‘A Typical Black Athlete’

By Dr. Boyce Watkins, BASN Contributor
Updated: December 13, 2009

NEW YORK (BASN) — I read a shocking and well-written commentary Friday morning from my respected colleague, Dr. Deborah Stroman, with the College Sport Research Institute at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. In her remarks , Dr. Stroman, a leading expert on sports and business, mentioned that on CNN’s Joy Behar Show, a guest (Karith Foster) stated that with his numerous indiscretions, Tiger Woods is “behaving like a black athlete now.” Here is a link to the CNN transcript of that conversation. Are you kidding me? OK, let me blow the steam from my nose and then I’ll tell you why Ms. Foster’s comments were horrifically irresponsible. Dr. Stroman, who is a strong advocate of personal responsibility in athletics, hit the nail right on the head with her comment : “Shame on her [Foster] and the media for supporting the racist mind-set that promulgates a representation of the black male athlete as a superhuman man that seeks sexual pleasure from every white female that worships his athletic prowess.” “Surely we, in 2009, know better, right?” First, I find it incredibly ironic that when Tiger Woods was winning championships, setting records and loved by the rest of America, he was “Cablanasian.” But now that he is cheating on his wife with porn stars and being accused of drug use, he is suddenly being compared with black men . Ms. Foster seemed to feel that Tiger’s decision to sleep with so many white women makes him similar to other black athletes , whom she is apparently disappointed with on some deep, fundamental level. Sorry, Ms. Foster, white men sleep with white women too, but we don’t accuse them of behaving like black athletes. Tiger did not get his cultural norms from the African American community. As one of his alleged mistresses stated , “Tiger is the whitest black guy I’ve ever met.” I can’t help but wonder why we attribute his favorable attributes to whiteness, and his unfavorable attributes to the black pieces of his DNA. This says a great deal about the perception of race in America: White equals good, black equals bad — it doesn’t get any more complex than that. Second, Ms. Foster’s misguided comments remind us of a larger trend in our society: The consistent vilification of the black male athlete. If you look back at almost every year, you can find at least one black male athlete held up to America as public enemy No. 1: He is unethical, irresponsible, undisciplined and much maligned by mainstream America. It’s not because every black man is behaving this way, it’s because the media has chosen to focus on this person’s imperfections and to make those imperfections representative of the essence of his character. The list of black athletic demons is long, including Barry Bonds , Ron Artest , Randy Moss , Plaxico Burress , Latrell Sprewell , Terrell Owens , Jack Johnson and Muhammad Ali . You can even add a woman, track star Marion Jones , to the list, as she was cited for being extraordinarily unethical, even though there is documented evidence that many members of her sport, as well as other sports, engage in consistent doping and then lying about it. This is not to say that black athletes don’t lie and cheat: It’s to say that cheating and lying do not know ethnic boundaries. When Big Ben Roethlisburger of the Pittsburgh Steelers was accused of rape this year , the media hardly mentioned a peep, nor was it stated on CNN that Ben was “acting like a typical white athlete.” After witnessing the egregious behavior of Duke Lacrosse players in 2006, one could easily make such a silly assertion about white male athletes. The final concern about Ms. Foster’s comment is that CNN should have been more proactive when dealing with this problematic statement, even if it is made by a person of color. While Ms. Foster has a right to her opinion, the truth is that such a direct, vile and sloppily aimed attack on the integrity of the African American male should have been challenged either by the host of the show or by another guest. To have an audience full of white folks hear a black woman state that most black male athletes are as irresponsible as Tiger Woods does nothing to help the black men across urban America experiencing unemployment rates as high as 30 percent to 50 percent, because corporations are refusing to hire them. There is an image problem for the black male and the black male athlete. Much of this image problem is created by the media that chooses to point its cameras at the most ridiculous among us, rather than the most productive. Rather than focusing on Myron Rolle, the NFL athlete who became a Rhodes Scholar , we choose to focus on the athletes who lie, cheat and get arrested. So while some might think that consistently reckless behavior is the cause of the unflattering image of black male athletes, you must realize that black men do not control the media. If the media only chose to focus on the irresponsible choices of white men, they would look equally ridiculous. CNN, Joy Behar and Karith Foster owe black men an apology. This kind of disrespect is unacceptable and ultimately unfair. While I have tremendous respect for all parties involved, respect must be reciprocated. Black men are not animals and we are not criminals; we are just as principled, flawed, capable and human as anyone else. What is most sad about that last sentence is that I even had to say it. We should know better by now.