Last week, I wrote about Washington’s NFL team and the resistance by team management, and their most prominent football player, Robert Griffin III, to do the right thing and demand that the team change its name. In a sense, the call to change the name is not simply about racism and who is offended by it, but also about language–how we deploy it, the fraught history it connotes, etc. With that in mind, I’d like to take a moment to address another semantic phenomenon in sports that seems omnipresent, given the immediacy of blogs and Twitter and such.
I mentioned very briefly in my previous post that sports, like a lot of other institutions, operate on a plantation economic setup. Which is to say, owners work as, well, owners, while coaches and player can be viewed as overseers and physical labor, respectively. Bryant Gumbel’s (in)famous read of NBA Commissioner David Stern elucidates this nicely. Now, I won’t go much further in likening millionaires to those who operated under the structure of chattel slavery. However, the racial makeup of two of the US’s most popular professional sports leagues, the NFL and NBA, makes the analogy that much more intriguing and worthy of remark. Currently, the NBA is nearly 80% black, while almost 70% of NFL players are black. Not only should that give us pause as we think about Gumbel’s remarks, but it should also makes us think more deeply about the language we use when we describe players.
What, for example, does it mean that whenever one of these players displays particularly remarkable athletic prowess, he’s referred to as a beast? Just yesterday, when New Orleans Saints tight end Jimmy Graham lit up the Chicago Bears, someone took to Twitter and called him an animal. Jimmy Graham is an animal. That’s all the tweet said. Meanwhile, Peyton Manning, who threw 20 touchdowns before throwing his first interception is (still) a surgeon. Now, the description of Manning, given the precision of his play recently seems appropriate. Yet Jimmy Graham, who was just as precise at playing his position, is an animal. Perhaps I am splitting atoms here, but I can’t help but to point out this kind of language as an example of the kind of colloquial way racism continues to infiltrate our language and thus our thoughts, in this case, about young black men.
As an avid sports fan, I’ve noted and tried not to get swept up into the latest trend of calling athletes “beasts” when they do something we can’t. It’s just too much–semantic and otherwise. And it’s unfortunate, because unlike the lexicon on race and racism, we have considerable language to deploy when we want to describe and celebrate physical feats. Our lazy tongues revert back to subtly racist language as we watch black men in awe. It’s as if we cannot recognize or respect the discipline or acumen required to execute a perfect jump shot without describing it as some kind of animalistic skill. Or perhaps we simply don’t want to. And if we don’t want to do that, then the host of more serious things we don’t want to do won’t get done, either.