When the line between ignorance and prejudice is blurred, who is the real victim?
“I don’t know why so many white players rely on their jumper,” Boucher says. “But I know plenty who do. Besides [Heat guard] Jason Williams, I can’t really think of anyone [who doesn’t], and he learned it at a young age so that’s what he’s always done. I think a lot of coaches, AAU coaches maybe, teach a slowed-down, half-court game. Not many white players are as athletic or have a handle. I think it does hold some white guys back, but they learn at a young age to play a certain way. For example, a lot of the high schools out here [in Oregon] play off screens and in the half court, but it hurts you if you’re trying to go to a Division 1 school or something. I think there is an athletic difference in white and black players. I don’t know why though. I think they’re built different.”
Boucher is basically restating what has been said for years. Dozens upon dozens of books have been written about the subject of race and genetic makeup and its influence on life. There’s an author named Jon Entine who made serious headway in the ’90s with claims of African genetic dominance in Olympic track events as proof positive of a physical difference in black people. Entine was later proven wrong, but he stated his claim in several respected media outlets, which gave the story legs. People think it’s true. A lot of people hear that and don’t think about it beyond the fact that, well, being superior in something is a desired standard. The trick is that this same way of thinking can have an ugly underbelly.
“We as a society, we’ve built up a series of images of what’s real and what’s not real,” says Dr. Richard Lapchick, the director of University of Central Florida’s Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport. “If you see it enough, you start to believe it. People are rarely challenged to think otherwise, to think truthfully. It’s hard for many people to change what they’ve thought growing up. People are not used to coming out of their comfort zone. If you accept that blacks are naturally more athletic, then you can accept that whites are naturally more intelligent.
“I’ve been fighting against that for 30 years,” says Dr. Lapchick. “I remember about 10 years ago Tom Brokaw had a feature on this topic, and it was very touchy. It was me, Harry Edwards and another guy. The other guy had thought certain things on this topic were true until I told him. People believe things until you explain or they see otherwise. There was a time when people said blacks were better at short-distance running, sprints and whatnot, but not marathons. Now you see Kenyans winning everything. People keep creating new things to say. We in this country still hold on to these thoughts, but nowadays—because of political correctness—won’t express them. But when it comes to sports and athletes, people feel as though they can express how they really feel.”
It’s not just a white/black thing, either. Asians and Latinos and all races experience their share of stereotypes. (Not all Chinese people play ping-pong. Not all Dominicans have to play baseball.) It’s overcoming them that’s hard. The latest hot-button racial issue is the lack of black baseball players in the Majors. Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow/PUSH Coalition even had a meeting with Braves GM John Schuerholz about it last month. Beyond the Ryan Howards and Dontrelle Willises of the game, there doesn’t seem to be any energy, any aspiration in the black community. Here’s a case where maybe the motivation just isn’t there. Which leads to a very important point: Motivation matters. Maybe the reason the numbers in baseball have dwindled over the years is not a conspiracy, as some want to think, but rather that young black men want to be businessmen or journalists or both and don’t see sports as the end-all that past generations have. Isn’t that progress?
“It’s a matter of motivation, like anything else, and that’s why traditionally black players have done well in sports,” says track and field Coach Steve Lewis, whose résumé of coaching D-1 men’s and women’s track at schools such as Eastern Michigan and Pitt for more than 40 years includes 50 All-Americans and an Olympic gold medalist. “It’s not about whether they are better genetically, it’s about motivation. Generally speaking, people of color have a different attitude when it comes to athletics as opposed to those not of color. They are much hungrier. People not of color have many options so they approach it like it’s fun. ‘I like to do it, Mommy and Daddy like it and I’m not depending on this for money.’ But nowadays, blacks have more options, too, so when I recruit, I do so on attitude, not race.”
Again, isn’t this progress? In order to broaden the mind, people must see success stories with a different beginning and ending. No more dudes who can dunk but can’t read, no more thinking that aggressive female athletes are lesbians, no more putting all your eggs in a one-chance-in-a-million basket.
“While sports has had a huge impact on my life, I do think too many people view it as the only way to make it. The fact of the matter is everybody isn’t blessed with athletic talent. There are definitely other ways to become successful,” says Bulls guard Ben Gordon. “If all you know is sports, then the downside is devastating. Some people can live their entire life chasing a hoop dream and waste all their valuable years. You need an education too, to fall back on just in case.”
We’re a part of this, too. When I say we, I mean myself and the other editors (black and white) here at SLAM. The magazine industry fiends for hot covers—always. And amazing photo shoots. Something engaging and provocative. Awe-inspiring. We at SLAM are no different. Actually, we are—we put black athletes on our covers about 98 percent of the time. Black basketball players at that, usually equipped with tats and scowls. That is the very definition of provocative. Outsiders have mentioned this to us on several occasions, wondering why SLAM cover subjects never smile. Why are most of our covers are so menacing? We never ask for the scowl, but the players seem to think we want that, so they bring it. For some it’s natural. Others may believe in the black athlete “tough guy” syndrome and feel nervous if they don’t exude anger. God forbid they might get called soft or something. So you get a mean mug, and now it’s black athletes with attitude. Which is good for sales and bad for perception.
There is an unspoken truth about the connection of the black athlete or even the black man and his quotient for being a bad-ass, and how that’s related to sales. It’s tricky but at least we can acknowledge it. And from there only good things can happen.