10 Jaw-Dropping Instances of Racism in Professional Sports

It’s a field that supposedly sees no color, race or ethnicity, yet racism has reared its head in some pretty appalling ways.

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Richie Incognito; Donald Sterling; Riley Cooper 

Lisa Blumenfield/Getty Images; Stephen Dunn/Getty Images; Al Messerschmidt/Getty Images

Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling and, by association, the NBA are having one hell of a week.

TMZ released an audiotape of a man who sounds an awful lot like Sterling, expressing disgust over his girlfriend’s Instagram photos with black men. But this isn’t the first time that “sports” and “race” have collided in a media firestorm. Here’s a roundup of some equally disturbing incidents that demonstrate racism’s disturbing effect on sports.

1. Donald Sterling’s Lengthy Rap Sheet

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Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling attends the NBA playoff game between the Clippers and the Golden State Warriors, April 21, 2014, at Staples Center in Los Angeles.

ROBYN BECK/AFP/Getty Images

If you thought this would be a recap of the Sterling audiotape incident that sparked this roundup, think again. The Clippers owner has a rap sheet a mile and a half long that’s filled with accusations of racism.

There was that complaint about his alleged use of the n-word. Also how he allegedly envisioned a basketball team filled with poor black Southerners who would be obedient to a white coach—and not to mention the lawsuits he incurred because of accusations that he discriminated against black and Latino tenants. Sterling is a repeat offender, and the audiotape released by TMZ is nothing short of a smoking gun.

2. Don Imus on Rutgers Women’s Basketball

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Don Imus at the AFTRA AMEE Awards at the Plaza Hotel Feb. 22, 2010, in New York City.

Larry Busacca/Getty Images for AFTRA

During a time when everyone in the entire nation had their eyes fixated on their March Madness brackets, radio host Don Imus interrupted that trance when he described the Rutgers University women’s basketball team as “nappy-headed hos” on his radio program in 2007. He referenced Spike Lee’s iconic film Do the Right Thing when he suggested that the matchup between Rutgers’ “rough girls” and their opponents looked like a showdown of the “jigaboos versus the wannabes.”

To add insult to injury, Imus initially tried to justify his remarks by saying that hip-hop artists routinely use these phrases to describe African-American women. Critics descended on him with lightning speed, and Imus issued a statement of apology and was soon suspended. More important, the captain of the Rutgers women’s basketball team described how Imus’ comments had “stolen a moment of pure grace” from them. 

3. Riley Cooper and the N--ger Concert Bouncer

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Riley Cooper

Al  Messerschmidt/Getty Images

When Philadelphia Eagles wide receiver Riley Cooper couldn’t get backstage at a country music concert in 2013, he yelled at the bouncer, saying, “I will jump that fence and fight every n--ger here!”

After a self-imposed bout with counseling, Cooper returned to practice with his predominantly black NFL football team. Talk about awkwardness in the locker room.

4. Black Soccer Players and Bananas

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Dani Alves of FC Barcelona during a press conference March 31, 2014, in Barcelona, Spain 

David Ramos/Getty Images

The phenomenon of fans throwing bananas at or making monkey noises toward black professional soccer players while they’re on the field could make for a 15-part compilation piece unto itself. But Barcelona’s Dani Alves gives this story a new thrust with the clever way he recently responded to the offensive act. On Sunday the Brazilian walked toward the banana that was thrown at him and—ever so gracefully—picked it up, peeled it, ate it, and then continued playing the game.

“Dani Alves owned him [...] Take that bunch of racists," one of Alves’ teammates tweeted.

Alves kept the joke going on Instagram by suggesting that his father always told him to eat bananas as a way to prevent cramps. The person who threw the banana will no longer be able to attend soccer games at El Madrigal Stadium.

5. John Rocker’s Beef With Diversity in Queens, N.Y.

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John Rocker

Otto Greule Jr./Getty Images

In responding to Sterling’s alleged remarks, President Barack Obama said that “ ... when ignorant folks want to advertise their ignorance, you don’t really have to do anything, you just let them talk. And that’s what happened here.”

That beautifully worded response could very well be applied to retired baseball player John Rocker’s statements in a 1999 Sports Illustrated interview about his disdain for the diversity in Queens, N.Y. Rocker’s soliloquy about whether or not he’d ever play for the Yankees or the Mets—two teams based in the melting pot that is New York City—speaks for itself: 

I'd retire first. It's the most hectic, nerve-racking city. Imagine having to take the 7 train to the ballpark looking like you're riding through Beirut next to some kid with purple hair, next to some queer with AIDS, right next to some dude who just got out of jail for the fourth time, right next to some 20-year-old mom with four kids. It's depressing ... The biggest thing I don't like about New York are the foreigners. You can walk an entire block in Times Square and not hear anybody speaking English. Asians and Koreans and Vietnamese and Indians and Russians and Spanish people and everything up there. How the hell did they get in this country?

Rocker was suspended without pay for several games.

6. Jimmy the Greek on Breeding Black Athletes

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Jimmy Synder

Free Use

In 1988 sports commentator Jimmy “the Greek” Snyder fancied himself a historian, scientist and physician when he explained his theory on why black Americans are more athletic than white Americans:

The black is a better athlete to begin with because he's been bred to be that way, because of his high thighs and big thighs that goes up into his back, and they can jump higher and run faster because of their bigger thighs and he's bred to be the better athlete because this goes back all the way to the Civil War when during the slave trade ... the slave owner would breed his big black to his big woman so that he could have a big black kid ...

He was fired by CBS.

7. Howard Cosell’s ‘Little Monkeys’

It’s hard to imagine sports journalist Howard Cosell appearing on this list, since his bromance with Muhammad Ali was depicted so warmly in the latter’s biopic.

However, during a NFL highlight segment in 1973, Cosell said, “Look at that little monkey run!” when describing a kickoff return by a black player. A decade later, he used the term again to describe the prowess of a black wide receiver. When he was accused of racism after the latter incident by the Southern Christian Leadership Conference—a national civil rights organization formerly led by Martin Luther King Jr.—Cosell maintained that he used the term “little monkey” to describe thinly framed white athletes, too.

8. Rush Limbaugh on Donovan McNabb

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Rush Limbaugh at the National Association of Broadcasters convention Oct. 2, 2003, in Philadelphia

William Thomas Cain/Getty Images

Rush Limbaugh’s comments about NFL quarterback Donovan McNabb in 2003 can best be characterized as “hating.”

During a Sunday pregame show, Limbaugh—who’d recently been hired by ESPN—hypothesized that the fanfare over McNabb’s performance had more to do with how the media wanted so badly to exalt a black player and less about his performance on the field: “The media has been very desirous that a black quarterback do well.”

Limbaugh resigned amid a firestorm from critics, including politicians from both sides of the aisle, likely because it was a presidential-election year.

9. Richie Incognito’s Bullying Texts

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Richie Incognito

Lisa Blumenfield/Getty Images

In one of the more infamous text-messaging scandals that captured news headlines last year, Miami Dolphins player Richie Incognito was accused of bullying his former teammate Jonathan Martin for two seasons. Martin says his experience led to his emotional distress and his leaving the Dolphins team. Text messages between both players were crude and filled with profanity and racial epithets like the n-word.

Incognito attributed his behavior, including the use of the n-word, to “the culture of our locker room” and “the culture of our brotherhood.”

10. Marge Schott, Equal-Opportunity Offender

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Marge Schott

Rick Stewart/Getty Images

In 1992 Cincinnati Reds baseball owner Marge Schott allegedly referred to some black outfielders as “million-dollar n--gers.” She was also sued by an employee who claimed that she enforced an unwritten policy not to hire black staffers.

There were allegations of Schott’s anti-Semitism, too, in which she was allegedly overhead saying that the “sneaky goddamn Jews are all alike.”

Read related articles at The Root:

Diana Ozemebhoya Eromosele is a staff writer at The Root and the founder and executive producer of Lectures to Beats, a Web series that features expert advice for TV and film’s most complex characters. Follow Lectures to Beats on Facebook and Twitter.

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