Racial double standards distort perspectives on athletes

December 12, 2017 — by Kaitlyn Wang

Beginning September 2016, former 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick kneeled during the national anthem to stand against racial inequality and police brutality, including the Charlotte shooting in N.C. and the shootings of Philando Castile and Alton Sterling.

Kaepernick’s actions have inspired protests among hundreds of athletes nationwide, regardless of sport, race or gender.

White athletes have also kneeled, with soccer player Megan Rapinoe the first to do so. The U.S. Soccer Federation responded by requiring players to stand during the anthem, Sports Illustrated reported.

In general, however, protesting white athletes have received more positive responses than protesting black athletes.

One example is the first white NFL player to kneel: Seth DeValve of the Cleveland Browns. Recognition compelled DeValve’s wife, who is black, to write an article urging people to focus on why DeValve kneeled, rather than consider him a white athlete “legitimizing” the cause. It is crucial to “[listen] to the experiences and the voices of the black people who are using their platforms to continue to bring the issue of racism in the U.S. to the forefront,” Erica writes.

Differing responses based on race suggest that racism skews perspectives on athletes.

For example, Floyd Mayweather Jr., a black boxer, and Conor McGregor, a white mixed martial artist, competed in a boxing match in Las Vegas on Aug. 25.

According to the New York Times, Mayweather said people described him as “arrogant” and “unappreciative,” but McGregor received praise for similar behavior.

"Conor is very charismatic,” former professional boxer Mike Tyson said, according to Fox Sports. “He walks into the room and everybody stands up. He sucks the air out of the room."

USC professor Todd Boyd, who studies race and pop culture pointed out a contrast, telling New York Times, “McGregor is being celebrated for the same things that Floyd has been denigrated for.”

Double standards demonstrate that race affects the way people view similar actions — an issue especially important to acknowledge in sports, which have an immense influence over public opinion.

The belief that some races excel more than others at certain sports supports double standards. People expect “naturally talented” athletes to perform well and possibly better than athletes of other races because the sport is “easier” for them. Thus, these opinions set higher standards for some athletes because of their race.

Some people believe the stereotype that black people are more naturally athletic because of their race.

While natural size and athleticism plays a huge role in success, the most skilled players clearly develop skills through practice, not just birthright. Attributing success to inherent ability disregards the time and effort athletes pour into their sport.

Athletes might also feel confined to certain positions on the field because of varying standards shaped by preconceived beliefs about their performance.

For example, speed is crucial for cornerbacks in football. There have been no white cornerbacks in the NFL for the past 14 years, Sports Illustrated states.

White athletes who played cornerback prior to joining the NFL are often moved to safety, or choose to change positions because they do not want to feel like they do not belong.

The last white NFL cornerback, the New York Giants Jason Sehorn, believes that this is not connected to racism but is a “cultural issue and a confidence issue.”

Conversely, fewer black athletes than white athletes hold other positions, including starting quarterback. Out of 32 starting quarterbacks this year, four are black and three are biracial.

Since people are accustomed to seeing either black and white athletes in certain positions, athletes experience pressure to undertake positions expected of them, limiting career choices and forcing different standards and paths toward the future on athletes based on their race.

In an article on “The Undefeated”, sociologist Harry Edwards argues that tradition is hard to break, saying, “You can’t just come in and show somebody that a black center is as good as a white center …  You’ve got to come in and show that he is better.”

Pressure to outperform teammates deters athletes from positions they might otherwise want to pursue such as quarterback and center, which may lead to coaching opportunities.

According to a 2013 study by SB Nation, 62 percent of black athletes who played quarterback in high school changed positions in college, in contrast to 16 percent of white athletes.

Differences in representation among coaches is especially apparent in college sports.

According to ESPN, 84 percent of basketball, 92 percent of football and 95 percent of baseball head coaches were white in combined divisions in 2016.

Seeing few black coaches, young black athletes may feel discouraged from considering and pursuing coaching jobs — and discouraging protest reinforces the expectation for athletes to accept their positions without questioning.

Opposition to protests not only impacts professional athletes, but high school athletes as well.

According to New York Times, a coach in Texas kicked two black high school football players off a team because one student kneeled and the other student raised his fist in the air during the national anthem.

But in other schools, coaches support their students’ decision to kneel. Last year the entire football team of Mission High in San Francisco took a knee before a game, with black, white, Hispanic and Asian students united in protest.

Adults are not the only ones protesting — students our age are speaking up for their beliefs.

Open discussion is crucial to address double standards, not only in sports, but also in other aspects of life, since issues that exist in sports reflect larger issues in society. Instead of silencing individuals, progress requires that we approach these issues knowing that although they may be uncomfortable to talk about, it is necessary to do so.

Athletes of varying ages and backgrounds kneel because they want change and because they believe even small shows of support contribute to a shift in mindset, challenging us to examine what shapes our perspectives and how we can progress toward a level playing field for all.

 

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