Thursday, November 23, 2006

Text and Subtext: Race in Sports

If you pay attention to announcers during sporting events, you will hear also sorts of racial assumptions in the subtext. When talking about black players, concepts like "athletic," "natural," "gifted," and "talent" are more likely to come up; when talking about white players, concepts like "hard work," "effort," "scrappy," "heart," or "intelligence" are likely to come up. Pay attention and see if you don't notice this.

So, I'm suggesting there are all sorts of racial assumptions going on in the language about sports. These assumptions are there in the subtext of much sports commentary.

Here's what Michael Irvin said, via PFT:

Said Irvin of Romo: "He doesn't look like he's that type of an athlete. But he is. He is, man. I don't know . . . some brother down in that line somewhere. . . . I don't know who saw what or where, his great-great-great-great-grandma ran over in the 'hood or something went down."

Recognizing the idiocy of Irvin's comments, Dan Patrick said, "Oh, that's the only way he can be a great athlete?"

"That's not the only way, but it's certainly one way," Irvin said. "If great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great grandma pulled one of them studs up out of the barn [and said], 'Come on in here for a second,' you know, and they go out and work in the yard. You know, back in the day."

Stupid? Yes. Utterly. Racially insensitive? Yes. Statements like this can only hurt the goal of eventual equality of races in America. But in many ways, Irvin is just making explicit assumptions about race and athleticism that all sorts of announcers, commentators, writers, and fans hold. We should be concerned about explicit, textual statements like this; but we should be just as concerned, perhaps more concerned, with the implicit, sub-textual statements about racial assumptions that occur all the time.

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