The race issue in American sports

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

Shaun Powell
Souled Out? How Blacks are Winning and Losing in Sports
291 sidor, inb., ill.
Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics 2008
ISBN 978-0-7360-6750-7

As anyone who has not been in a continuous coma since November 2008 will know, the USA now has a black President. How times have changed. Or have they?

Shaun Powell’s Souled Out? How Blacks are Winning and Losing in Sports shows that there is much still amiss in racial relations in the US and, as is so often the case, sport proves to be a fertile topic for hoeing some of the issues and getting beneath the surface.

Powell’s starting line is a low point for racism but a high point for political action. He starts with his own sense of empowerment in 1968 when as a small boy, he watched Tommie Smith and John Carlos on the Olympic podium lack-gloved fists in the air in protest at the poverty and lack of opportunity still being experienced by Afro-Americans in the USA.

The juxtaposition of how Powell felt then with how he feels now, frustrated and impatient, is palpable as he goes through his inventory of low black recruitment in sports management jobs, double standards and cycles of marginalisation. This is a book in which the author does not hold back on his emotions or his judgements. Despite obvious improvements in some areas, Powell is bitterly disappointed that many of the same problems have persisted and some new ones have even emerged, and Souled Out? is his attempt to get to the bottom of the problems, identify what they are and what can be done.

Because there are a variety of problems, there are also a variety of solutions according to Powell and he does not lay the blame exclusively at the feet of any one group but spreads his blame around to include even Afro-American families themselves. For instance, he is exasperated at the story of a mother who asked a coach to ensure that her high school recruited son would take studying seriously. The response of the coach was that he could not undo the results of what she had failed to do for the past 18 years by not delivering the message of education’s importance strongly and loudly to her son.

Not that parents should shoulder the blame alone. It is, after all, often difficult for parents who had little education, to know quite how to “sell” the education product which is so unfamiliar to them. They can want education, and value education, but it is difficult for them to explain the reasons to their children and they are not well equipped for knowing how to help or even what sort of help is effective. I am not sure that Powell quite grasps the depth of this problem that afflicts many of the world’s poor and uneducated and is a difficult cycle to break. There is an important role for the state here, perhaps a greater role than Powell recognizes, coming as he does from a society where the state has often receded to the background, prompting individuals to help themselves, no matter how disadvantaged they are.

If black athletes think they can become rich and be well respected through sporting triumphs, an added appeal might be that this seems a quicker and easier road than non-sporting achievements. Of course it is not, but if education is proving problematic or unattainable, the lustre of the sporting attraction gleams all the stronger.

Of course, poverty can also keep black children and youths out of certain sports. Powell claims that basketball and football have proved attractive and accessible to Afro-Americans because essentially all they need is access to a football to be able to play. He is concerned that baseball, on the other hand, requires substantial expenditure for equipment and this has contributed to minimizing black children’s involvement in that sport, as has the frequent lack of a father in Afro-American households. According to Powell, the inter-generational bonding has been crucial in the passing down of baseball joys, hints and lore, as fathers take their kids to the parks and to ball games to share baseball’s culture, excitement and routines: “Baseball bonds loved ones and creates simple yet special and priceless moments” and these rely on a father who “takes pride in his role as a sports father and considers baseball a sworn duty” (118).

Probably no one is worth the amount of money being “earned” by elite sports stars in golf, football, tennis, basketball or other heavily sponsored sports, but even if someone were, it would surely not be a sportsperson.

Although Powell has a valid point here about the importance of parental involvement, he did have me wondering about girls, women and baseball. If women can play Rugby, which they do, and be passionate about it, which many are, then surely there is a role for girls, mothers, female coaches and feminism in baseball. No doubt this is covered somewhere in a different book by a different author.But even black culture seems to work against black children, with Powell explaining that, far from bringing status from peers, black children playing baseball risk being demeaned for being perceived to be involved in a “white man’s sport” or “Latino sport”. This problem may even be transferable to other areas of life, including education, where children’s peers may think that striving at school instead of other activities, is not only useless but inappropriate.

Certainly some of the actions of black sports stars have exacerbated their collective position by calling their fellow players “niggers” and other such terms, hardly a good route by which to scramble out of historical contempt and of being undervalued. Powell is rightfully alarmed at this. Some other actions by black sports stars have been outright misogynist, a trait also found frequently in rap. Racism, homophobia and misogyny featured plentifully in a rap song called “40 Bars” by league player Allen Iverson under the pseudonym Jewelz. NBA Commissioner David Stern issued a statement calling the lyrics “coarse, offensive, and antisocial” but thought that the NBA should not regulate artistic expression.Many would find little art in the song’s repugnant words. Moreover, normally sports organizations do regulate sports stars behaviour, off the field as well as on. There are elaborate contracts drawn up that deal with all manner of matters, not least the rights of sponsors. It does not seem too repressive to demand that players, invariably also role models,  refrain from behaviour such as calling for women to be killed on the basis of their gender. While Powell and I are equally appalled, I’m not sure that his solutions are strong enough at this point.

Nor are they always broad enough or fully cognizant of structural buttressing. Understandably, Powell lauds a number of successful black sport celebrities, including Venus and Serena Williams. He points out how difficult it is for black sports stars to make equivalent amounts of money to that made by white sports stars, a point that is undoubtedly justified and clearly tied up with racism and the undervaluing of black athletes in comparison with white athletes. However, some of the emergent problems may have some of their roots in the bizarre cult of celebrity, a point not pursued by Powell. Probably no one is worth the amount of money being “earned” by elite sports stars in golf, football, tennis, basketball or other heavily sponsored sports, but even if someone were, it would surely not be a sportsperson.

Celebrityhood not just in sports but across a number of pursuits, has brought inflated egos, arrogance, loss of reality, and the “has-been” syndrome to many of the celebrated while negatively affecting many who get caught up in celebrityhood as fans and “wannabes”. It is largely constructed by industries that benefit from the cult, but it leaves vast social problems in its wake, including vulnerable black athletes who, having grown up with fewer opportunities, are arguably more susceptible to the dangers of celebrityhood and its impacts.  This runs somewhat against the grain of Powell’s thesis, as he looks to individuals and sporting bodies to get their act together, while leaving the sporting and other social structures intact.

I am not suggesting Powell is wrong in his thesis. For much of the time I think he is spot on, but I do think he has not been critical enough of aspects of culture, particularly celebrity culture, and the damage that these can inflict.

That damage happens across the board but is often interpreted differently. As Powell says, white sport stars get away with a great deal of bad behaviour or are dismissed as individuals with poor judgement or poor manners, whereas misbehaving black athletes are used as examples of the wider black community.

Souled out? is a most engaging book and, as this review has hinted, there is much in it to agree with or, due to its easy accessibility, to take issue with and contest. To be sure, it is beneficial to give rise to spirited debates about such important topics.

Not all will like the style. The book is written in a very US colloquial “hip” language, perhaps even an African-American colloquial “hip” language. It is understandable that Powell would use this style as he clearly wants the book to have a wide African-American audience. However, for those more used to standard English, the language can jar and even at times be difficult to comprehend. For instance, it seems Powell uses the word “pub” for publicity, whereas most English-language speakers use it for a “public house” where liquor is sold.

Nevertheless, Powell’s book throws light on many issues that desperately needed raising and is a welcome contribution to the field. 





© Wendy Varney 2009.

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