By Chris Murray
For the Sunday Sun
It is widely believed that sports is the common denominator that unites Americans of all races. It’s supposedly the one venue in which individuals are not judged by skin color or national origin, but by their ability perform on the field.
Or is it?
Even in an age where recognizable and revered African American sports icons like Jerry Rice and Michael Jordan have managed to transcend race and become heroes to millions of sports fans, a new book says that the world of American sport isn’t quite the colorblind utopia of racial harmony that some might think it is.
In his book, “Ballers of the New School: Race and Sports in America,” Thabiti Lewis, an English and Black Studies professor at Washington State University in Pullman, Wash., makes the argument that racism is alive and well in sports, no matter what your heroes or sports talk radio might tell you.
“I write this book at a time where I talked about how we’re lulled into this feeling of racial parity because images that predominate your television are of LeBron James, Kobe Bryant, Michael Jordan, etc,” Lewis said.
“We live in a world that’s still myopic. We are still in separate worlds and yet if people aren’t living in the same spaces and interacting, but you’re viewing this, these guys are everywhere. We’ve reached it and throw in (President Barack) Obama. We’re post-racial. Sports has the capacity to move us into that racial progressive state, but it hasn’t done that and so the push back is this constant negative reporting.”
Lewis said the depiction of African American athletes in sports is colored by racial stereotypes and a reflection of what he feels is stalled progress in race relations.
“If we look at subtle or covert narratives that are taking place, it’s saying those that are gaining that acceptance because they put forth an acceptable or palatable race neutral persona and all others who do not put forth what the majority of white male sports writers and what they deem as normative and that normative being ‘whiteness and those who don’t put that forth are villainized.”
Lewis’ book discusses how Black athletes of the hip-hop generation or the so-called Ballers of the New School (BNS) are not humbly or subserviently seeking acceptance from white fans or the mainstream media. Because Black athletes of this current generation are insistent on being accepted on their own terms and are willing to display the contemporary Black culture in which they grew up, they are at odds with the sports establishment, Lewis said.
“Cornrowed hair, earrings, jewelry—it’s a persona that seems to be openly embracing Black popular or hip-hop culture,” Lewis said. “When I say Ballers of the New School, let’s understand this particular generation of athletes and young people who are influenced by this culture.”
One of the highlights of the book is that Lewis claims that there is a “social contract” for African American athletes of the Hip-Hop era. In his book, Lewis said Black athletes who become heroes, but don’t play the role of the model minority that legitimizes white racism “often find themselves facing media campaigns that spin them as bad people.” He said that it is a reflection of the state of race relations in American society.
Lewis contends Barry Bonds’ difficult relationship with the media over the years including the controversy over steroids is as a classic example of what he calls a “Baller of the New School” as an athlete who grew up in the post Civil Rights era who wanted to be accepted on his terms.
“(Bonds’) engagement with the media makes him the quintessential baller of the new school,” Lewis said. “Barry Bonds lived in integrated communities, his friends are Black and white. He grew up in major league baseball dugout. He also saw the contradictions of that in the response to his father (Bobby Bonds), and Willie Mays and so he’s not your typical kid that comes from extreme poverty and make it to the pros and will eat the stuff of I’m happy to be here.
“He’s like ‘look I belong here, I feel privileged and I know this better than you guys and I will do what I want to do when I feel like it.’”
Lewis said the issue that Black athletes face today is that they are being covered by a cadre of white reporters who feel that they are superior to them.
“Today’s Black athletes are saying ‘I’m not trying to make them feel happy or comfortable anymore than someone else’ and therein lies the conflict with contemporary and this generation of white sportswriters because they’re still adhering to ‘I’m white, I’m superior even though may not be willing or able to articulate that,” said Lewis. “So as a result, we have this vitriol that comes out in the reporting and the resistance and response to those athletes that don’t seem accommodating enough or race neutral enough.”
Lewis said that while today’s “ballers” aren’t trying to make themselves race neutral, he said they aren’t as a political as athletes like Curt Flood, Muhammad Ali and they are not aware of the political ramifications of their actions.
“There’s a tradition of a certain political consciousness and activism that the generation before them were willing to stand upon to make clear that we’re not going to be kowtowing and we’ll only deal with so much,” Lewis said. “It was also a generation of readers who would put together organizations that will push economic development within communities. That kind of intellectualism is not rewarded.”