Monday, March 21, 2011

Until the Next Sports, Media and Race Controversy...

The appropriate reaction to it all.
What we’ve witnessed in the last week is another chapter in the Book of Racism in Sports. For those who've heard about it all week, I'm sick of it, too. If you haven’t heard, however, a bunch of people have responded to this:

“I hated Duke, and I hated everything Duke stood for. Schools like Duke don't recruit players like me. I felt like they only recruited black players that were Uncle Toms.”

Jalen Rose’s comments – which he said reflected that of an 18-year old (and seemingly immature) kid – and his defense of them have elicited numerous columns, blog posts and other responses that range from misguided support (many assume this is how he feels NOW) to the usual disgusting hate speech on the races. Grant Hill’s response on the New York Times added more fuel to the fire along with more snarky critiques and side-taking.

All this week has shown this perpetual optimist is that no matter how much well-intentioned people seek it, media nerds clamor for it or ivory-tower academics demand it, there is one thing that we will never have in the United States.

There will never be a national conversation about race.

Twitter and Facebook don’t count, friends.

More than every other form of entertainment, sports inspire the strongest and most vitriolic commentary society can witness. Because the output of these games come from physical exploits (though there’s the use of the total being involved), fans and media can only infer and project their personal beliefs onto the action. We’ll make our assumptions based on body language and reactions to calls and plays, physical appearance and interactions with teammates and opponents.

When the participants – players, coaches and managers, executives, agents, etc. – do speak to the world, that’s when our senses sharpen a bit more. We’re more scrutinizing of their words because unlike musicians and actors, we don’t get a chance to hear from them outside of these dedicated times (press conferences, scheduled interviews, etc.). When one decides to create or take part a venture outside of those times, such as ESPN’s documentary – Rose, himself, was an executive producer – we have a chance to parse their words more. They give us insights that wouldn’t come up in the course of the game, season or even career as they are too caught up in the moment to reflect.

More often than not, people don’t like what they hear from athletes. How many times have you uttered, thought or heard the phrase “just shut up and play”? Ideally, these folks exist for our mere entertainment, not for having a voice, right? It doesn’t help when someone utters something regarding race.

Within a week, we’ve taken this “Uncle Tom” commentary and flipped it on its ear over and over again. Even the game played between both alma maters central to this controversy once again stood for so much more as Duke once again got the better of Michigan. We’ve thrown our opinions and experiences in hopes of having some grand-scale conversation, yet instead, we’re having intellectual show and tell. This controversy has compelled anyone with a platform (myself included, but in private) to show scars of racism, try to prove that we’re not racist or unfortunately defend personal bigotry.

We are an exclusive lot, though. The people who keep these controversies in the air more often are us media people (proficient bloggers count, too). We love having something to run with for days on end until some other sports figure has a case of foot-in-mouth disease. We come up with all of these concepts and analyses, but we never solve the problem the controversy presented. We come up short because we aren’t inclusive of all the people who hear or read these words.

We assume that because these conversation are had among the media and our most passionate consumers that ‘everyone’s talking about it’. Racism isn’t just discussed when someone utters unfortunate words; it’s talked about on street corners, on park benches, in break rooms and trendy restaurants. While we scream, stomp and demand you pay attention to us, millions of people are speaking in hushed tones and away from our purview.

For whatever reasons, they don’t trust us. Whether it’s a difference in credentials, personal experiences or history burned to memory, these people aren’t talking to us. They’re enduring and/or perpetuating the discrimination that made Rose’s comments so jarring and such ‘great’ sports radio talk. However, their absence – or exile, rather – from the media chatter keeps the ideal national conversation about race just that; ideal. Mythical, even.

Maybe a large part about these reactions is that mind-numbingly absurd belief that there's one universal perspective of the black community or any other community. Many assume that all ethnic groups live the same way and share the same experiences. That couldn’t be far from the case. Not all white people come from posh backgrounds and not every black person came up hard scrabble in the streets. Not every Latino hopped a fence or rode a shoddy raft to come to the States and not every Asian person grew up with a ‘Tiger Mom’.

What we’ve also done, what’s kept this at the tip of many tongues is not dig into the truth. Many refuse to dig into their own discrimination while others choose to ignore the existence of racism. In that, we’ve also killed any chance by having that mythical conversation. In a lot of ways, these moments are nothing but opportunities to get academic or grab headlines. In another regard, demands for ‘the national conversation about race’ is code for ‘let’s pile on the white man’.

But we’ve been spinning this wheel for how long now?

“Uncle Tom” and the subsequent responses were just the media racial craze of the moment. At this point, we really don’t care about the legacy of The Fab Five; at least in the short term. A year from now, people will believe what they always did before “Uncle Tom”. Either this collective was a trend-setting champion for urban black America, a system-bucking destroyer of white sports culture or in complete honesty, a team whose defense could have been a lot better.

What we do care about is where the next race-driven sports media dialogue takes place. We media folks should use “Uncle Tom” as a lesson for ourselves and future generations and just maybe, some of us will. Yet, as an almost under-the-radar comment proved, we’re looking to point out a lack of smarts or awareness from others instead of being honest with ourselves. Rose, Hill and other athletes will become someone else soon enough and we’ll spin this wheel again.

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