The Dynamic of “Whiteness” In Athletics

Above is an image of Conner Vernon who is a wide receiver for the Duke University Blue Devils. He was recently in the news due to comments about “white” wide receivers in football. http://cdn3.sbnation.com/uploads/chorus_image/image/12064669/20120922_ter_bc5_292.0_standard_352.0.jpg

There is a very interesting dynamic currently gaining momentum in high-level athletics in regards to the views of white athletes. Many white athletes are looked at and evaluated much differently in certain sports such as football and basketball for a multitude of reasons.

Slowly but surely over the past twenty years, the perceptions and views of white athletes in high-level athletics has been changing. Many experts and casual fans have been coming to conclusions about the minority of whites in football and basketball as less talented players who are greatly outnumbered but their black counterparts. Yes, the statistics do show that blacks outnumber whites in the National Football League (NFL) and the National Basketball Association (NBA). At the same time these statistics alone cannot be solely used to judge and make speculations about white athletes in the NFL and the NBA.

Most recently, Conner Vernon, a stand-out white wide receiver for Duke University made headlines in regards to his response to comments about him. As Conner was preparing for the NFL draft this past April, many prominent draft experts and analysts were comparing him to only other white wide receivers who currently play in the NFL. After being compared to two white wide receivers, Wes Welker and Eric Decker, Conner responded by saying “It’s all about complexion. It’s funny, nowadays, you’re just comparing race to race here. Aside from my skin color, I don’t see where they got that assumption”(http://www.nfl.com/news/story/0ap1000000162660/article/conner-vernon-im-not-like-wes-welker-or-eric-decker).

In the link posted above, it shows that Conner does not see a comparison between his football skills and those of Wes Welker and Eric Decker. He strongly believes that this comparison came about solely because all three of them are white football players playing a position that is largely dominated by black players. Rightfully so, this story made national headlines because of the fact that many experts and analysts were unfairly comparing Conner to the other few white wide receivers in the NFL and Conner did not agree with the comparison at all.

This dynamic of “whiteness” also shows itself to be prevalent in Sam Greenlees’ The Spook Who Sat By The Door. These same assumptions made towards Conner are also seen in this novel but just in a different context. The scene in Chapter nine with Professor Roger Thompson is similar because of the assumption and stereotype that is made about him being a “white liberal”. “Freeman watched their ambivalence fill the room like a white velvet fog. White liberals to a man, with the single exception of Burkhardt, the hardheaded business member. Among them, Roger Thompson, professor of sociology at the University of Chicago, a professional white liberal who had devoted a career to proving that the inequities of Negroes were social and cultural, rather than racial; Stephens, an amateur white liberal turned pro”(Greenlee 89).

The quote above illustrates the assumption made about the “white liberal” who is professor Roger Thompson. This is one example of the dynamic of “whiteness” that pops up a few times throughout The Spook Who Sat By The Door, which shows how people think about and view the roles of white people in certain professions.

Another great and powerful example of the comparisons and assumptions made in high-level sports today was when Jalen Rose, who is a former black player in the NBA and is currently a basketball commentator on television. This past winter, Jalen Rose made comments about Marshall Henderson, who is a mixed raced college basketball player for the University of Mississippi. Marshall is considered “white” by most and was again another example of a white athlete being compared to other whites. Jalen Rose made this comparison in a tweet that stated, “Big Shout to Marshall Henderson of Ole Miss! The CBB combination of Eminem and Jimmer”(http://www.usatoday.com/story/gameon/2013/02/02/jalen-rose-calls-ole-miss-marshall-henderson-eminem-jimmer/1885889/).

Jalen Rose’s comparison was made towards Eminem and “Jimmer” who is Jimmer Fredette who is a white basketball player in the NBA. The so-called “logic” behind Jalen Rose’s comments were because Marshall Henderson is known as a sharp-shooting player who also has the “bad-boy” image going for him. Here, the sharp-shooting player comparison is made towards Jimmer Fredette and the “bad-boy” image is made in regards to Eminem. These comments were not taken too kindly by the public and other media members because of the generalizations made between Marshall, Eminem, and Jimmer who all happen to be white.

Above is an image of Marshall Henderson who was at the center of the controversial comments made this past winter by Jalen Rose. http://static6.businessinsider.com/image/51471c556bb3f7f06300000f-300/marshall-henderson-laughing-ole-miss-player.jpg

Another great example of when the dynamic of “whiteness” plays itself out in a novel is in Danzy Sennas’ Caucasia. Throughout the novel and especially in the first portion of the novel, Birdie, struggles greatly over her confusion about her own identity. Unfortunately, Birdie realizes that her perceived identity is formed by those who come in contact with her. Birdie is somewhat light skinned and most people view her as a white person even though she is biracial. The community makes assumptions about Birdie that are somewhat unfair to her because she is mixed race with light skin and grew up in a household that helped her foster a strong black identity.

One short but powerful quote from Birdie states, “To make me feel that the differences were deeper than my skin”(Senna 91). This quote illustrates the fact that Birdie does feel this weight on her shoulders of whether she is truly white or black. Birdie feels a similar pressure and unfairness in regards to her assumed identity just as Conner Vernon and Marshall Henderson do. Birdies’ struggle with “whiteness” and “blackness” is common throughout the entire novel. Due to Birdies’ skin color and other facial features, she is viewed as white by many people including her parents. Being in this predicament understandably makes deciphering identity that much more difficult when some people assume she is only white when she is truly biracial.

Certain sports in America are often associated more often with certain groups more than others. As mentioned earlier, the NBA and NFL are two professional sports leagues that are strongly associated with having a greater number of black athletes than white athletes. For example, in the NBA some players and fans laugh at or mock white players because they believe that he is less talented then the black players on the court. There is a common notion that at NBA games in particular, that the players are black and the fans especially in the rows closest to the court are white.

Above is an image of a few white fans celebrating a victory at an NBA basketball game. http://newsbusters.org/blogs/noel-sheppard/2013/03/28/sports-website-mocks-white-people-celebrating-win-nba-game

This image interestingly enough had a caption of “white people, in their natural habitat”(http://newsbusters.org/blogs/noel-sheppard/2013/03/28/sports-website-mocks-white-people-celebrating-win-nba-game). This assumption that these white fans are in their “natural habitat” is a large generalization for something that is not always necessarily true. White fans are not always the only ones seated in the front row and this article shows that some people perceive that they are just as some people perceive that white players are less talented.

Another interesting and in this case comical instance of the “whiteness” dynamic playing itself out is in the film White Men Can’t Jump. The title is partially centered around the idea that  Billy Hoyle, who is the white main character, cannot dunk because he is white. Sidney Deane, who is Hoyles’ black friend and teammate for a lot of the movie teases him about being white in a “black man’s game”. Stereotypes and assumptions are instantly formed early in the film about Billy because he is white and others assume he is not very talented.

Billy uses all the stereotypes of being a white basketball player to his advantage by “hustling” and making money off of other players because they “assume” he cannot play due to his skin color. Billy is constantly overlooked and picked last because of his race and this dynamic sheds light onto a stereotype that actually exists, but the film does it in a comical and clever way.

It is particularly interesting how this same dynamic seems to be commonplace throughout Paul Beattys’ The White Boy Shuffle. The ideas of “whiteness” and “blackness” continuously pop up throughout this novel and many times Gunnar Kaufman is lead to deal with them. One of the first and most powerful instances where these ideas come up is when Gunnar is asked if he can think of anything that is colorblind. Gunnar, who is “not colorblind” responds by saying, “dogs”(Beatty 30). This short but key moment early in the novel sets the stage for many other instances when characters like Gunnar are faced with questions of color which includes whiteness and blackness.

Another crucial moment in the novel dealing with this persona of “whiteness” shows up in the early stages of chapter eight. This scene is one that illustrates that Gunnar truly knows and is aware of this interplay of “whiteness” and “blackness” that is going on in the community and is figuring out how to be strong and proud of his own personal identity. It states, “It was sad to watch us troll through the halls, a conga line of burlesque self-parody, all of us affecting our white-society persona of the day. Most days we morphed into waxen African-Americans. Perpetually smiling scholastic lawn jockeys, repeating verbatim the prosaic commandments of domesticity: Thou shalt worship no god other than whiteness. Thou shalt not disagree with anything a white person says. When traveling in the company of a white person, thou salt always maintain a respectful distance of two paces to the rear. If traveling by car for lunch to McDonald’s with three or more white human deities, thou shalt never side in the front seat nor request to change the radio station”(Beatty 154). 

The quote above illustrates that Gunnar is conscious of the dynamic that he faces and that all people face growing up knowing that these assumptions and stereotypes do indeed exist.  Gunnar’s community in West Los Angeles is one where the sensitivity is heightened to these issues because they are much more prevalent than in many other places in the world. This novel, among many other things, sheds light on the dynamic of “whiteness” as well as “blackness” in which one must decipher for themselves how to come up with and stick to their own personal identity.

As mentioned earlier, it is no secret that professional sports leagues such as the NBA and NFL are comprised of more black athletes than white athletes. As the change from the dominance of whites in sports has shifted to more of a dominance of blacks in sports so too have the stereotypes about the minority group. Although, this dynamic is new it is not as new as many people may think. This Sports Illustrated cover from December of 1997 shows this has been around for over fifteen years.

Above is an image of the December of 1997 cover issue for Sports Illustrated. http://sportsillustrated.cnn.com/vault/article/magazine/MAG1011593/

The main headline for the story inside the magazine states, “Unsure of his place in a sports world dominated by blacks who are hungrier, harder working and perhaps physiologically superior, the young white male is dropping out of the athletic mainstream to pursue success elsewhere”(http://sportsillustrated.cnn.com/vault/article/magazine/MAG1011593/). This article is one of many that shows that indeed whites athletes in major sports have been decreasing over the years. But at the same time this notion has fostered unfair comparisons and generalizations about white athletes trying to make a living for themselves in a sport that they truly love.

Creative Commons License This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

Sources:

Beatty, Paul. The White Boy Shuffle. New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1996. Print.

Copeland, Kareem. “Conner Vernon: I’m not like Wes Welker or Eric Decker.” 23 April 2013. Web. 5 May 2013. http://www.nfl.com/news/story/0ap1000000162660/article/conner-vernon-im-not-like-wes-welker-or-eric-decker

Gleeson, Scott. “Jalen Rose compares Marshall Henderson to Eminem and Jimmer Fredette.” 2 February 2013. Web. 5 May 2013. http://www.usatoday.com/story/gameon/2013/02/02/jalen-rose-calls-ole-miss-marshall-henderson-eminem-jimmer/1885889/

Greenlee, Sam. The Spook Who Sat By The Door. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1990. Print.

Price, S.L. “What Ever Happened To The White Athlete?” 8 December 1997. Web. 6 May 2013. http://sportsillustrated.cnn.com/vault/article/magazine/MAG1011593/

Senna, Danzy. Caucasia. New York: The Berkley Publishing Group, 1998. Print.

Sheppard, Noel. “Sports Website Mocks ‘Exceedingly White’ People Celebrating Win at NBA Game.” 28 March 2013. Web. 7 May 2013. http://newsbusters.org/blogs/noel-sheppard/2013/03/28/sports-website-mocks-white-people-celebrating-win-nba-game

“White Men Can’t Jump Trailer.” Online video clip. Youtube. Youtube, 22 October 2012. Web. 7 May 2013.

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