. Although racism has compelled blacks to participate in this contest, the characters come willingly, the winner even taking an individualistic pride in it. Such participation in one's own degradation can be described as a pathology. How can an Ellison disciple avoid pathology as part of the debate when Ellison made it so intricately serve the artistic and political needs of his novel? Ellison may have loved jazz, and growing up black and poor in Oklahoma may have been as richly stimulating as any life, just as going to Tuskegee may have been the same as going to Harvard--at least according to Ellison's mythologizing of his own life--but he found black literature generally inadequate as art and thought that blacks used race as a cover to avoid engaging the issues of life fully. For Ellison, black people, like most oppressed minorities, intensely provincialized themselves.

This is not to say Hoberman is justified in adding his own pathologizing to the mix, but his reasoning seems to be something like this: If racism is a major pathology and if we live in a racist society, one might reasonably suspect the victims of racism to be at least as pathologized by it as the perpetrators. If the victims are not pathologized at all by it, why single out racism as a particularly heinous crime? It would, in that instance, be nothing more than another banal example of man's inhumanity to man.

In response to an article like SI's "Whatever Happened to the White Athlete?" blacks are likely to ask, Why is it whenever we dominate by virtue of merit a legitimate field of endeavor, it's always seen as a problem? On the one hand, some blacks are probably willing to take the view expressed in Steve Sailer's August 12, 1996, essay in National Review, "Great Black Hopes," in which he argues that black achievement in sports serves very practical ends, giving African-Americans a cultural and market niche, and that far from indicating a lack of intelligence, blacks' dominance in some sports reveals a highly specialized intelligence: what he calls "creative improvisation and on-the-fly interpersonal decision-making," which also explains "black dominance in jazz, running with the football, rap, dance, trash talking, preaching, and oratory." I suppose it might be said from this that blacks have fast-twitch brain cells. In any case, blacks had already been conceded these gifts by whites in earlier displays of condescension. But black sports dominance is no small thing to blacks because, as they deeply know, to win is to be human.

On the other hand, what the SI article said most tellingly was that while young whites admire black athletic figures, they are afraid to play sports that blacks dominate, another example of whites leaving the neighborhood when blacks move in. This white "double-consciousness"--to admire blacks for their skills while fearing their presence in a situation where blacks might predominate--is a modern-day reflection of the contradiction, historically, that has produced our racially stratified society. To be white can be partly defined as not only the fear of not being white but the fear of being at the mercy of those who are not white. Whiteness and blackness in this respect cease to be identities and become the personifications not of stereotypes alone but of taboos, of prohibitions. Sports, like all of popular culture, become the theater where the taboos are simultaneously smashed and reinforced, where one is liberated from them while conforming to them. Sports are not an idealization of ourselves but a reflection.

The Prince and His Kingdom

Arguably the most popular and, doubtless, one of the most skilled boxers in the world today is the undefeated featherweight champion, Prince Naseem Hamed of England. (The "Prince" title is a bit of platonic self-romanticism; Naseem, of lower-middle-class origins--his father a corner-store grocer--has no blood tie to any aristocracy.) When he was boy, Hamed and his brothers fought all the time in the street, usually against white kids who called them "Paki." "I'd always turn around and say, 'Listen, I'm Arab me, not Pakistani,'" said Hamed in an interview some years later. "They'd turn round and say you're all the same." Indeed, Hamed was discovered by Brendan Ingle, his Irish manager, fighting three bigger white boys in a Sheffield schoolyard and holding his own very well. The fight was probably instigated by racial insult. Although his parents are from Yemen and Naseem is worshiped nearly as a god among the Yemeni these days, he was born in Sheffield, is a British citizen, never lived in Yemen and, despite his Islamic religious practices, seems thoroughly British in speech, taste and cultural inclination. Yet when Naseem was fighting as an amateur, he was sometimes taunted racially by the crowd: "Get the black bastard." Even as a professional he has sometimes been called "Paki bastard" and "nigger." He was once showered with spit by a hostile white audience. But Naseem was far more inspired than frightened by these eruptions, and was especially impressive in winning fights when he was held in racial contempt by the audience, as he would wickedly punish his opponents. For Hamed, these fights particularly became opportunities to rub white Anglo faces in the dirt, to beat them smugly while they hysterically asserted their own vanquished superiority. But his defiance, through his athleticism, becomes an ironic form of assimilation. He is probably the most loved Arab in England, and far and away the most popular boxer there. As he said, "When you're doing well, everyone wants to be your friend."

On the whole, these displays of racism at a sporting event need to be placed in perspective. For what seems a straightforward exhibition of racialist prejudice and Anglo arrogance is a bit more complex. And deeper understanding of the Naseem Hamed phenomenon might give us another way to approach the entangled subject of race and sports.

It must be remembered that professional boxing has been and remains a sport that blatantly, sometimes crudely, exploits racial and ethnic differences. Most people know the phrase "Great White Hope," created during the reign (1908­15) of the first black heavyweight boxing champion, Jack Johnson, when a white sporting public that had, at first, supported him turned against him in part because he flaunted his sexual affairs with white women; in part because he seemed to be so far superior to the white opponent, Tommy Burns, from whom he won the title. The advent of Johnson did not, by any means, invent the intersection of race and sports but surely heightened it as a form of national obsession, a dark convulsion in an incipient American popular culture. The expression "Great White Hope" is still used today, in boxing, track and field, and professional basketball, whenever a white emerges as a potential star.

But ethnicity and racialism in boxing has a more intricate history than white against black. Boxers have often come from racially and ethnically mixed working-class urban environments where they fought racial insults as street toughs. This was particularly true of white ethnic fighters--Jews, Italians and Irish--in the United States from the turn of the century to about the fifties, when public-policy changes widened economic and educational opportunities, and suburbanization altered white ethnic urban neighborhoods, changing the character of boxing and big-city life. John L. Sullivan, the last great bare-knuckle champion, may have been "white" when he drew the color line and refused to fight the great black heavyweight Peter Jackson (at nearly the same time that Cap Anson refused to play against blacks in baseball, precipitating a near-sixty-year ban on blacks in professional baseball), but to his audience he was not merely white but Irish. Benny Leonard was not just a white fighter but a Jewish fighter. Rocky Graziano was not merely a white fighter but an Italian fighter. Muhammad Ali, reinventing himself ethnically when the fight game became almost exclusively black and Latino, was not just a black fighter but a militant black Muslim fighter. Fighters, generally, as part of the show, tend to take on explicit ethnic and racial identities in the ring. One needn't be a deconstructionist to understand that race aspires to be a kind of performance, just as athletic performance aspires to be something racial. This is clear to anyone who has seriously watched more than, say, a half-dozen boxing matches. Today, basketball is a "black" game not only because blacks dominate it but because they have developed a style of play that is very different from the style when whites dominated the pro game back in the fifties. It is said by scholars, writers and former players that Negro League baseball was different from white baseball and that when Jackie Robinson broke the color line, he introduced a different way of playing the game, with more emphasis on speed and aggressive base-running. In the realm of sports, this type of innovation becomes more than just performance. The political significance of race in a sporting performance is inextricably related to the fact that sports are also contests of domination and survival. It should come as no surprise that the intersection of race and sports reached its full expression at the turn of the century when social Darwinism was the rage (Charles Murray is our Herbert Spencer); when sports, imitating the rampant industrialism of the day, became a highly, if arbitrarily, rationalized system; when business culture first began to assimilate the values of sports; when it was believed that blacks would die out in direct competition with whites because they were so inferior; when Euro-American imperialism--race as the dramaturgy of dominance--was in full sway.

In most respects, the racialism displayed at some of Naseem Hamed's fights is rather old-fashioned. This racialism has three sources. First, there is the old Anglo racism directed against anyone nonwhite but particularly against anyone from, or perceived to be from, the Indian subcontinent. (Hamed is insulted by being called a "Paki," not an Arab, a confusion that speaks to something specific in white British consciousness, as does the statement "they are all the same.") In short, in British boxing audiences, we see Anglo racism as a performance of competitive dominance as well as a belief in the superiority of "whiteness."

Second, there is the way that Hamed fights. "Dirty, flash,black bastard," his audience shouts, meaning that Hamed has stylish moves, is very fast, but really lacks the heart and stamina to be a true boxer, does not have the bottom of a more "prosaic" white fighter. Hamed is derided, in part, because his showy, flamboyant style seems "black," although there have been several noted white fighters in boxing history who were crafty and quick, like Willie Pep. Hamed is immodest, something the white sporting crowd dislikes in any athlete but particularly in nonwhite athletes. He fights more in the style of Sugar Ray Leonard and Muhammad Ali than in the mode of the traditional stand-up British boxer. To further complicate the ethnicity issue, it must be remembered that famous black British boxers such as Randy Turpin, John Conteh and Frank Bruno have been very much accepted by the British sporting public because they fought in a more orthodox manner.

Third, traditional working-class ethnocentrism is part of most boxing matches, as it is a seamless part of working-class life. Hamed calls his manager "Old Irish," while Ingle calls him "the little Arab." A good deal of this ethnocentrism is expressed as a kind of complex regional chauvinism. Below the glamorous championship level, boxing matches are highly local affairs. Hamed has received his most racist receptions when fighting a local boy on that boy's turf. This almost always happens, regardless of ethnicity, to a "foreign" or "alien" boxer. In international amateur competitions, Hamed himself was constantly reminded that he was "fighting for England." It is all right if Hamed is a "Paki" as long as he is "our Paki."

What we learn from the example of Hamed is that race is a form of performance or exhibition in sports that is meant, in some way, for those at the bottom, to be an act of assertion, even revolt, against "how things are normally done." But also, in boxing, ethnic identities are performances of ethnic hatreds. As Jacques Barzun wrote, "In hatred there [is] the sensation of strength," and it is this sensation that spurs the fighter psychologically in the ring, gives him a reason to fight a man he otherwise has no reason to harm. So it is that within the working-class ethnic's revolt there is also his capitulation to playing out a role of pointless, apolitical resentment in the social order. This is why boxing is such an ugly sport: It was invented by men of the leisure class simply to bet, to make their own sort of sport of their privilege; and it reduces the poor man's rightful resentment, his anger and hatred, to a form of absurd, debased, dangerous entertainment. The Hameds of the boxing world make brutality a form of athletic beauty.

Postscript: O Defeat, Where Is Thy Sting?

She: Is there a way to win?
He: Well, there is a way to lose more slowly.

--Jane Greer and Robert Mitchum in Out of the Past

I'm a loser
And I'm not what I appear to be.

--Lennon and McCartney

It is a certainty that sports teach us about defeat and losing, for it is a far more common experience than winning. It might be suggested that in any competition there must be a winner and a loser and so winning is just as common. But this is not true. When a baseball team wins the World Series or a college basketball team wins a national title or a tennis player wins the French Open, everyone else in the competition has lost: twenty-nine other baseball teams, sixty-three other basketball teams, dozens of other seeded and unseeded tennis players. Surely, all or nearly all have won at some point, but most sports are structured as elaborate eliminations. The aura of any sporting event or season is defeat. I am not sure sports teach either the participants or the audience how to lose well, but they certainly teach that losing is the major part of life. "A game tests, somehow, one's entire life," writes Michael Novak, and it is in this aspect that the ideological content of sports seems much like the message of the blues, and the athlete seems, despite his or her obsessive training and remarkable skill, a sort of Everyperson or Job at war, not with the gods but with the very idea of God. Sports do not mask the absurdity of life but rather ritualize it as a contest against the arbitrariness of adversity, where the pointless challenge of an equally pointless limitation, beautifully and thrillingly executed, sometimes so gorgeously as to seem a victory even in defeat, becomes the most transcendent point of all. Black people have taught all of us in the blues that to lose is to be human. Sports, on any given day, teaches the same.

My barber is a professional boxer. He fights usually as a light-heavyweight or as a cruiser-weight. He is 34 and would like to fight for a championship again one day, but time is working against him. He has fought for championships in the past, though never a world title. It is difficult to succeed as a boxer if you must work another job. A day of full-time work and training simply leaves a fighter exhausted and distracted. I have seen him fight on television several times, losing to such world-class fighters as Michael Nunn and James Toney. In fact, every time I have seen him fight he has lost. He is considered "an opponent," someone used by an up-and-coming fighter to fatten his record or by an established fighter who needs a tune-up. An opponent does not make much money; some are paid as little as a few hundred dollars a fight. My barber, I guess, is paid more than that. This is the world that most boxers occupy--this small-time world of dingy arenas and gambling boats, cramped dressing rooms and little notice. It is the world that most professional athletes occupy. He last fought on June 2 against Darryl Spinks for something called the MBA light-heavyweight title at the Ambassador Center in Jennings, Missouri. Darryl Spinks is the son of notorious St. Louis fighter and former heavyweight champion Leon Spinks. Spinks won a twelve-round decision, and my barber felt he was given "a hometown decision" in his own hometown, as he felt he decisively beat young Spinks. But Spinks is an up-and-coming fighter, and up-and-coming fighters win close fights. When I talked to my barber after the fight, he seemed to accept defeat with some equanimity. What upset him was that the local paper, or the local white paper, as it is seen by most blacks, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, did not cover the fight. It was prominently covered by the St. Louis American, the city's black paper. I told him I would write a letter to the editor about that; he appreciated my concern. As things turned out, the fight was mentioned in the Post-Dispatch ten days later as part of a roundup of the local boxing scene. My barber's fight earned three paragraphs. It probably wasn't quite what he wanted, but I am sure it made him feel better. After all, a local fighter has only his reputation in his hometown to help him make a living. Nonetheless, I admired the fact that he took so well being unfairly denied something that was so important to him. Most people can't do that.

I might quarrel a little with my good friend Stanley Crouch, who once said that the most exquisite blues statement was Jesus, crucified, asking God why he had been forsaken. It's a good line Jesus said on the old rugged cross. But for us Americans, I rather think the most deeply affecting blues statement about losing as the way it is in this life is the last line of a song we learned as children and we sing every time we go to the park to see our favorite team: "'Cause it's one, two, three strikes you're out at the old ball game."


Gerald Early is Merle Kling Professor of Modern Letters at Washington University in St. Louis. His books include The Culture of Bruising and, most recently, The Muhammad Ali Reader (both Ecco).


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