- Courtesy: New York Times
For years we have been fooled into thinking that we're past the days in which race played a factor in sports. We have all been tricked into believing that as long as you produce on the field of play fans will embrace you, management will love you, and teammates will respect you. We see examples such as Jim Brown, Muhammad Ali, Bill Russell, and Jackie Robinson who were once berated by racial slurs and death threats being embraced by fans of all races. But not everything is, as it seems, in the sports industry.
Many events have erupted in the sports world over the last six months that have sparked the conversation of race. From the Donald Sterling scandal to Washington losing their trademark to the term "Redskins," prominent stars such as Magic Johnson, LeBron James, and Richard Sherman, have spoken publicly on the issues of racism in sports.
Just like in corporate America, sports are under primarily white ownership. Richard Lapchick, the director of the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport at the University of Central Florida, published statistics on the demographics of the NBA, NFL, and MLB in 2013. At that time about 82 percent of NBA players were minorities. Yet Michael Jordan was the only majority owner of color. The NFL followed a similar trend of predominantly white ownership despite the league being made up of mostly minorities.
Now it would be irresponsible to think that every owner of an American sports franchise shares the views of someone like Donald Sterling.Frankly speaking, I think a majority of owners love their players regardless of race, religion, or sexual orientation. But at the same time, I am not naive enough to think it's a coincidence that there are so few minority owners.
Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban might have helped shed some light on a reason for the lack of minorities sitting in the owners box. In an interview with Inc. magazine, Cuban spoke about some of the prejudices he has in his own mind. "If I see a black kid in a hoodie and it's late at night, I'm walking to the other side of the street," he said. "And if on that side of the street, there's a guy that has tattoos all over his face white guy, bald head, tattoos everywhere I'm walking back to the other side of the street." Cuban also said that everyone has his or her own prejudices, and no race is exempt from that.
While I do agree with Cuban's statements about everyone having prejudices his views could be a reason that we don't see a lot of minority owners. I'm not saying that they are racist, but I do think these "prejudices" Cuban mentioned could be shared by other owners. It is not out of the realm of reason to think that a white owner might be uncomfortable with someone of a different race joining their "club."
While owners' racial prejudices may affect minorities off the field, fans use race to affect players on the field. During a Spanish league game between Barcelona and Villarreal in April, a fan threw a banana at Barcelona's Dani Alves as a racial taunt. Alves who was preparing to perform a corner kick, proceeded to pick up the banana and take a bite. "We have suffered this in Spain for some time," Alves said. "You have to take it with a dose of humor. We aren't going to change things easily. If you don't give it importance, they don't achieve their objective."
For years athletes have suffered racial taunts, but with the addition of social media, fans have more access to athletes than ever before. This was never more apparent than after Seattle Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman spoke with Erin Andrews in postgame interview after the NFC Championship game. After making a game saving deflection Sherman went on a rant in which he referred to San Francisco Forty-Niner's wide receiver Michael Crabtree as a "sorry receiver." What took place over the next few hours was a series of racist tweets posted on Twitter in which Sherman was called racial slurs such as gorilla, porch monkey, and coon.
Two days after the social media firestorm, Sherman sat down with CNN to speak on some of the racial messages he read. Sherman expressed his disappointment with the racist comments made by fans all over the country. "It was really mind-boggling. It was kind of sad. ... For the people who did react that way and throw the racial slurs and things like that out there, it was really sad," said Sherman. "I thought society had moved past that." Sadly for Sherman society hasn't moved past that. If Drew Brees, Philip Rivers, or Tom Brady performed the same rant would they have received the same type of reactions as Sherman? I can't say for sure, but I highly doubt they would have.
Even in sports media, race plays a factor in the type of coverage a player or owner receives. Indianapolis Colt's owner Jim Irsay was arrested and charged with DWI and four felony counts of possession in March. In the day or two after the arrest, Irsay was painted as a sympathy figure by the media. If a minority owner, or better yet a minority player committed the same type of crime, the odds of him getting that type of treatment would be slim.
With all the double standards, racial taunts, and prejudice attitudes, it's hard to believe that we are light years ahead of previous generations' attitudes. But the truth is, we are. LeBron James will probably never have to voluntarily sit out a game because he was denied service at a restaurant the way Bill Russell did during his playing career in Boston. Floyd Mayweather Jr. won't have to endure the amount of racial tension that followed Muhammad Ali daily, and Cuban outfielder Yasiel Puig will never have to break down the walls of race the way Jackie Robinson did before him. But we still aren't close to the place we should be.
We all have to avoid becoming comfortable. As Sterling and many others have showed us this year, we are far from racial equality in sports and in our country. No industry whether sports, music, food, or anything else is exempt from racially based prejudices and thoughts. We can't just become okay with the way things are, or we will continually be rudely awakened by events like the banana throwing at Villarreal and the barrage of twitter hate received by Sherman. We can't hide from these problems or just hope they'll go away. Because the more we try the worse they will get. We all must look to educate ourselves and be aware.