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The issue of race and sport in the United States is somewhat baffling in that many persons would rather it not be addressed at all even though sport has been intricately intertwined with racial issues in the United States throughout the Twentieth Century (e. g. The Black Athlete, 1989). Those who would have us omit the topic altogether argue that analyses typically single out the black athlete, and then attempt to explain his/her inordinate success in ways different than we do that of other groups. Critics contend that this approach is racist, since it perpetuates the idea that blacks are different, and often inferior. Edwards (1972) asserts that a typical theme resulting from such analyses is that blacks are physically superior, but intellectually inferior, to whites. Hoberman (1997) has further made the case that physical prowess, especially in such sports as basketball, has become a defining characteristic of the African-American community, and that beliefs about physical superiority are closely yoked to an anti-intellectualism that permeates black male culture. Essentially, Hobermans argument is that inordinate attention to and idolization of prominent black athletes such as Michael Jordan has focused attention away from other more realistic and important role models, and this, in turn has stunted intellectual, social and economic development in the black community.
Notwithstanding Edwards and Hobermans observations on the inverse relationship between physical prowess and intellectual acumen, most studies assessing black-white differences in athletic performance have focused on physical and physiological parameters, and have typically found blacks to be more physically suited than whites for activities requiring speed and power. If interpreted on face value without critical analysis, it is easy to jump to the conclusion that such differences are innate and racially determined. As Edwards (1972) points out, this might lead some to conclude that blacks evolved differently than whites and remain at a more primitive evolutionary level because they are more closely associated with lower animals who are also known to possess greater speed and strength. On the other hand, it is only a short leap to believing that whites evolved to a higher intellectual level than blacks because they dominate virtually all other areas. Consequently, an explanation of black dominance in major sports which focuses predominately on physical differences between blacks and whites often results in reinforcing stereotypical ideas about black physical prowess rather than exploring the significance of motivation, intellect, discipline and hard work in accounting for athletic success.
The belief that blacks are intellectually inferior to whites can best be illustrated in a sport context by the comments made by former Los Angeles Dodger Vice President for player personnel, Al Campanis on the 40th anniversary of Jackie Robinsons arrival into major league baseball. Campanis was invited to appear on ABC's Nightline hosted by Ted Koppel. During the interview, Campanis was asked why he thought so few blacks were in management positions in baseball. Campanis replied: "I truly believe they may not have some of the necessities to be a field manager or perhaps a general manager" (Wilhelm, 1987, p. 46). He also stated that blacks were not adapted to be swimmers because of a lack of buoyancy. Although Campanis was fired within 48 hours for his comments, it is interesting to note that he was considered to be one of baseballs more notable equal-opportunity employers (Neff, 1987), and had a reputation for fairness ( Callahan, 1987 ). Interestingly, Frank Robinson, baseballs first black manager, in a subsequent interview stated that Campanis was a descent man who simply was a product of baseballs traditional thinking (Wilhelm, 1987).
Such stereotypical thinking was apparently not an innocuous private matter unique to Campanis, since at the time only three blacks had managed major league teams, and only Henry Aaron held an administrative position of any authority, as Vice President and Director of Player Development for the Atlanta Braves. Frank Robinson, when asked whether he was surprised by Campanis remarks, corroborated Edwards assertion in responding that there was a widely held belief in baseball ". that blacks aren't smart enough to be managers or third-base coaches or part of the front office. There's a belief that they're fine when it comes to the physical part of the game, but if it involves brains they just can't handle it" (Wilhelm, 1987, p. 46).
Ideas about race related physical differences have also been prevalent, and most certainly were responsible for the comments of former CBS sportscaster Jimmy "the Greek" Snyder. In January of 1988, he asserted that blacks were not only better athletes than whites, but heredity was primarily the reason. He stated that blacks were bred to be better athletes than whites because slave owners during the civil war bred ". his big black to his big woman so that he could have a big black kid." He went on to say that such breeding resulted in blacks having bigger thighs than whites which gave them an advantage in athletics ( Ballad, 1988 ). In contrast, he also asserted that white athletes tended to be lazy and did not practice while blacks did put in the time to excel. Like Campanis, he commented on blacks and coaching by stating ''They've got
everything. If they take over coaching like everybody wants them to, there's not going to be anything left for the white people. I mean all the players are black. The only thing the whites control are the coaching jobs''(Ballard, 1988, p.7). CBS promptly fired Snyder, who had worked for the network for 12 years.
Seemingly, it is easy to jump to the conclusion that Snyder was racist, and his off the cuff remarks about black dominance in the major sports simply reflected a negative bias against blacks succeeding so emphatically solely because of physical capacities for which they were not responsible. However, as pointed out by Seligman (1988), an analysis of what Snyder actually said really was prejudicial against whites who he labeled as lazy and not willing to put in the practice time necessary to excel, while he lauded the preeminence of blacks who worked hard to be better athletes. It was also noted that a number of Snyders acquaintances conveyed that he was not a racist, and had even paid for the college tuition of black children from poor backgrounds with no fanfare. In light of the literature which has existed over the years comparing white and black samples that typically shows blacks superior to whites on a number of parameters which affect speed and power, it may just be that Snyder simply distorted and embellished this information. In an analysis of this incident, Seligman (1988) suggests that Jimmys ". sin lay in simply saying out loud what millions of Americans know, which is that the races have different physiques on average" (p. 123). According to Seligman, had Jimmy articulated a more politically correct environmental explanation for racial differences, such as discrimination reinforcing attraction to and away from various activities, he would have been revered rather than lambasted.
Despite the beliefs about race based abilities that commentators, managers, coaches, owners, and administrators hold, there are also stereotypes held by performers themselves which are likely to inhibit or enhance their involvement in an activity. If a black child believes that she will never be a competitive swimmer because of a lack of buoyancy, but thinks that she has a biological advantage in sprinting, she will probably self-select herself into the latter activity. By the same token, if a white child believes that he can not jump high because of race based physical limitations, but has the hand-eye coordination necessary for a sport like tennis, he too will direct his energies to that which he thinks will bring him success. Seemingly, such beliefs mediate the direction and intensity of behavior, as much, if not more so than heredity, and can account for current sport demographics. As well, beliefs, like genes, tend to be passed down from generation to generation making the resolution of nature-nurture debates difficult, if not impossible.
Consequently, the argument for examining this area is to determine what is fact and what is fiction. Are performance disparities between black and white athletes really a function of fundamental differences in physique and physiology, or are they a result of environmental and cultural contingencies? Contrary to what some may argue, an objective examination of these issues attempts to fairly examine the evidence, and to challenge beliefs held and conveyed by individuals such as Al Campanis and Jimmy the Greek" Snyder. In the end, we may find that these individuals, like many others are not really bigots, but simply misinformed about what really is known about race and performance. Seemingly, knowledge can help us get beyond the false stereotypes that pervade our thinking, and help us to direct our behavior in more productive directions. In the words of athletic geneticist Claude Bouchard ". I have always worked with the hypothesis that ignorance fosters prejudice. And that knowledge is the greatest safeguard against prejudice" (The Black Athlete, 1989).
Observations of Demographics
Perhaps the reason that racial issues in sport capture the attention of so many people is a result of demographics. African-Americans, who earlier in the century were segregated into black leagues, have in less than 50 years become the dominant racial group in basketball and football, despite the fact that they only make up 12.6% of the US population (U.S. Census Bureau, 1998). Today black players constitute 77% of the NBA, 64% of the WNBA, 65% of the NFL, and 15% of MLB ( Lapchick and Mathews, 1999 ). As well, in college 60% of male Division I basketball players and 51% of football players are black. African-American females constitute 35% of Division I basketball players and 31% of cross country-track and field athletes (NCAA, 1988). From the era of Jackie Robinson when black athletes in white leagues were an anomaly, to the present day, a role reversal has come about. As seen in Table 1, black athletes emerged from segregated black leagues after World War 2, and have become disproportionately represented in basketball, football, track and field, boxing, and to a lesser extent in baseball. This swift demographic shift has stimulated a great deal of interest in the question of why blacks have become such a dominant force in our major sports.
Table 1. Changing Demographics in Major Sports.Source: www.science.smith.edu