June 24, 2001



Was Babe Ruth Black?

So asked a recent Sports Illustrated story, an account that provided historical references that Ty Cobb once dropped a racial slur on America's first true sporting hero.

If nothing else, it proved that racism was a raging bonfire a century ago and the embers still burn today.

And as professional sports deals with the warning signs of declining interest, coinciding with domination of black athletes, a sensitive question emerges:

Are sports no longer white enough for mainstream America?

"There is a level of racism in our country that may be at as bad a point as I can remember in my adult life," said Dr. Richard Lapchick, renowned founder of Northeastern University's Center for the Study of Sport in Society. "And with basketball and football becoming increasingly Afro-American, the White fan moves further and further away from the game."

While African-Americans made up 13 percent of the American population in 2000, the NFL was almost 70 percent black and showcased a dramatic rise in African-American quarterbacks. The NBA was more than 80 percent black. Major League Baseball was 40 percent black.

Country club sports, once exclusively White, are shaking with change. The Williams sisters are rising stars in tennis. Tiger Woods has no competition in golf. Anthony Ervin became the first swimmer of Black heritage to win a gold medal in the Olympics.

And with the influx of Asians, Europeans and Latin Americans in all professional sports, White America is dealing with a diminishing pool of White sporting heroes.

"We live in a very racist country," Earl Woods, Tiger's father, told TV Guide. "The United States is one of the most racist countries in the world. It's built into the culture, the language, the movies, the books."

Yet is it reflected in the way we watch or not watch sports? In baseball, the effects are surely minimal. There is tremendous racial balance and plenty of superstars to go around, whether it's Barry Bonds, Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa or Ichiro Suzuki.

"I don't want to get into Jimmy the Greek territory, but if you accept that Blacks are blessed with greater speed and jumping ability, those are critical factors in basketball and football," said Daniel Okrent, senior editor at Sports Illustrated. "In baseball, you may not be able to run or jump at all and still be a great player, a hero, so (race) is really not an issue."

In the NFL, helmets provide what noted author Jon Entine calls "a corporate fence"–it offers a disguise of sorts that helps downplay the color and even the personality of players. But the NBA is a different story, proof that color is a growing concern.

Billy Hunter, head of the NBA Players Association, admits the league has problems with its hip-hop image. An NBA-sponsored magazine once put Iverson on the cover, but only after airbrushing away his numerous tattoos. And while Iverson's personal growth and tremendous heart were showcased throughout the postseason, changing the way many perceive him, there are plenty of other NBA players who have reinforced those same stereotypes.

And there are many who will tell you in private that NBA rules changes for next season, which will put a premium on basic passing and shooting skills, were partially enacted to save White players from extinction.

"I think there's a real sense that they don't look like us," said Entine, author of the critically acclaimed Taboo: Why Black Athletes Dominate Sports and Why We're Afraid to Talk About It. "The league went through the same thing in the '70s when people feared that blacks brought drugs and a street element to the game.

"But the individuals who got them out of that period - Dr. J., Magic, Michael Jordan - were very articulate and charismatic. There was nothing frightening about them. Now we have kids coming out of college, and even the old guard black players are saying the same thing. They are not like us. It's the same search process as in the '70s, but this one might not come out the same way."

Some of the racial undertones in sports may be innocent reactions, of looking to relate to someone of comparable lineage and ethnicity.

But many stereotypes still exist, exacerbated in the information age where out-of-the-arena behavior is headline news. Many White athletes have gotten in trouble with the law, but the ones involving Black men - Latrell Sprewell, Iverson, etc. - have seemingly caused greater public angst.

If Blacks are dominating the population pool of athletes, it's only logical that more Blacks athletes are likely to get in trouble. But when America sees Ray Lewis as the best defensive player in football and a man associated with a double murder (the charges were later dropped), the flags go up.

Lewis was the rarest of Super Bowl MVPs, a man not invited to Disney World or the cover of Wheaties. Because of public perception, Lewis was known as the cereal killer, untouchable as a marketing tool.

Research suggests that genetic code determines athletic capability, not the color of one's skin. But the generalizations are widespread, and the racial perceptions have caused Whites to actually thin out their own pool of athletes.

On a grass-roots level, many young White athletes are opting not to participate in basketball and football, if only because of a perceived inferiority. They are instead gravitating toward soccer, individual sports and extreme sports, such as skateboarding, snowboarding, etc.

"This has been well-documented," said Dr. Earl Smith, chairman for the department of sociology and ethnic studies at Wake Forest University. "You'll hear parents say, 'My kid decided not to play. He understands his chances.' They won't go out for the teams, they'll work on their reading, they'll get a 1,600 on their SATs. Because they understand their chances."

As the face of pro sports continues to evolve, there is another impending development of potentially significant change.

Scientific journals report that within the next five years, genetic technology will be available to test a child at a young age. Based on everything from size to muscle composition to aerobic capacity, parents will be able to measure their children's attributes and shepherd them into sports that best fit their genetic code.

"Coaches do this stuff all the time, assigning certain athletes to fit positions," Entine said. "On a much cruder level, the Soviet Union and China also did this, pushing people into a certain sport. But this kind of testing will be a godsend to young athletes.

"It will allow people to look at their own potential. And how wonderful it would be, when you're a young kid, to be told what range of sports really fit your body type?"

And how wonderful it would be if sports were truly an arena where race didn't matter.

"It's what no one wants to talk about," Smith said.

Copyright 2001 Phoenix Newspapers, Inc.