How did golfer Tiger Woods and tennis stars Serena and Venus Williams become pioneers in sports history? These are some of the questions cultural sociologist Ben Carrington tackles in his new book “Race, Sport and Politics” (Sage, September 2010).
Carrington, associate professor in the Department of Sociology, presents a postcolonial overview of sport’s role in enforcing racial stereotypes, particularly about black athletes. Using past and present sports icons as examples — boxers Jack Johnson, Muhammad Ali and Mike Tyson — Carrington argues that ideas of white intellectual supremacy and black degeneracy still remain deeply embedded in sports culture.
What is the major theme of your book?
I argue that the sociology of sport needs to go beyond some of the traditional ways of thinking about race and sport. Once you understand sport’s historical and contemporary role in shaping racial discourse, you not only see how race impacts sport, but also how sport itself changes ideas about races and racial identity in society as a whole.
How did sports alter perceptions of race in the 20th century?
At the beginning of the 20th century, whites were considered to be superior to blacks, intellectually, aesthetically and even physically. By the 1930s, this logic begins to shift as blacks are viewed as potentially physically superior to whites in matters related to sports. Jack Johnson played a pivotal role in challenging these ideas of white supremacy when he became the first black heavyweight champion of the world.
What role do you believe politics play in sports?
Some people argue that sports work like a distorting mirror. It has an ideological effect that makes us believe we’re all happily a part of the same world. In the World Cup, one of the FIFA advertisements stated, ‘this is not about politics, war, religion or economics. It’s about football.’ That makes us feel like we’re all human beings who love the same sport. But in truth, it’s all about politics when you see politicians in the stands promoting their countries and wearing their national colors.
Your book argues that media continue to perpetuate fears of the black male athlete. What’s a recent example?
The April 2008 cover of Vogue generated some controversy over how NBA star LeBron James is depicted with supermodel Gisele Bundchen. In the picture, LeBron has striking similarities to the classic ‘King Kong’ image carrying off Fay Wray, a racially loaded simian metaphor that draws upon white fears about black male hypersexuality and violence. The magazine cover metonymically plays with these deeply racist symbols in using one of the world’s most famous black men to portray a ferocious gorilla carrying off a white woman.
You argue black athletes are commonly seen as physically gifted and intellectually stunted. What do you mean by this?
You see this in the way many people believe black athletes are ‘naturally’ gifted for sports, implying their success comes from within, that it is rooted in their biology. This goes hand-in-hand with the idea there is a split between the physical and the intellectual. Just as we might admire an animal’s spectacular physicality, we don’t therefore assume animals have our cognitive capabilities. So the praising of black athleticism often serves to reinforce notions of black intellectual inferiority.
How do you believe these stereotypes are perpetuated in sports media?
White sports commentators and journalists used to be very explicit in comparing black athletes to monkeys, gorillas and cheetahs. Today they are more circumspect and instead tend to over-emphasize black players’ physical attributes — power, speed, strength and so on — and conversely tend to highlight the ‘intelligence’ and ability to ‘read the game’ of white athletes, who supposedly lack the ‘natural advantage’ of their black peers, but can make up for it by their better play-making abilities.
I would also add that college sports help to perpetuate these myths, especially given how committed big-time college sports programs are to win conference and national titles using the labor of predominately black ‘student-athletes.’ At the same time, they demonstrate a lack of concern with actually graduating these students, most of whom will not go on to become professional athletes. Thus, these issues are really systemic, running through professional sports to the college level and even into high schools where we see similar patterns.