Tuesday, December 27, 2005

Sports and Race

I don't write much about sports in this space, but I couldn't let this one pass. We hear a lot in sports media about race. Can black quarterbacks succeed in the NFL? Terrell Owens. Randy Moss. Etc. There are frequent vague allusions to racism in sports that ultimately play a disservice to race struggle in this country because they play little more than lip service. Reporters, sensitized to race issues, ask, "Would we be calling out Terrell Owens if he was white?" It's a softball question. The obvious answer is, yes, it's his behavior, not his skin pigmentation.

At least that's how I normally think. Today I'm not so sure.

As I was pondering the race question, one thought has frequented my brain in the last few months: Brett Favre. For those not in the know, he's the Quarterback from Green Bay that has won exactly one Super Bowl and whose career will be remembered more for excellence than profligate interceptions or prescription drug abuse. This season, Favre has been abhorent under center. Sure, he's racked up the stats, but he's single-handedly cost his team multiple football games by throwing the ball to the other team. Still, it took 15 games for the media to turn on Favre, even though he's basically stunk as a QB since the start and has fairly stinking for several years. Compare Favre to Daunte Culpepper and you'll see where I'm headed with this. Culpepper, Minnesota's QB, is black, had a season for the ages a year ago (better than anything Favre ever did), and but was immediately brutalized by the media once he started throwing interceptions this year.

I'm not saying the media's racist. But it is odd that when it's a black QB, the media/public turns quick. I'm just saying.

Really, what sparked this interlude was this article by ESPN Page 2 columnist Scoop Jackson. I don't agree with everything that Scoop says, but I do think he makes two really thought provoking points.

First, Mr. Jackson points to Notre Dame's curious 10-year contract extension for Head Coach Charlie Weis. The backstory: Notre Dame had a black head coach, Ty Willingham. They dismissed him after three seasons and hired former Patriots Offensive Coordinator Charlie Weis. Now, you give a 10-year extension to a white guy after 7 games but never even consider that option for a black guy? Scoop says it best:

So when the University of Notre Dame extended Charlie Weis' contract to secure his services for 10 years just months after firing a coach who only three years ago was in the same situation with a better record (8-0 after the first eight games for Willingham, 5-2 for Weis at the time of his extension) during his first year, the validation of racism that so many people tossed at the university's feet in the wake of excusing Willingham last December was totally eclipsed by an arrogance unseen in the NCAA since Adolph Rupp and Bear Bryant thought "negroes" couldn't ball.

The other truly salient point from this article is about Kevin Garnett, Minnesota Timberwolves power forward and superstar. KG, as he's known, went straight from high school to the NBA, became one of the dominant players of his generation, and is pretty much a class act and an always entertaining basketball player. In the aftermath of Katrina, KG wrote a letter to Oprah Winfrey that she read on air in which he pledged to build one house a month for 24 months with his own money to give to needy families in the devastated area. Scoop says the rest better than I could:

A gesture that should have landed him on the cover of Time alongside Bill and Melinda Gates and Bono as Persons of The Year. A gesture that made Oprah -- read it again, Oprah -- break down.

But still, no member of the media wrote a story about it. USA Today scripted a blurb; ESPN.com made a mention. But overall -- nada.

Now, let Kevin Garnett or any other athlete run a stop light; let them miss a practice unexcused; let them miss a child support payment -- Bam! Lead story on "SportsCenter," forum discussion on "Rome Is Burning," breaking news on CNN.

In an era when it is too often publicly asked: "Where are our kids' role models?"; in a society that is starved for areas of positiveness to come from our professional athletes; in a world where we have been conditioned to believe that every one of these young superstars is unappreciative, ungrateful, undeserving and a void soul, a situation arose that could have shifted the entire perception of their existence. What Kevin Garnett did was just that big.

But guess who dropped the ball? Us. The media, for not saying anything about it, and the public, for not demanding that we do.

The moral of this story: How do you make the media not pay attention to you when you are a superstar athlete? Do something humane.

For shame. I'm not alleging racism, but damn, when is America going to wake up?


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