Race, Sport, Theory, Practice

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Wendy Varney
Institute of Environmental Studies, University of NSW, Sydney, Australia


Ben Carrington

Race, Sport and Politics: The Sporting Black Diaspora
201 sidor, hft., ill.
London: Sage Publications 2010
ISBN 978-1-4129-0103-1


Seldom have two books sent to a humble reviewer promised to fit so well together and complement each other so much. Both of these books deal with racism in sport but each does so from a different angle.

Carrington’s Race, Sport and Politics engages with a tremendous body of theory to outline explanations and suggestions with regard to the interconnections between race, sport and politics. Ogden and Rosen’s collection of narratives, on the other hand, provides case studies that help flesh out some of those theories, though there are few theories within the latter book. Rather, Ogden and Rosen have emphasised how racism has manifested itself in the instances related and in the lives of the sportsmen in their case studies.

Their major thrust is that there can be a seeming acceptance of black players within certain boundaries and, as long as behaviour is in accordance with a silently proscribed model, all appears stable, but an upset of the model can quickly give rise to racist interpretations. The authors are particularly keen to explore “the notion of shifting reputations not only from the perspective of the sport-race conundrum but also from the paths of men who began their careers as lauded figures but who subsequently plunged into public disrepute, with the question of color in the American consciousness at the base of this journey” (7). A common thread is the implied suggestion that black Americans should not get too “uppity” and that they should know “their place,” in which case they can be heroes to their fans and to the media, but only under those conditions.

At least one of the case studies within Ogden and Rosen’s collection identifies the media as playing a crucial role in much of this, pointing out that, as recently as 2007, only 3 per cent of US radio and television broadcasters and only 1.6 per cent of editors were African-American. Of course, such figures would make more sense if the actual percentage of African-Americans in the US population was given and authors should remember to put such percentages in context. In any case Lisa Doris Alexander, in an interesting expose of hostility towards baseballer Barry Bonds, makes the point that African-American sportsmen are likely to get less favourable media coverage than their white team-mates. It is clear from this case study and from several others within the collection (for instance, Thabiti Lewis’s chapter on Mike Tyson) that there is duplicity in the media treatment of African American players who behave badly or who break rules. While bad behaviour might be seen as an abberration in white players, it takes on stereotypical overtones in the case of African Americans. Lewis’s chapter also raises the fascinating pattern that “…when surrounded by his entirely white entourage, Tyson emerges a hero, but when his entourage is entirely black, he becomes a villain” (48).


David C. Ogden & Joel Nathan Rosen(red)
Fame to Infamy: Race, Sport, and the Fall from Grace
206 sidor, inb.
Jackson, MS: University Press of Mississippi 2010
ISBN 978-1-60473-751-6


The argument about double standards is also highlighted well in Carrington’s book, not least by the example given of Frank Bruno, whom the British press and society were generally happy to accept as “British” when things were going well for him, whereas failure, loss and instability tended to draw out stereotypical connections. “It was almost as if Bruno had had to keep his black side secret, submerged under the veneer of patriotic, conservative nationalism in order for him to be accepted: the unthreatening athelete who just happens to be black, rather than the black athlete” (118).

While Carrington throws up some excellent examples within his book, its best attribute is undoubtedly the depth and extent of his use of theory. He draws on a wide range of sociological theory and applies it in an illuminating fashion. In doing so, he throws light on under-investigated areas and shows up flaws in previous explanations, so that even readers with considerable expertise in the areas of the sociology and politics of sport cannot help but learn a great deal from this book.

In particular he makes references to post/colonial theory to ensure that it is not forgotten that, although the period of colonialism is over “officially,” there are long-lasting tensions remaining from that period, as well as a continuation of some neocolonial relations.

Carrington takes post/colonial scholars to task for not recognising the importance of sport within their area, supposing that they – and scholars within cultural studies more generally – have assumed that the physical nature of sport renders it unsuitable and dissimilar to the other popular areas of culture on which they focus. He insists that that should not be the case.

There are a multitude of other theories usefully applied, starting with what sociologist Joe Feagin has called the “white racial frame,” by which white people have constructed a reality that becomes dominant and thereby allows the rationalization of racism. Essential for understanding this dominance is the role that social darwinism played in the late nineteenth century as its supporters used the notions it encompassed to explain racial superiority which had several aspects: intellectual, aesthetic and physical, with superiority thought to reside in whites in the case of all three.

Carrington’s case studies of boxers in particular provide great insights into the dynamics of racism and the notions that underpin it. Again, crude but abundant ideas of universal white supremacy had it that white boxers would necessarily be better than their black opponents. As black boxers such as Jack Johnson and later Joe Louis came to win matches convincingly, often defeating white contestants in whom a great deal of racial ideological investment had been made, notions of physical superiority were undermined and new theories took their place, asserting that some individuals of African origins could be stronger in some cases but that overall whites were still physically superior. Later, with increasing success of black boxers, new notions included that “the black race” may be stronger after all and may have some physical advantage but this went hand in hand with their “suitability” as slaves or menial workers. It was a counter of sorts to the intellectual superiority of whites, it was argued, with whites being better equipped to be bosses and rulers while blacks took on more menial tasks and just happened to therefore be good boxers as something of a “side effect.”

Thus Carrington’s expose of the adaptability of racism and the variety of forms it can take, especially when it retains its part in the dominant race discourse, is instructive as to its persistence and the difficulties in sometimes nailing exactly what constitutes racism. Some of this is what I felt was missing from Ogden and Rosen’s collection. Although their chapters covered a significant period of time which brought a number of changes in style if not in absolute substance, there was little in-depth appreciation of the shifts that racism took, although there was an acknowledgement of social change from overt racism to more covert forms.

Ogden and Rosen’s book is interesting in some aspects – mainly due to its engaging stories of real people and the events that laid racism bare, often where it had previously been hidden. However, the book disappoints somewhat in its depth and breadth, especially in comparison with Carrington’s complementary book, which was hard to fault. For all its interesting case studies, “Fame to Infamy” devotes almost half its chapters to baseball, and while there are both commonalities and differences among these stories and while Latin Americans were included as well as African Americans, I felt that the full gamut of racism had not been sufficiently probed by the emphasis on baseball. Other sports included are boxing, football and basketball. But where were the black and Latin sportswomen? I wondered if Ogden and Rosen were suggesting that black sportswomen do not suffer racism. I would be surprised if that were the case but, even if it were, it begs a discussion as to why.

No doubt part of the emphasis on sportsmen rather than sportswomen was due to this being a book largely about infamy and, given the far greater publicity that sportsmen get, there is some justification in putting the spotlight on them. Nevertheless, this simply highlights the problematic nature of celebrityhood as it pertains to sports, and I felt that the issue was never more than briefly touched on and certainly not scrutinized in Fame to Infamy. The superficiality and facileness that underpins the elevation of sportspersons (and actors, singers and even some with a high social profile for seemingly no reason) run right against the grain of analysis and good sense. Surely the rise of celebrityhood encourages notions with no thought behind them and skin-deep impressions with no reason behind them. In that way, it is very similar to racism and warrants a thorough critique both in its own right and in regard to how it helps prop up racism.

Both these books are enjoyable, though Carrington’s is a much deeper read and readers will doubtless learn much more from it. Nonetheless, the two fit hand in hand extremely well and together provide helpful theories and case studies of the ongoing and important relationship between race and sport.

© Wendy Varney 2012.

 


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