Misplaced, incorrect, and plainly ignorant stereotypes – especially those with racial elements, but also gender, geographic, and other factors – are ever persistent in sports. Some stereotypes are extremely prominent and widely believed while some are more specific beliefs held within specific groups. They differ in the groups they refer to, the types of limitations (or expectations) placed on athletes, and the degree to which they are believed; however, they are all similar in one way: they are stereotypes, not facts. Another way of saying this is that they lack truth and are construed by narratives (social, cultural, media-driven, etc.) derived from wives-tale-esque notions of sport throughout history. Black athletes rely on athleticism while white athletes rely on intellect and hard work. This notion was in part brought on by our nation’s history of segregation, and was used to explain why some black athletes were somehow able to excel in sports without the official training (which they were often barred from) which whites were privileged to. The previous narrative explaining why black athletes were not allowed to compete with whites was that black athletes were inferior in character, aptitude, or both. When desegregation began, a new narrative was needed to explain how black athletes were capable of the same feats as whites. NBA players are thugs. What this stereotype is often actually saying is that black athletes in the NBA are thugs (Do a quick Google search of ‘NBA’ and ‘thug’ and you will find countless articles showing which players are the biggest thugs, how the NBA has a thug culture, etc.). This idea has been constructed due to the differing cultures between many NBA players and the dominant, upper class culture which drives both the business side of the NBA and the media which showcases the NBA. The failure to grasp the idea that many of the players simply live lives that sometimes (not as often as depicted) differ from the very upper-class ways of life of the aforementioned groups has created a need to define how many players engage with each other, the media, fans, etc. as thuggish rather than allowing for two (not so) different ways of ‘okay’ lifestyles. These are just a couple examples of explicit racial stereotypes which are false, yet are believed and communicated by people of influence.

Why We Should Worry

These false stereotypes are not harmless ideas thrown around by people. They cause actual harm, inflicting sports with racist, sexist, and other demeaning policies (whether explicit or implicit) which are dire on their own, and even more detrimental when we see the results of these stereotypes of sports translate into society writ large. These stereotypes are often subconscious; media, relevant experiences, etc. feed our thoughts on the topics and many of us become entrenched in these false thoughts.  Stereotypes (especially when false, but even if they were to have elements of truth, there would be a problem – perhaps a larger one), then, create social narratives which impact decisions made by people who could in turn impact the lives of young athletes. It is helpful to analyze what kinds of problems and harms this could lead to, to better understand why this is a problem worth addressing.

When black athletes and white athletes are characterized as having fundamentally different attributes leading to success (athleticism or intelligence), there is an implied claim that there is something fundamentally different about black athletes and white athletes themselves. Let’s use football as an example here – specifically the quarterback position. While there have been growing trends in the NFL to give chances to black quarterbacks, there is still an overwhelming ratio of more white quarterbacks than black, especially when compared against the rest of this league. This could very well be due to the stereotype of black athletes as relying on athleticism (translates to more defensive positions or offensive skill roles such as receiver or running back) whereas white athletes are more gifted in the nuances of intellect, preparation, and hard work – attributes of a successful NFL quarterback. When these racial stereotypes exist, fewer organizations give black quarterbacks a chance to succeed, and when they do succeed it is often accounted to being a runner or an athletic quarterback. With the quarterback position being the highest paid, viewed as a leadership spot on the team, and often being the most well known players of the game, it is a problem when racial stereotypes prevent equal chances of success for black quarterbacks and white quarterbacks. This alone can cause scenarios which reify the stereotype in people’s minds, due to the current landscape of quarterbacks in the NFL. The idea of different fundamental characteristics of black athletes and white athletes (and, then translated into differences between black and white people writ large) becomes entrenched into belief systems, which can lead to racist policies – whether explicit and known or implicit and subconscious.

The next example – the NBA being characterized as thugs – has to do with competing cultures between what largely makes up the NBA population and that which runs the business and managerial side of the league, as well as much of the media. Different cultural values may (and probably do) exist, but this does not mean, and should not be characterized, as one group being labeled as thugs or thuggish. Whatever ‘thug’ may mean, it is not a true description of most NBA players. The use of this word to describe the actions, behaviors, and way of life of the athletes creates a stereotype and a narrative of an ‘us’ and ‘them’ frame. Perhaps the reason for this characterization is an attempt by the people identifying with the owner and managerial culture to distance themselves from what they view as wrong. Whatever the reason for it, having an idea that a player base and group of people should be labeled as thuggish is harmful to the game of basketball as well as society in general, especially the groups of society which share the same culture which is being labeled as thuggish. Worrisome examples of things labeled as thuggish: having many tattoos, minor legal offenses, and fights on the court. Obviously, some NBA players commit more egregious acts (sexual assault, domestic assault, etc.) and I am in no way condoning this behavior. My point is this: NBA players are being labeled as thugs for things which would better be explained as cultural differences between the player population and owner/managerial population, and things which are not all that different than ordinary people. This is harmful for many reasons, most notably the ‘us-them’ narrative which it construes, resulting in racial tension for the mere reason that much of the NBA’s player population is black whereas the owner/managerial population is largely white.

Addressing the Issue

What I have tried to show so far is that false racial and group stereotypes exist in sports today, and these stereotypes create actual hardships, have negative impacts, and do real harm in the world of sports, as well as translate into hardships, negative impacts, and harm in society in general as well. Given this, I do not think it is extreme to say we ought to take steps and measures against these, and work toward replacing narratives full of these racial stereotypes with more honest, fair, and, frankly, productive narratives. The nature of this sort of conflict – one rooted in existing narratives which do not display the actual realities of sport, or society – requires more than quick, easy solution. This takes time, and dedicated institutions – such as leagues, teams, and media outlets – that will engage in righting the ship to reflect less racist stereotypes. What is this process? It could start with open conversations about these topics between those with authority in sport, participants of sport, audiences of sport, and members of the affected communities. An open dialogue can often break down the barriers between the various beliefs held among multiple groups. If we, as a whole society, take an active voice in dispelling these faulty notions and stereotypes, rather than letting them persist through implicit means, progress could possibly be made. However, explicitly declaring these stereotypes faulty is not the end of the road. While that would look good for leagues’ images and do some good in correcting these notions, it will not end the stereotypes as engrained, subconscious thoughts in the minds of many people. Indeed, the larger battle is changing the implicit social narrative about the roles of race in sports (of course, many stereotypes go much beyond black and white, or even race, as previously mentioned – I have simply chosen for the sake of breadth to focus on a few particular issues). This may include many options, though my aim here is not to solve the problem in its entirety. This is aiming to show a problem, and advocate for addressing it through combating the narratives which exist.

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Author: Mitchell Kiefer