Racism in Sports: How Far Have We Really Come?

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Racism in Sports: How Far Have We Really Come?
Nov 12, 2014

The ninth-annual Shirley Povich Symposium tackled the issue of racism in sports Tuesday night at the Samuel Riggs IV Alumni Center at the University of Maryland.

Though a range of topics were discussed, the panel committed itself to having a frank and open discussion, something that panelist Michael Wilbon said should happen more frequently.

Each member of the panel gave some opening remarks about their general opinion on race in sports.

Kevin Blackistone, a professor at the Merrill College of Journalism, said that many of the ways in which society uses athletes has created a gladiatorial atmosphere. This is especially true, he said, in light of how much of the college sports system relies on the unpaid contributions of black athletes and the way the NFL has treated concussion issues.

Kara Lawson, a WNBA player and ESPN commentator, said she has encountered race more on social media than on the playing field. “Athletes don’t think about race,” she said. “They think, ‘can you help us win?’”

Damion Thomas, the curator of sports at the Smithsonian Museum of African American History and Culture, said he sees players willing to be social agents of change as a sign of large-scale transformation in this society. He pointed to LeBron James’ activism with the Trayvon Martin case and his increased advocacy on player wage issues in the NBA.

ESPN personality Scott Van Pelt also said it was important to talk about these issues. “I will try to talk about this stuff because I’m an adult,” he said.

The first topic the panel discussed was the role of race in the Donald Sterling and Ray Rice cases this year.

Blackistone called the Sterling case incidental racism and said the NBA and its fans should have reacted more to his housing discrimination more than, “his pillow talk with his paramour.” He had a problem with the NBA kicking Sterling out for that rather than his systematic racism.

Wilbon, on the other hand, felt that Sterling was important to get the conversation started. With Sterling, Wilbon said, for the first time in American history it wasn’t African American groups initiating the call for change, but everyone who had finally had enough.

Next the panel weighed in on how some sports are perceived as black sports while others are not.

Wilbon pointed out that even though the percentage of black athletes in basketball and football are roughly equal, basketball is seen as a black sport while football is seen as a white sport. That, he says, is because the stars of football – Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers, Drew Brees and Bill Belichik – are white.

Blackistone and Van Pelt used a recent NASCAR advertisement as an example of how these labels are important. To promote an upcoming race, a commercial used a brawl between teams as an example of how passionate the drivers and teams were about the current playoffs. But Blackistone pointed out that in other sports, especially basketball and football, not only would they not have used fights to promote the sport, but those who fought would have been labeled as thugs.

Van Pelt continued the conversation, saying that when NASCAR drivers fight we think, look at those good ole boys just having some fun out there.  But when we label players as thugs, Van Pelt said, what we’re really doing is using that word as a code word for words we can’t say.

Speaking of words we can’t say, the next topic of discussion was the Washington Post’s recent series on the use of the N-word, especially in sports in light of the NFL’s attempts to punish players using the word on the field.

Wilbon said he uses the word every day, but, “That doesn’t mean everybody gets to use it.”

Thomas thought that it was a problem to use words in a social environment that not everyone can use. He also said that players should consider adopting a professional code of conduct that was their own, outside of the NFL’s purview.

The final topic of discussion was race in social media.

Blackistone and Lawson said they make liberal use of the block button when it comes to social media and the comments directed their way. And Van Pelt referred to social media as a cesspool.

Wilbon also pointed out that the anonymity and ease granted by the internet has made these comments easier to get out there, especially compared to the days when you had to physically mail in a letter to a writer.

The symposium ended with questions from the audience. Many were eager to ask questions and the panelists were just as willing to answer them, staying well past the allotted time to answer the questions.

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