By Deron Snyder
Have you noticed that NFL linemen tend to be very large, while NBA centers are invariably very tall? And marathon runners are usually slender, while jockeys stand short? The only shock about those observations would be if someone failed to notice. You can't watch football or basketball without picking up on the participants' physical profiles. There's nothing subtle about 7-footers or 380-pounders, and we're totally comfortable pointing out their size because there's a direct correlation to their job requirements.
However, discussions become much thornier when we highlight a distinction that has nothing to do with the task at hand and yet stands out just as much or more: skin color. Some of the most glaring examples — say, the scarcity of African Americans in the NHL and Major League Baseball — can be explained as purely cultural coincidences. Black youths simply don't play that much hockey or baseball; consequently, not many grow up to be pros in those sports.
But if we highlight the scarcity of white halfbacks, wide receivers and defensive backs in the NFL (or white players in the NBA, period), the discussion gets more complicated. Tens of thousands of white kids play football and basketball, from youth leagues to high school and through college. So our conversation takes an awkward turn, with stereotypes and preconceptions battling reason and logic for supremacy. As the late tennis great Arthur Ashe said in the 1989 NBC News special Black Athletes — Fact and Fiction, the issue of race in sports is "a sociological red button."
The folks behind the Web site Caste Football don't just push the button. They mash it in and hold it, over and over again. They clearly don't subscribe to author Jon Entine's 1999 book, Taboo: Why Black Athletes Dominate Sports and Why We're Afraid to Talk About It. In fact, Caste Football boasts that it "looks at the racial dynamics of football and of sports in general. We have no sacred cows we worship, no taboo subjects we won't discuss."
It should be noted that Caste Football appears to be associated with white nationalism. The site lists two "affiliates," the Northern Voice bookstore and the American Nationalist Union, the latter of which is linked on the American White Pride Network. Caste Football apparently has a broader agenda, tapping into overall white resentment and aiming it at black domination in sports. So while it may be true that white athletes are steered to certain positions, Caste Football's motives are highly suspect, with a belief system that appears to be downright racist.
Nonetheless, I understand why some white folks lament the NFL's lack of white halfbacks, receivers and defensive backs while championing the select few that exist. That's kind of like black folks complaining about the NFL's lack of black quarterbacks while cheering on the handful who make it.
I certainly also understand the sense of pride that (white) New England Patriots halfback Danny Woodhead generated with his breakout game against the Miami Dolphins on Monday Night Football. Likewise, I understand why (white) New England Patriots receiver Wes Welker fosters the same feeling. I'm sure that Woodhead and Welker are inspirations to every young (white) football player who is being conditioned to believe that certain positions at the major-college or NFL level are beyond his capabilities.
There's no secret about why so few blacks have played quarterback in the NFL over the years: They've been denied opportunities because of a presumed lack of intelligence, poise, leadership and discipline. Not coincidentally, the same presumptions have slowed black advancement in the corporate world and other hierarchies, too, where management can hide racist beliefs behind nebulous claims that a candidate lacks the necessary "intangibles."
Sport isn't perfect, but it relies on tangible measures and a merit-based system far more than most arenas. All things being equal, the biggest, strongest, fastest and most skilled players make the team and claim the starting positions. So if there are few white players at halfback, receiver and defensive back in the NFL, isn't it because they've been beaten out by better players? Don't white halfbacks, receivers and defensive backs get fair chances to compete, opportunities that black quarterbacks have rarely enjoyed?
Not according to Caste Football. And it might have a point. The website states that major college football programs, "with very, very few exceptions, simply refuse to recruit and develop white tailbacks and white receivers no matter how outstanding they are in high school." And the media "enforces this rigid segregation by using euphemisms and descriptions that demean white athletes."
The site goes on: "The truth is that white football players, no matter how talented, are directed into a racial Caste System that limits them to being offensive linemen, kickers, quarterbacks (though more and more major college programs are recruiting blacks for that position), and the occasional defensive position, usually linebacker or defensive end. … We believe that by looking at football and sports overall through an objective lens rather than simply accepting the propaganda slant of the media, it is clear and obvious that whites are just as good as if not better athletes than blacks."
Are whites just as good as blacks in athletics? Hmmm. Well, generally speaking, discounting the effects of nurture versus nature, and considering the widespread perceptions among black and white youths about their chances of success in nonsports fields — which can affect effort and determination in athletics — my answer is an emphatic, "Yes." I also believe that young white halfbacks, receivers and defensive backs are steered elsewhere (consciously or not) — to other sports or out of sports completely — denying them a chance to develop to their fullest potential.
Yes, blacks dominate football and basketball overall. But that's because so many black youngsters are utterly single-minded in their quest to reach the pro ranks, unfortunately viewing the pros as their only path to success.
But if I can use a stereotype to debunk a stereotype: Blacks are not physically superior. If you believe that they are, you've only set yourself up for the devastating counterpunch that whites are mentally superior. Those blows of superiority and inferiority continue to hammer both sides of the racial divide. They must be fought ardently at all times. On and off the field.
Deron Snyder is a regular contributor to The Root. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.