Sunday, February 19, 2006

Race, Bryant Gumbel, and Conservative Hypocrisy

It can be tough to be a liberal sports fan. The latest example of conservative posturing in the sports world centers on certain "controversial" remarks about the Winter Olympics by Bryant Gumbel on his talk show Real Sports. Actually, just one sentence was controversial--see if you can spot it:

Finally, tonight, the Winter Games. Count me among those who don't care about them and won't watch them. In fact, I figure that when Thomas Paine said that "these are the times that try men's souls," he must've been talking about the start of another Winter Olympics. Because they're so trying, maybe over the next three weeks we should all try too. Like, try not to be incredulous when someone attempts to link these games to those of the ancient Greeks who never heard of skating or skiing. So try not to laugh when someone says these are the world's greatest athletes, despite a paucity of blacks that makes the winter games look like a GOP convention. Try not to point out that something's not really a sport if a pseudo-athlete waits in what's called a kiss-and-cry area, while some panel of subjective judges decides who won. And try to blot out all logic when announcers and sportswriters pretend to care about the luge, the skeleton, the biathlon and all those other events they don't understand and totally ignore for all but three weeks every four years. Face it--these Olympics are little more than a marketing plan to fill space and sell time during the dreary days of February. So if only to hasten the arrival of the day they're done, when we can move on to March Madness--for God's sake, let the games begin.

As you probably guessed, the brouhaha focuses on the sentence that combines the words "blacks" and "GOP," which is the kind of combination that gets some people's dander up.

A fair summary of the right-wing reaction is this column by Chris Russell in The Sporting News. Demanding "an all out boycott of at the very minimum, all HBO Sports programming," Russell calls Gumbel's comments "blatantly racist." The heart of Russell's "argument," such as it is, appears here:

The comment about the Olympics not having the world's greatest athletes because of the lack of black athletes is a flat-out joke. Sure, a good deal of the worlds greatest athletes are not in Torino, but a lot of them are.

Oh, that's right. NHL players, world class figure skaters, Shaun White and Ted Ligety must not be any good because they're not black. I guess that's what Gumbel means.

You can twist Gumbel's words however you want too, and I'm sure a lot of you will. You will hammer me and call me all sorts of names because I took major offense to Gumbel's commentary.

What you can't do is ignore the absolute damning criticism by Gumbel that would never be accepted if Gumbel were white and said he would not watch the NBA because of the lack of non-black players. Imagine if I went on Sporting News Radio and said the NBA is impossible to watch because there are too many blacks, or if I said the reason why I have an incredible passion for hockey is because the player pool is overwhelmingly white. You would want my head on a platter, with knife in hand.

Where do I begin to respond? How about here:

Like many conservatives, Russell is eager to portray himself as a courageous dissident standing up against the repressive forces of political correctness. Unfortunately, the facts tell a different story. Despite Russell's claim that there is some kind of taboo against mentioning (for example) race and basketball, a quick Google search keyed to "NBA marketing racial" reveals many articles about the problems of selling a Black-dominated NBA, including this one, this one, this one, this one, this one . . . You can find more if you go past the first twenty-four Google hits (out of the 194,000 my search unearthed).

Funny, I don't recall any journalists being fired or reprimanded for raising the issue. So relax, Chris--no one will be asking for your "head on a platter."

The truth is that conservative sports-talk hosts and columnists frequently talk about race and ethnicity. For example, they are the ones who recently raised the issue of the Mets' Omar Minaya supposedly signing "too many" Latino players (to which I responded here). But they express outrage whenever race is mentioned by a minority-group member, apparently on the grounds that we've all outgrown racial issues (unless the conservatives themselves want to bring them up).

So let's start by ignoring that red herring. What about this "greatest athletes in the world" business?

Gumbel's point is that the Olympic claim to present "the greatest athletes in the world" is undermined by the lack of diversity among participants in the winter games. It's a fair observation. African, Latin American, and Caribbean nations have scanty representations in Turin; the athletes tend to be drawn strictly from the upper-middle-class levels of European, Asian, and North American society.

This is understandable--skiing and figure skating and tobogganing and the other winter sports are expensive to play. (Growing up in two working-class Brooklyn neighborhoods--mostly-black Brownsville and totally-white Bay Ridge--I never knew a single person who played any of these sports.) But isn't it obvious that a sporting spectacle that draws from a minuscule fraction of the population is unlikely to feature all or even a significant number of "the greatest athletes in the world"? This is Gumbel's point--not the absurd idea Russell attributes to him, that only Black athletes are any good.

And what about Gumbel's underlying theme--that the lack of Black athletes makes it hard for him to get interested in the Winter Olympics? Is that so "blatantly racist"?

Not according to me. Most people are especially interested in athletes and other celebrities who share some characteristic with them. Italian-Americans were proud of Joe DiMaggio and turned out in big numbers to root for him. Roberto Clemente was a hero to Puerto Ricans. Jews loved Hank Greenberg and Sandy Koufax. This is a natural and benign phenomenon.

And the flip side is that most people find it relatively harder to get interested in sports where they can't identify with the participants. I for one find hockey--populated almost entirely by white guys, and Canadians at that!--very difficult to get into, and statistics suggest I'm not alone. Is that such a racist thing for me to say?

No . . . and it isn't racist when Bryant Gumbel says it, either.

Suggestion: Be wary when conservatives start yelling "racism." Like Russell, they wrap themselves in the "color-blind" mantle only to say, "Shut up about race--unless you want to say something that we happen to agree with."

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