In 1968, amid the fires of the Black Freedom Struggle, Sports Illustrated’s Jack Olsen wrote the groundbreaking and controversial piece “The Black Athlete—A Shameful Story.” It was an overview of black athletes in revolt. At the time, the best athletes in the country—Jim Brown, Bill Russell, Lew Alcindor (soon-to-be Kareem Abdul-Jabbar) and Muhammad Ali—were a part of this revolt. (There were African-American women athletes who would have been a part of this movement, but they found themselves shut out.) In addition, a group of African-American athletes, led by Tommie Smith, Lee Evans and John Carlos, were threatening to boycott that year’s Olympic Games in Mexico City. Olsen—for better or worse—focused on the shock felt by mainstream white sports fans that such a revolt would even be necessary.
As Olsen wrote, “What is happening today amounts to a revolt by the black athlete against the framework and attitudes of American sport, and that such a thing could occur in his own pet province has astonished the white sports follower. The reason for the astonishment is that the man in the grandstand knows nothing about the Negro athlete whom he professes to understand, appreciate and ennoble as a symbol of the enlightened attitude of the world of sport toward segregation and intolerance. A wall of ignorance and unfounded suppositions is shielding the fan from the realities of the black athlete’s background and his hopes.”
Fast-forward to 2011: in an era of twenty-four-hour sports media, the dynamics described by Olsen are profoundly different but also disturbingly similar. Cable networks and fans lining up for luxury boxes are more distanced than ever from the reality that black athletes travel through to make it to the big leagues. In an era of fantasy sports, fans dream of controlling players instead of becoming them. The players also tend to come from impoverished backgrounds, as they did forty years ago, while becoming much wealthier than their forebears. That has created a canyon between the black player and the white fan and overwhelmingly white press corps. And the latitude of that press corps to be brazenly racist is often jaw-dropping. Witness prominent ESPN national radio host Colin Cowherd’s recent assertion that (white) NFL commissioner Roger Goodell is a “father figure” to African-American football players who never had the paternal structure and discipline that Goodell provides. Somehow he still has a job. This kind of easy ignorance about and antipathy toward African-American athletes has created a new phenomenon: the black athletic boogeyman.
Websites now compete for attention by parading the latest boogeyman—whether it’s Barry Bonds, Rashard Mendenhall or James Harrison—before a largely white fan base. All three of these athletes found controversy, but for profoundly different reasons. Bonds has long been suspected of being a steroid user. Mendenhall argued on Twitter that rejoicing over Osama bin Laden’s death was barbaric. Harrison posed for a magazine with two of his guns and unleashed a stream of invective at Goodell (calling him a “faggot”). Yet despite the vast differences in the legality and morality of these acts, each athlete was pilloried in the press in a similar way: as a symbol of the moral degeneracy of black athletes. It’s twenty-first-century racism, and sports celebrity is used to make it palatable. After all, they’re rich, right?