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Game Face

Is Sportsmanship in the Eye--or the Color--of the Beholder?

Jon C. Krause
Jon C. Krause

By Jay Ulfelder | Posted 1/3/2001

On Sept. 30, four young African-American men took 37.61 seconds to pass a baton around a 400-meter track in Sydney, Australia, and win Olympic gold.

About two months later, on the day before Thanksgiving, visitors to the heavily trafficked sports-news Web site were asked to choose "the biggest turkey" in American sports in 2000. With more than 25,000 responses tallied, the 4x100-meter relay team of Jon Drummond, Brian Lewis, Baltimore native Bernard Williams, and "world's fastest man" Maurice Greene was polling a close second to Atlanta Braves relief pitcher and outspoken bigot John Rocker, with 24 percent of the vote to Rocker's 25. Hockey player Marty McSorley, who was criminally charged in Canada for nearly killing an opponent on the ice and is now serving the longest suspension in NHL history, was a distant third with 9 percent of the vote.

How does a group of Olympic champions wind up in this Hall of Shame next to a flamboyant racist and an unusually vicious hockey goon? How did they slide from the apex of athletics to the pit of national derision in eight weeks?

In fact, the descent only took about 20 minutes: 15 minutes of post-race celebration on the track, and a few minutes more on the podium while receiving their medals. As they took their victory lap around Stadium Australia, some of the runners stripped to the waist. They struck poses. They flexed. They wrapped American flags around their shoulders, then their heads. Williams made funny faces. While "The Star-Spangled Banner" played, Greene stuck out his tongue and Lewis balanced his medal on his forehead.

Americans found a lot not to like in those 20 minutes. Newspaper columnists across the country gave several explanations for our collective distaste: the runners disrespected the flag; they forgot what the Olympics are all about; they gave life to the embarrassing image of the Ugly American; they embodied the narcissism and ethic of self-promotion that is corroding sport from the top down.

Drummond, Lewis, Williams, and Greene were not the only American Olympians who behaved in ways that angered or embarrassed a lot of viewers back home. Swimmer Amy Van Dyken spit in her competitors' lanes before each race and publicly suggested that her chief rival was doping. Her teammates' pre-race trash-talking--"We will smash them like guitars," swimmer Gary Hall said of his Australian rivals before his U.S. team lost the 4x100 freestyle relay to those same Aussies--wasn't exactly the epitome of the Olympic spirit either. So why did the track foursome become the goat of the Sydney Olympics, if not American sports in 2000 period?

The swimmers are white, the runners are black, and this is America. Maybe race has something to do with it.

This is not to say that everyone who was annoyed, embarrassed, or offended by the squad's display merits a scarlet "R." All kinds of people took the team to task for taking its celebration over the top, including the runners themselves. They apologized for their behavior at the press conference following their medal ceremony, and they haven't stopped apologizing since. "We just lost our minds, basically," anchor runner Greene said during a national teleconference two weeks after the victory. "We weren't thinking about what we were doing."

Even so, ignoring race is like ignoring gravity. The idea of race, of differences in human worth and rules for social interaction related to the color of a person's skin, is one of the basic "laws" of American social structure. Its influence on our behavior screams out from our history, and as phenomena like racial profiling by the police and redlining by lending institutions make clear, it continues to profoundly shape our behaviors and perceptions today. If you want to understand why an object follows a certain trajectory through the American social universe, you have to consider the tug and pull of race.

The faces may be new, but the issues are not. Most sports fans would agree that on-field celebrations have become more common, more elaborate, and more focused on the individual in the past few decades--and many of them don't like the trend.

As it happens, this shift in celebratory style has coincided with the increased prevalence of African-Americans in most of America's most popular professional sports, including baseball, football, and, especially, basketball. Some observers see this connection as purely coincidental. They point a finger at the big money and media attention thrown at today's sports stars, at a younger generation they consider brash and unmannered, even at a broader decline in civility in American culture as the sources of the trend.

Others, however, including a number of prominent African-American scholars and social critics, see a definite link between the rise of the black athlete and the spread of flamboyant celebratory styles in sport, and thus at least the possibility of racial prejudice in the backlash against this trend. "It's the showmanship, it's in your face, it's fuck you . . . it's all of that," Nelson George, author of Elevating the Game: Black Men and Basketball, told The Washington Post in 1994. "It's a black male thing that comes right out of the street, school-yard ball, intimidation. It comes from the same root."

In 75 Seasons, a 1994 documentary commemorating the 75th anniversary of the National Football League, sociologist Harry Edwards offered this explanation for what he views as a strong connection between race and athletes' celebratory stylings: "You have a situation where a black individual has paid the price and has achieved success. But when that success is achieved, they find that the vehicles of expressing how they feel about that are insufficient, and so they begin to innovate. And so when you see this continual creativity coming from black athletes--the high fives, spiking the ball, dancing in the end zone--what you are witnessing is the creation of a vehicle to express that joy for which there is no mainstream language."

Indeed, most of the players credited with--or blamed for--injecting new forms of celebration into the game of football have been African-American. New York Giants wide receiver Homer Jones was the first to spike the ball in the 1960s; wide receiver Elmo Wright of the University of Houston was credited with creating the end-zone dance around 1970. In the three decades since, pro football has been replete with black athletes who stick in our minds not just because of their play, but because of their riffs on the theme of celebration--Butch Johnson's California Quake, Ickey Woods' Ickey Shuffle, Jamal Anderson's Dirty Bird, and, of course, the collected works of Deion Sanders.

Does this mean disgruntlement over excessive celebration in sports is a racial issue? Are white fans and viewers who complain about Sanders' end-zone routines reacting, at least in part, to the color of his skin?

According to New York University historian Jeffrey Sammons, recent efforts to restrict celebration in college football offer some insight into these questions. In 1995, the football-rules committee of the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) extended its guidelines on unsportsmanlike conduct to include a prohibition on "excessive" celebration. In essence, players who drew too much attention to themselves while celebrating on the field risked a penalty.

More than most rules, this new proscription would require players, coaches, and referees to exercise their own judgment. After all, who's to say when an expression of emotion becomes excessive or unsportsmanlike? In conjunction with the change, the NCAA produced a 21-minute video, called College Football: A Celebration of Teamwork, that was distributed to teams and officials across the country. In it, former University of Georgia football coach Vince Dooley, then chairperson of the rules committee, explained the regulation as an effort to protect the integrity of the sport: "Taunting and showboating threaten to ruin teamwork and the spirit of football. The game is plagued by a wide variety of actions that go beyond the bounds of sportsmanship." After a rules- committee meeting early in that year, according to a Dallas Morning News report, Dooley characterized the lack of a crackdown on "excessive" celebrations as "the biggest problem facing college football today."

The new rule was immediately controversial. Some sportswriters characterized it as the outgrowth of a generation gap between old-school "conformists" and new-school "individualists," and Jerry Falwell's Liberty University filed suit to protect a player's "right" to pray on field. (The suit was dropped when the committee clarified that prayer would not be penalized.)

Others saw signs of prejudice, an open- ended effort to target behavior associated largely with black players. The video, in an effort to clarify the boundaries of acceptable behavior, juxtaposed footage of athletes celebrating in ways that would draw a penalty under the new rules and in ways that would not. Most of the former showed African-Americans, Sammons notes, and "most of the violations, be they by blacks or whites, are more based on style--a style associated with blacks, which is often characterized as choreographed and unnatural." A Celebration of Teamwork, he adds, also featured the commentary of "two old white guys"--one of them Dooley--"acting very Southern, making judgments about what is largely the behavior of black athletes."

Three years later, the NCAA released an updated version in which the old Southern white guys were replaced by white Denver Broncos star John Elway and two-time Heisman Trophy winner Archie Griffin, an African-American. But by then the controversy over the original video had laid bare and made raw a racial divide over acceptable expressions of emotion in the sport. At best, the experience suggested that the culture gap between most whites and blacks extended to the field of play, where ideas about the boundaries of sportsmanship are inevitably shaped by personal experience. At worst, the video revealed continued efforts by some whites to cut down to size blacks they perceived, consciously or subconsciously, as a threat to their authority and the integrity of their beloved institution.

Sammons' own view falls closer to the latter. Efforts to curtail "excessive" celebration in college football, he says, are not simply a benign extension of cultural differences in the field of sport.

"Culture has become a surrogate for race. Any time the behavior of blacks can permit [white] people to vent their feelings against them, full advantage is taken of it," Sammons says. "This is just a way of marginalizing certain blacks, and people can justify it by saying that color doesn't have anything to do with it."

Five years after the NCAA controversy, there remain indications--some subtle, some quite stark and vicious--that race influenced the way at least some Americans reacted to the post-race behavior of the Olympic relay team.

During an October press conference, team captain Jon Drummond said that in the week following the race he received nearly 200 e-mails a day, the "large majority" of which were hostile. "I mean name-calling," he said. "It was very bad. I was disappointed that it got that severe and people could be that crude. [There were] racial overtones. It was horrible."

Asked in an interview for this article what he had meant by "racial overtones," Drummond summarized the content of the messages in three phrases: "ignorant nigger," "typical nigger behavior," and "a disgrace to the black race."

It would be unfair to cast these extreme slurs as indicative of the thoughts and feelings of most Americans. Still, there were other signs, much subtler and open to some interpretation, that race crept into the way many perceived the team's celebrations. Most intriguing are the associations made by some of the journalists who took the runners to task. Denver Post columnist Woody Paige described the foursome's victory lap as "a combination of WWF wrestling, a strip show, Saturday night in a bar and a 'whazzup' Budweiser commercial." The Hartford Courant'sJeff Jacobs opined more forcefully, "[W]hy did they make jackasses of themselves? . . . Because somewhere along the line, our Olympic credo stopped being, 'Citius. Altius. Fortius.' Somewhere along the line, our motto became, 'Yo, yo, yo, in yo face!' One morning we woke up and 'Oh, say can you see' no longer were the words heard at our sports stadiums. 'Who let the dogs out?' had become our national anthem." Sticking with the hip-hop motif, a Washington Times columnist wrote, "[Maurice] Greene says he sat crying in the stands watching the 100 in [the 1996 Atlanta Olympics] after failing to make the team because of a pulled hamstring. I'm sure through his tears he saw people getting their medals. He didn't see people behaving like they were filming a rap video."

To most people, the comparison between Drummond's e-mails and such mainstream-media commentary is clear: The former are racist, the latter are not. But note that those columnists associated behavior they considered inappropriate with some emblem of African-American culture or style. This connection between what is assumed to be characteristically "black" behavior and the shaming of America on the Olympic stage could be construed as a form of racial prejudice, if not an outright insult. It's light years removed from the likes of "typical nigger behavior," but the implications are not unrelated: We can't take that type of African-American anywhere, lest they embarrass us in front of the neighbors.

To explore this connection further, I asked several prominent academics who have written on race and sports if they thought race played a role in the condemnation of the Sydney relay team. All did, but opinions differed on exactly how race factored in.

University of Colorado sociologist Jay Coakley sees a clash of cultures at work: "I think race probably played a role, but not necessarily in the form of racism. Race was certainly related, and the historical experiences of African-American men in our culture was related to the way those young men chose to present themselves. My sense is that African-American men in sport are seriously concerned with the issue of respect, and gaining respect through their performance. When they win a major competition, they assume that their accomplishment will earn them respect and give them the right--not the right, but the privilege--of celebrating. And they celebrate in a way that reflects their experiences and the cultural context of their lives."

Coakley contends that whites react to these celebrations in part because they expect successful African-Americans to be more humble. "People generally find overt expressions of hubris distasteful," he says. "But when African-American athletes do it, there is a greater likelihood that whites will define it as overly ungracious because [they think], After all, look at all they've been able to achieve. It's a white response to how they think previously oppressed people ought to define and react to their achievements."

Richard Lapchick, director of Northeastern University's Center for the Study of Sport in Society in Boston, took this explanation a step further, arguing that deep-seated racial fears probably inflate the intensity of this distaste. "I think that when a group of athletes who happen to be African-American, and who happen to be physically large and muscular, do something like this, it's an intimidating thing for a lot white people." Why? Lapchick is blunt: "Because white people have historically been afraid of black people. It's fear of the unknown. It evokes a lot of imagery."

Gerald Early, a professor of English and African-American studies at Washington University in St. Louis, elaborated on that fear in a 1998 essay for The Nation on the intersections of race and sports in contemporary America. Discussing a Sports Illustrated article on the "disappearance" of white athletes from professional basketball, football, and track, Early wrote, "[W]hat the SI article said most tellingly was that while young whites admire black athletic figures, they are afraid to play sports that blacks dominate, another example of whites leaving the neighborhood when blacks move in. This white 'double-consciousness'--to admire blacks for their skills while fearing their presence in a situation where blacks might predominate--is a modern-day reflection of the contradiction, historically, that has produced our racially stratified society. To be white can be partly defined as not only the fear of not being white but the fear of being at the mercy of those who are not white."

In one of the many odd twists of American race relations, black athletes who annoy white fans and viewers often face a second wave of hostility from black fans who might otherwise have been less critical their behavior. The Sydney relay team was no exception.

Harvard University professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. addressed the origin of this phenomenon in an essay titled "Cosby and Effect" that appeared in The New York Times in 1989, when Gates was at Yale: "Historically, we blacks have always worried aloud about the image that white Americans harbor of us, first because we have never had control of those images and, second, because the greater number of those images have been negative. And given television's immediacy, and its capacity to reach so many viewers so quickly, blacks, at least since Amos 'n' Andy back in the early 1950s, have been especially concerned with our images on the screen."

Athletes appear particularly vulnerable to this double whammy--in no small measure because, in this day of 24-hour sports news, white Americans are more likely than ever to be watching when black athletes are perceived to have screwed up. But it also reflects the leadership role other African-Americans ascribe to those athletes, whether the athletes like it or not. In September, when the black-oriented Web site asked visitors, "Who do most blacks look to for role models?," sports figures finished first with more than 34 percent of the vote, outpolling parents and family members, entertainers, professionals, community leaders, and politicians.

Kenneth Shropshire, a sports attorney, University of Pennsylvania professor, and author of the 1996 volume In Black and White: Race and Sports in America, wrote a column for criticizing the Sydney relay team--not for attracting so much attention, but for doing so in a way that "did nothing but bring more attention to the individuals on the team." He pointed to Australian track star Cathy Freeman, who waved the flag of her Aboriginal people during her victory lap. "[I]n the same way that Cathy Freeman was representing Aborigines, they were representing African-Americans. . . . [B]ut you let us down," he wrote.

In an interview, Shropshire says he believes his view is widely held by African-Americans. "I got e-mails from blacks in the U.S., as well as from Africa and the U.K., that they were feeling 'heat' from whites because of that event," he says. "[The white reaction] was some version of, 'This is my view of blacks. Here's confirmation of some of the negative views I have.'"

Back in Baltimore after the Olympics, Bernard Williams seems unfazed by the imbroglio, ready to get on with his education and a promising career as a world-class sprinter. Williams, a 1997 graduate of Carver Vo-Tech High who now majors in sociology at the University of Florida, became a professional athlete after the U.S. Olympic Trials in July. (Contrary to popular misconception, track has been a professional sport for more than a decade, and athletes typically receive bonuses of tens of thousands of dollars from their sponsors for wins in major championships like the Olympic Games.) A mid-October feature story in The Sun depicts Williams back in his mother's West Baltimore home, taking congratulations from neighbors and passers-by as he runs errands, treatment typical for a local made good on the international stage.

West Baltimore, however, is not Middle America, and the warm homecoming begs the question: After so much vitriol and embarrassment, how will Williams and his teammates be remembered outside their personal circles, in the popular rendering of American Olympic history?

In an odd way, the experience of boxer Mike Tyson seems instructive here. In 1992, Tyson was convicted and incarcerated for raping a young black woman in an Indianapolis hotel room. Few people contested Tyson's guilt, yet many African-Americans could not shake the feeling that the former heavyweight champion was also, somehow, a victim. In a 1992 Newsday piece, Gerald Early, while blasting Tyson as "incontestably silly and immature," explored this sympathy, in words that ring true today for the Olympic relay team and, perhaps, for all African-American athletes accused of going too far:

"For a people who know historically that black individuality and assertion are often a kind of cultural crime if not an actually statutory transgression, and for a people who understand the vulnerability of their heroes, the precariousness of their public figures, and who constantly feel the anxiety that the white public is simply waiting for one of them to fall, this sense of protectiveness toward Tyson is not only not surprising but, in its way, rather touching. That the virtues and ideals which constitute male heroism differ for blacks and whites is clear, sometimes painfully and divisively so. What black folk know their heroes will teach them, in the end, is that nothing is free and someone or something will always make you pay."

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