I was born in Utah. I spent some of my childhood in Colorado, but ended up splitting my high school years between eastern Washington and central Idaho. I also spent all of those years participating in a Scandanavian snow sport before continuing to do so at an expensive eastern liberal arts college. In a nutshell, my athletic experience has been about as culturally diverse as J. Crew on a Tuesday. I’m hoping that will change.
It would be impossible to converse about American sports culture without considering the massive impact minority cultures have had on its development, and vis versa. What’s more, the process of the creation of that culture speaks to the hegemonic code written into athletics by patriarchal ideology, and what lies before us to break it. For the final weeks of the semester, I will consider how American sport culture affects minority athletes whether it be in systems of masculinity, racism or sexism. To begin, I started with a sport that originated in the US, one whose development relied heavily on the social and political climate of its country, one that at its core is wholly American: Football (also the sport I know more about than baseball).
Today, about two thirds of NFL players are black. Sports scholar Joel Dinerstein writes in Backfield in Motion: The Transformation of the NFL by Black Culture, that once a “critical mass” is attained by a minority group, permanent changes in the sport culture become inevitable (169). Two thirds is most certainly a critical mass, and considering the social climate of the 1960s, when black players began playing on college and pro teams, it took a great deal of change for it to get there. Football developed as a professional sport in the American industrial period and became the perfect microcosm of the capitalist ideology of “top down planning, sublimated aggression, and militaristic rhetoric” (Dinerstein, 174). Each player had a job in the conveyor belt from end line to end line, and when the talents of black athletes far outweighed the social hesitations of white coaches and team leaders, it became the goal of the institution to keep their new athletes doing specific job and consequently keep ideologies in place.
Stacking: a short, but bitter, history
Through the 70’s and 80’s, more and more black athletes joined NCAA and NFL leagues, but they were almost always expected to play positions defined by their race, like running back or receiver. Racial stacking, as defined by Abdel-Shehid Gamal as “moving black players from positions marked as ‘intelligent’ to ‘physical’ or ‘athletic’ positions,” relies heavily on the traditional white ideal of masculinity. Black men were valued for their bodies, white men for their brains. The idea that intelligence and color are mutually exclusive stems from the chains of American history, and pervades the arena of sport in the ideal of the quarterback.
Abdel-Shehid writes: “The quarterback, as we know, is often seen as more than merely an athlete. He occupies a highly valued cultural position. In the United States, the quarter back is the ‘field general,’ part politician, part military hero, part colonialist all wrapped into one” (122).
Before the 90s, one would be hard pressed to find a professional football team starting a black quarterback. Today, 21% of professional quarterbacks are black, a number high enough for the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport to consider racial stacking a nonissue. However, literature still circulates that proposes that black athletes lack the intelligence necessary to affectively play quarterback. Michael Hart wrote a study in 2011 that analyzed the Wonderlic intelligence scores of quarterbacks (Wonderlic is a 50 question IQ test given to incoming NFL players) and positively correlated those scores to quarterback ratings (based on percent completed passes, number of yards gained per pass, percent passes resulting in touchdowns and percent interceptions). That would make sense, considering quarterback is a position of strategy and reason, of course smarter athletes would perform better. Hart goes on to compare those scores and ratings to the race of the quarterbacks, for which the top 11 scores were from white athletes, and concludes that white players tend to have higher success in the position, and therefore racial stacking is appropriate.
If that conclusion doesn’t seem fundamentally wrong to you, I beg that you keep reading, because it struck me as a blatant continuity of the negative ideology the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport deemed obsolete. First of all, considering that 66% of players in the NFL are black, wouldn’t it be safe to assume that the percentage of black quarterbacks would exceed 21%? What’s more, when considering the Wonderlic tests, the fact that a 79% majority produced higher scores isn’t altogether surprising. Perhaps under equal conditions the comparison could be telling, but at this point, to me, Hart’s study is conclusive only in proving that racial stacking is still a problem, that the NFL still has work to do.
But where should they work?
The 2013 Racial and Gender Report Card for the NFL, as administered by the aforementioned Institute of Diversity, gave the institution an A for racial hiring. I repeat again, 66% of NFL players are black, so why is there still a sense of inequality? Despite its gains over the past half-century, Football “remains the symbolic battlefield of war, and its cultural imagery is hard work, sacrifice, discipline, toughness, teamwork, and traditional aggressive masculinity” (186). In war, who is the most important person? He who controls the soldiers.
Aside from developing during the same historical period, the minority athletic movement mirrors the feminist athletic movement in that leadership positions lack critical mass necessary for cultural efficacy. According to the grade report, 97% of majority owners and team CEOs/presidents are white, along with 91% of vice presidents and 88% of head coaches. Given the population of players, the demographics of power positions seems to reflect the traditional American ideology of the white leader over the black masses. While the NFL has been an excellent model for showing how successful black athletes may become, it still operates in a wealthy white framework and will thus remain subject to the social effects of such leadership.
The touchdown dance
Dinerstein argues that this social framework is exactly that which black culture has restructured in sport culture, starting on the field. When the game first started, football was fairly straightforward, nearly mechanic, and represented a power dynamic focused on then contemporary industrial ideals. It was in such a climate, writes Dinerstein, that “a pendulum swing toward freedom and individual style in the game was long overdue” (174). A combination of jazz culture and athletic prowess led the black athlete to embody a specific aesthetic of improvisation, signature style and intimidation. From it sprouted stylistically admired moves like the slam dunk, the hip shake and fake and, of course, the touchdown dance.
The illegal celebration penalty of the 80s was the first to punish athletes for what Dinerstein calls the “illegal use of black culture” (170). He continues, ” For Euro-American players and coaches in the 1970s, touchdown dances connoted a lack of emotional self-control, a feminized sense of the male body, an unnecessary self-expression or wildness; i.e., the act itself is antithetical to the sport’s valorized ethos of teamwork and traditional white masculinity” (182). As the culture within the sport grew, however, the touchdown dance itself became a celebrated phenomenon highly anticipated by fans. They converged art with sport, competition with play, and endeared audiences to participate with the player when he scored for their team. The touchdown dance took football, a love child of the traditional patriarchy and the industrial revolution, and made it fun.
As the popularity of the dances grew, as did their absurdity, and many critics of the league considered them to be unsportsmanlike. Article 1 of Section 3 of the NFL rule book considers “excessive celebrations” those that are choreographed, use props or engenders ill will between teams, to be taunting, and liable to a penalty and fee. Whether or not this regulation can be seen as one against ‘illegal black culture’ is hard to conclude. Granted, in watching the video posted above, the questionable celebrations vary from entertaining to lewd. It must be noticed, however, that each of the athletes featured is black.
Key & Peele depict how, in the face of authority, a celebration can degenerate from fun to rebellious. Perhaps such regulations as those above in themselves contribute to negative performances as “the performance continuum of African American culture is motivated by the affirmation of individual style within the rules of the game” (Dinerstein, 176).
The NFL is an excellent model for tracking the growth of minority participation and ownership of American sport. While black athletes now make up the majority of players and have contributed obvious cultural attributes to play, they still remain the minority in power positions. This trend proves that traditional hegemonic ideology still reins in major professional athletic establishments such as the NFL, and likely in the institutions below it.
Abdel-Shehid, Gamal. Scrambling through the Black Atlantic: Black Quarterbacks and Americanada. Who da man? Black Masculinities and Sporting Cultures. Canadian Scholar’s Press. Toronto. 2005.
Dinerstein, Joel. Backfield in Motion: The Transformation of the NFL by Black Culture. In the Game: Race, Identity and Sports in the Twentieth Century. Amy Bass. Palgrave Macmillan. New York. 2005. Print.
Hart, Michael H. Quarterbacks, Race and Intelligence. American Renaissance. Volume 7. Issue 22. New Century Foundation. Oakton. 2011
Lapchick, Richard. The 2013 Racial and Gender Report Card: National Football League. The Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport. http://www.tidesport.org/RGRC/2013/2013_NFL_RGRC.pdf