For Americans, the sports stadium is the sanctuary where we all give praise to the same gods. The allure of sports, of course, is that they seem fall in line with our democratic values of fairness; the athletic field is where meritocracy is the law of the land and skill is the great equalizer.
Sports are turned to in times where basic human decency has fallen short; we view sports as a salve for our country’s pesky “race problem.” But according to a big Patriot News enterprise feature about race and Pennsylvania’s high school sports — “Unchecked, Unchallenged and Unabashed: Is racism in high school sports being tolerated?”— racism is just as imbued in the locker room as anywhere else, even among our supposedly post-racial young people.
Parents (and some coaches) in the story wonder if racism is part of the culture tolerated at their students’ respective sports leagues. The article speculates about the pervasiveness that hangs over the students in the form of slurs that are spewed into the field as way of “getting in the players heads.”
Chalking racism up to a form of trash talk is an excuse that I’ve heard before used in the sports context, which brushes aside the culpability of the perpetrators and the impact that racism has on its recipient. Remember, too, the story about the wrestling team in New Jersey. There are other examples; I can point out a few personal anecdotes of my own. And then there’s all the stuff we see constantly popping up in think pieces: The Clippers, Richard Sherman, Michael Vick. Though we may love the heroic nostalgia of the Jackie Robinson story or the apparent "Race Man" valor of the Brown Bomber, Joe Louis, remember the impact racism had on their quality of life.
All of it points to the same thing: That sports don’t provide the safe space we seem to think that they do; perhaps, instead they’re just symbolic of the same barriers many people of color to be seen as fair opponents in other areas of life, such as the boardroom or the classroom.
“It’s woven into the life of society,” Harrisburg coach Kirk Smallwood, a black man, said in the Patriot News piece. “There will be situations and they will have to make decisions as to how they react. My job is to teach, shape, mold and nurture young men and women on how to behave and act. But when they are in that kind of situation, against that kind of venom, I can’t teach them how to react. I’m not qualified to do that.”
It’s difficult to imagine, though, that with such overt racism that it would be easy for any player to continue to suit up day after day knowing that the game ball isn’t the only thing that’ll be hurled at him or her on the field. But it’s equally difficult to imagine a time that this country won’t have this conversation about race, racial hatred, and how exactly it is taught to people so young.
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