Overcoming Race in Sports

Racial stereotypes in sports and those that are overcoming them.

Blake Hudson, Sports Journalism Reporter

Blake Hudson

Former NBA player Nate Robinson and I are the same height – 5 feet, 9 inches. Robinson is the only three-time NBA Slam Dunk Contest champion. I’m still trying for my first dunk.

The disparity between my jumping ability and Robinson’s is due to a variety of factors that range from natural ability and genetics to the amount of time we spend practicing jumping and leaping. Many would claim that the difference is as simple as skin color, which is the “white men can’t jump” stereotype.

In the athletic world, race-based stereotypes are troublingly common. Most of these labels have something to do with the assumption that black athletes are bigger, stronger and faster compared to, to cite another stereotype, the more “intelligent” white athlete.

These stereotypes represent a deeply rooted problem in our society that has a much broader scope than athletics.

Crazy-ass myths 

Though commonly stated, and often without ill intention, these inaccurate stereotypes emphasize the racial problems that plague us. There is no scientific evidence that athletic performance is determined by race, though many believe this theory to be true. Yet, people cling to old wives’ tales that black people are born with an extra muscle in their legs or that their calves are shaped differently.

Such stereotypes discredit the work ethic and discipline that black athletes must have to achieve athletic success, and in a back-handed way they contribute to the long-standing racist belief that black people are lazy in comparison to white people. 

What begins seemingly innocently as an explanation of athletic performance influences what society mistakenly believes about an entire race. In fact, stereotypes not that dissimilar to those implicitly held today are those that justified slavery. Blacks were not smart or worthy enough to own their own fields, the thinking went, though they were certainly big and strong enough to work those same fields. 

In another troubling linkage of past and present, a common stereotype holds that blacks are more athletic than whites due to the way they were selectively bred to be stronger and bigger for slavery, so they could yield more crops for their owners. This stereotype insidiously, mind-bendingly gives white people credit for the success of black athletes. 

Is it a coincidence that ownership in professional sports parallels that during slavery, at least from an economic point of view. The NBA has only one black owner, despite the fact that its workforce on the court is more than three quarters black. The NFL has a similar racial profile. There are no black NFL owners despite the fact that 66 percent of the league’s players are black.

As Eldridge Cleaver wrote in his book Soul On Ice, “Haven’t you ever wondered why the white man genuinely applauds a black man who achieves excellence with his body in the field of sports, while he hates to see a black man achieve excellence in his mind?”

Lies told to our young

Racial stereotypes in sports create psychological barriers that inhibit athletes from reaching their full potential. If a white kid grows up thinking that he physically cannot jump high, why would he waste his time trying? Similarly, if a black kid grows up thinking he does not have the mental capacity to play quarterback, why would he waste his time on trying? 

On a larger scale, if young blacks do not see their race represented in professional positions, the lie being told is that they are not intelligent enough to achieve success off the athletic field. 

Culture is also a leading factor in determining what races will be successful in what sports. Golf is considered a “white” sport, therefore it is populated by mostly whites. On the other hand, basketball is a staple of black culture, so “naturally” there are a greater number of black players at the highest level. Only it isn’t natural at all, at least not in any sort of God-given sense.

Challenging this “naturalness,” foreign players are increasingly common in the NBA. Players are coming from Spain, Argentina, China and the former eastern bloc nations. Because success breeds success, these countries are exporting more talented players. 

Nate Robison cannot dunk because he is black. He can dunk because he has 43-and–one-half-inch vertical leap, because he has spent his whole life playing basketball. Yes his genetics may play a role in his ability, but not the same genes that make up his skin color. I on the other hand cannot dunk because my vertical leap is somewhere in the mid 20s inch-wise, not because of my skin color.

Oh, Canada!

Still skeptical? Take a look at pro dunker Jordan Kilganon, performer of what many call “the greatest dunk ever”and owner of a 50-inch vertical leap. This puts him more than six inches higher than the NBA’s highest jumpers.

Kilganon is a 6-foot-1 white Canadian. 

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