The Elephant On The Playing Field

By Josh Kantarski
Updated: November 28, 2005


CHICAGO–Really folks, a civil, public discourse can take place between black and white people on the subject of race. There’s nothing to be afraid of.

A little more than a month ago, though, we missed another golden opportunity to do just that.

After an embarrassing 48-10 loss on Oct. 22 that saw his team give up more than 500 yards of total offense to the Texas Christian University Horned Frogs, Air Force head football coach Fisher Deberry expressed his discontent with the lack of minorities on his football team.

Deberry, whose team is known for being one of the better, more competitive service academies on the gridiron, attributed part of the loss to TCU having more black players who “can run very, very well.” He added that Air Force needs to recruit faster players, saying, “We were looking at things, like you don’t see many minority athletes in our program.”

He concluded: “It just seems to be that way, that Afro-American kids can run very, very well. That doesn’t mean that Caucasian kids and other descents can’t run, but it’s very obvious to me they run very well.”

As one would imagine, reporters flocked to black and white players, coaches and commentators alike, asking whether Deberry’s comments carried any merit, whether they were necessary, whether they were racist.

There were the typical, mealy-mouthed responses. That, or the accompanying “no comment.”

While Deberry’s comments might seem to be nothing more than what many people quietly believe and discuss in the comfort of their TV rooms, one would hope that the Air Force coach would want to bring more black students to his campus for reasons other than taking handoffs and running patterns.

But that’s the bottom-line mentality in big-time college sports where heavily influential boosters and TV contracts rule the roost. This problem used to be exclusive to professional sports—win now, or lose your job.

But there’s a bigger problem here, a nasty scar that sends black and white people to their corners, hoping the issue will go away quickly: race in sports, race in America.

It’s no secret that black athletes have an increased presence in the three major sports in America (hockey, for sure, has a long way to go). On Dec. 8, 1997, Sports Illustrated released a special report—and a cover story—asking the question, “What ever happened to the white athlete?” On the cover are four white boys, presumably lifted right out of the film Pleasantville. They look happy and content, but unless they’re Hall of Famers Jerry West and Pete Maravich, they’re probably not playing in the NBA.

And that’s fine. While white folks are happy to laud former greats Larry Bird and Bill Walton, white fans everywhere are probably not willing to usher Kobe Bryant and Lebron James out of the NBA in favor of Jimmy from Idaho.

But what’s not fine is the lack of public dialogue over issues of race, especially through the conduit that sport offers. After all, what is sports in America other than the great, national unifier that brings every color across the board to cheer for a uniform, a city, a nation? Sports in America allow us to understand the world we live in; when we see the working-class fans situated so high up in stadium seats that they can scrape the heavens—and with the well-to-do close enough to the players to see the sweat pouring off their faces—we understand that even an issue of seating at a sporting event divides America.

Yet sports can also bring us together; they give us something to talk about. Sports in America are everything terrific and abhorrent in this country. It is no surprise, then, that race, money, sex and politics are as important in sports as what happens on the field.

Let’s make no mistake: Sport acts a mediator in race relations. When we say that white men can’t jump, we’re saying that black men can. Through sports, we can say things like that instead of crossing over into territory where all parties feel buried under thousands of years of thick scars and oppression.

Have we ever bothered to ask, then, why white men can’t jump? Or, why black men can? Would it offer us a glimpse into the way white people or black people live? Would it get us talking about innate physical gifts, or maybe that black athletes have made strides that white people haven’t caught up to yet? Or that maybe they never will?

The fact is we haven’t bothered to ask. And why? Fear. Uncertainty. Confusion.

The answer, however, is not public silence as a result of that fear.

When 67-year-old white coaches in Colorado Springs, Colo., are discussing race in sports and in America, you can make certain that 18-year-old kids in Chicago and Cleveland are.

It would be great if they got more than just a shrug and “no comment.”