The San Antonio Spurs celebrate with the Larry O’Brien Championship Trophy after defeating the Miami Heat to win the 2014 NBA Finals at the AT&T Center June 15, 2014, in San Antonio.
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.”

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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.”)

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

“In baseball, they wouldn’t let black players be catchers because that position basically orchestrates the game. In football, for many years, blacks couldn’t play quarterback and middle linebacker. In boxing—until black people started kicking white people’s asses—the thought was that black people were cowards and not mentally strong enough to compete,” Anderson says. “Then the narrative changed. Suddenly, when they were winning, black people were really strong and had advantages. And in basketball, white players’ athletic gifts are undersold compared to black athletes’, but they get a lot more credit for being intelligent.”

In basketball, white players’ athletic gifts are undersold compared to black athletes’, but they get a lot more credit for being intelligent.

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Need an example? Just listen to announcers, pick up a sports magazine or take a trip down memory lane with a screening of White Man Can’t Jump, says Leonard. There’s little escaping the idea that “white” equals smart, strong on fundamentals and humble, while “black” equals the opposite.

At some point, racial bias morphed into a “styles of play” hierarchy. Here’s where it gets tricky. The racial bias described previously, according to Anderson, is deep-seated enough that it eventually began to apply not only to African-American players but also to the styles of play that commentators and fans associated with them.

“You hear a lot of talk about players who grow up in summer-league basketball culture, which is dominated by black Americans, and how that type of ball is inferior to ball that’s played in Europe,” he says.

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Those differences in styles are value-neutral. But guess what happens when they’re funneled through deeply held ideas about whites athletes as thinkers and blacks as unsophisticated brutes? You guessed it. Suddenly the style associated with African Americans—the one we see the Heat using—is deemed subpar. And the one the Spurs embraced becomes “the right way.”

That, says Anderson, is why even though, yes, both the Heat and the Spurs have mostly black players, effusive praise about “teamwork,” “smart” play and “selflessness” is often withheld from the Heat.  

It’s also relevant that many of the Spurs players are foreign-born, says Leonard, because “African Americans tend to be juxtaposed against everyone else—including blacks from other countries—as part of a narrative that these global players do things ‘the right way,’ whereas the ‘hip-hop generation’ players are more interested in slam dunks and trash-talking.” That, he says, is “loaded with all sorts of assumptions and simplicity.”

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Sports commentary fueled by racial stereotypes ends up being pretty weak. Worse than its potential to offend co-workers, says Leonard, praise or criticism that relies on racism-fueled assumptions risks obscuring what’s actually happening on the court. Think about it: What do you really mean when you say “teamwork”? Isn’t everyone—by definition—using it?

Where did this intense desire for humility in sports dominated by African Americans come from, anyway? Are you giving (as much as your loyalty will let you) all teams the same credit for wins? (Did you praise the Heat for playing “right” when they won, or no?) Is your choice to focus on particular qualities in different players based on actual evidence or on ideas you brought to the game? Are you oversimplifying your analysis—and denying players and teams their full range of qualities—by forcing them into an “athletic” vs. “smart” binary?

My advice: Let go of the concern that you, individually, were racist in your well-deserved use of bragging rights. But question the origins of all your assumptions about players’ strengths and become as big a fan of commentary based on what’s actually happening on the court as you are of your favorite teams.

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Jenée Desmond-Harris, The Root’s associate editor of features, covers the intersection of race with news, politics and culture. She wants to talk about the complicated ways in which ethnicity, color and identity arise in your personal life—and provide perspective on the ethics and etiquette surrounding race in a changing America. Follow her on Twitter.

Need race-related advice? Send your questions to racemanners@theroot.com.

Previously in Race Manners: “Is There Anything Wrong With Passing for Black?

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