I look at an article from sports sociology that suggests descriptions of athletes might perpetuate inaccurate stereotypes.
Like many other people, I was shocked to hear the alleged tape recording of Donald Sterling saying that his girlfriend should not take photographs with black people, or bring them to basketball games (but she can bring them to bed). I don’t follow sports very closely anymore; I didn’t know that Sterling, at least according to the Guardian, made millions as a landlord through racist housing policies. Maybe we should have seen this coming.
Some have argued that the emphasis on Sterling’s comments obscured the larger, more
harmful, actions that he has taken (the Guardian suggests this, as does the link below). In particular, they point to the housing discrimination he was accused of perpetrating as an owner of 100’s of properties in the Los Angeles area. Housing discrimination is terrible, and (like all forms of discrimination) should not be tolerated.
However, many of these arguments that suggest housing discrimination is “actually harmful” imply that Sterling’s other actions were largely inconsequential. I thought that, perhaps, this position might stem from a belief that in the realm of sport, discrimination was not significant. In fact, it might even be thought that sports are a way for those frequently discriminated against to get ahead, since, on the face of it, it would seem that on-field performance would be the dominant driver of athletic success. There are obvious reasons to resist at least the first part of this description, for example, racism against black soccer players in Spain is so pervasive that the players can plan their responses in advance.
Still, I wondered, do sports perpetuate or help fight discrimination? There is obviously no cut and dry answer to this question. It is too broad a question to be answered directly: there are many different sports, and too many ways of thinking about discrimination for the question to be taken seriously. However, in thinking about the question, I took a look at the academic literature on sociology of sport. I found it surprising that this literature is not more heavily cited in recent discussions of racism in sports.
Here I’m going to share excerpts from a paper entitled “Professional Football Scouts: An Investigation of Racial Stacking” by J. R. Woodward (2004). The study covered in the article analyzes draft guides that describe the suitability of college athletes for the NFL draft, paying particular attention to the descriptions of the perceived physical and mental capabilities of white and African American players. I quote this paper it because the study is interesting, but also because it has a fairly detailed literature review with some interesting studies. Given that it seems the sports media perpetuates the messages discussed in this study from 2010, and broadcasts to millions of people, I would guess the messages we receive about sports and athletes portray more bias than we immediately realize.
“Coakley (1998) notes, there are roughly 20 times more African American physicians and lawyers than top professional athletes; nor have most sports truly integrated to allow for equal participation and rewards between the races. In 1997, the 50th anniversary of Jackie Robinson joining Major League Baseball, his old team the Dodgers had the exact same number of American-born Blacks on the opening day roster as they did in 1947: one.”
“Whites dominate most sports at the collegiate and high school level; football, basketball, track, and baseball—sports where Whites are underrepresented—make up only 4 out of at least 40 sports played competitively.”
“The belief that sport has been a source of upward mobility for African Americans has been rebutted in previous research and is not the object of this project (see Sailes, 1998; and Smith, 1993, 1995). What is of interest, however, is the tenacity of this view. Personal beliefs about race and sport are often solidified when society at large seems to share and reinforce these beliefs, regard- less of their veracity.”
“One manifestation of our “race logic” (how we come to understand racial phenomena in society) is the link between race and athletics, principally the belief in African American athletic superiority. Unfortunately, concomitant with this view has been the conviction of mental inferiority; i.e., the “dumb jock” stereotype (Hoberman, 1997; Eitzen, 1999). American history is replete with academic, intellectual, and social discussions of the primitive nature of Blacks, whose supposed strength, power, and sexual aggression made them appear almost animalistic, an assertion strengthened by their perceived lack of innate cognitive abilities (Mead, 1985).”
“Racial ideology, then, was situated in a particular, disparaging view of African Americans as physical, not mental beings. Athletics was just one of many endeavors in which this view was manifested (Coakley, 1998).”
“Racial stacking is the over- or underrepresentation of players of certain races in particular positions in team sports (Coakley, 1998). For example, quarterbacks in football and catchers in baseball have traditionally been White, whereas Black players are more often found playing in the outfield in baseball and as running backs or wide receivers in football.”
“Loy and McElvogue (1970) presented the first study on racial stacking by examining the racial makeup of baseball and football in America. Their findings suggested that White players are more likely to be found in what they termed central positions (i.e., discrimination is most likely to occur at central positions in any social organization, where the most interaction occurs).”
“In this study, an assessment was made to determine whether scouting reports of college quarterbacks, centers, inside linebackers, and tight ends relied on mental descriptors of White players and physical descriptors of African American players. At a basic level, scouts are individuals raised in contemporary U.S. society with all the implied racial beliefs. Because physical and mental abilities relative to football can be extremely subjective, it follows that descriptions of athletes in various positions would differ for Whites and African Americans, based solely on the ascribed characteristic of race.…