The San Antonio Spurs Play the ‘Right’ Way? Here’s What Race Has to Do With It

Race Manners: Long-held racial stereotypes about and biases against African-American athletes inform what fans and commentators believe is the superior way to win a game.

Andy Lyons/Getty Images

Dear Race Manners:

Little did I know that sports, which I thought united men of all colors, would get me labeled a racist. I was watching the game Sunday night with some guys from work. I’m a Spurs fan and white. A guy from accounting, who I don’t know that well, is African American. We’re going back and forth defending our teams, and he basically, not in so many words, accused me of being racist for the way I talked about my team and the skills they have that ultimately led to their win: smart play, strong fundamentals, being a team and selflessness.

I think we’re getting a little oversensitive here if I can’t talk about the qualities that made my team play basketball the right way and win, especially given that black people dominate basketball overall, including the Spurs and the Miami Heat. So clearly I wasn’t insulting them. —Basketball Bias

No, you weren’t insulting black people or players directly. And you’re right that there’s nothing at all racist about praising the San Antonio Spurs. Both people I queried about your question—BuzzFeed’s senior sportswriter, Joel Anderson, and Washington State University, Pullman, professor of culture, race and gender studies David J. Leonard—were clear about that and about the fact that your team earned its recent win against the Miami Heat fair and square.

The issue, in Leonard’s words, is that “a lot of the praise of the Spurs stems from the way they’re being used as a diametrical opposite of the Heat.” Anderson says that the compliments he heard in news media and social media on the quality of San Antonio’s play had the ring of “a latent indictment of the Heat, as if they don’t possess any of these things.”

I’m sure you’re asking, “So what? What’s wrong with enthusiastic criticism—direct or implied—of a team you don’t like?”

It’s problematic only if you believe that the Heat represent, in the minds of sports fans, a style of play associated with African-American players and that criticism of that style is tied closely to long-held negative stereotypes about them. In other words, it’s a problem if you believe that the characterization of the way the Spurs play as “right” and its players as “smart” and “selfless” is the direct result of a racism-fueled insistence that black, U.S.-born players are the opposite of all those things.

And it turns out that there’s pretty good reason to believe that.

Racial stereotypes have always colored how fans and commentators talk about African-American athletes. It’s easy to explain people’s success by the stereotypes we associate with them—negative or positive. (It’s why Jewish basketball players’ skills used to be chalked up to things like “smart-aleckness,” NPR’s Gene Demby wrote in “How Stereotypes Explain Everything and Nothing at All.”)

Anderson says that racial tropes have characterized assessments of black athletes’ performance for as long as sports have existed in the United States.