Clarence Page

'Racial' is not always 'racist'

Published November 6, 2005

WASHINGTON -- In the touchy arena of sports and race, there's a special etiquette that forbids a lot of people from saying what they think.

Recent instructive examples include Fisher DeBerry, the U.S. Air Force Academy football coach, who expounded a little too freely for most people's comfort on the terrific speed of black football players.

And there were the black professional basketball stars who complained that there was not-too-subtle racism in the National Basketball Association's new hip-hop-unfriendly dress code.

As a black father of a male teenage NBA fan, I vigorously disagreed that the dress code was racist. It takes a pretty narrow mind to think that, to be authentically black, we must bling-bling ourselves up like, say, Eminem or Paul Wall, both white rappers who do an excellent job of capturing one narrow aspect of African-American culture.

Yet, only one of the offending sportsmen was taken to the woodshed by his superiors and forced to apologize, I regret to report, and it was not one of the black players.

No, it was DeBerry who was officially reprimanded and who issued a public apology for his comments.

After his team took a 48-10 beating from Texas Christian University in late October, he told reporters: "It's very obvious to me the other day that the other team had a lot more Afro-American players than we did, and they ran a lot faster than we did. It just seems to be that way, that Afro-American kids can run very, very well. That doesn't mean that Caucasian kids and other descents can't run, but it's very obvious to me they run extremely well. Their defense had 11 Afro-American kids on their team, and they were a very, very good defensive football team. That's exactly what I was talking about."

As a number of sports commentators have pointed out, DeBerry's mistake was his failure to use the shrewd euphemisms that others in positions like his usually employ when talking about matters related to race.

It is not news to football fans that black players dominate the field positions that call for fast runners.

But, by calling attention to that statistic, DeBerry inadvertently called attention to its embarrassing flip-side: the relative scarcity of blacks in decision-making positions like quarterbacks, coaches, managers and owners.

Black Americans have made a lot of progress in breaking through those glass ceilings over the years, but not enough for everybody to be comfortable with talking about it very much.

Football great Paul Hornung stumbled into a similar error of racial etiquette in March 2004 when he told a Detroit radio station that his alma mater, Notre Dame, "can't stay as strict as we are as far as the academic structure is concerned because we've got to get the black athlete. We must get the black athlete if we're going to compete."

Just as DeBerry should have left race out of his search for speed, Hornung would have saved himself a lot of grief had he left race out of Notre Dame's search for talented high schoolers.

But I am not surprised that quite a few white people have been confused about how much they should call attention to certain racial stats in sports, since they have become widespread material for jokes among black folks.

Hang around black athletes much and you'll hear about poor runners and jumpers having "white man's disease" or how the three-point shot in basketball was invented to give a boost to white players, who tend to be more adept at the long ball than flashy dunk shots. Who can forget how "White Men Can't Jump" became the ironic title of a popular 1992 basketball movie starring Woody Harrelson and Wesley Snipes without much protest.

I cannot explain why black athletes do so well in certain sports, although I think the answer is more complicated than the genetically based explanation advanced in Jon Entine's controversial 2001 book "Taboo: Why Black Athletes Dominate Sports and Why We're Afraid to Talk About It."

While Entine's title has truth in it, race alone does not explain the tendency of black American runners to dominate Olympic sprints, for example, while black Kenyans dominate marathons or Dominicans produce a disproportionate number of black stars for North American baseball teams.

Whatever the reason, if we Americans can't find some reasonable ways to talk about these relatively trivial matters without pointing accusatory fingers at each other, we don't stand much of a chance to talk about the really serious problems of race in America.

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