Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Outrunning Stereotypes

As Yahoo Sports columnist Michael Silver documents in this column, Toby Gerhart of Stanford, projected as a high pick in this weekend's NFL Draft, is fighting one of the most persistent and annoying stereotypes in American sports - the idea that white players can't excel at sporting endeavors that require a high degree of athleticism, such as being the featured running back for an NFL team. As far as racial implications go, this belief is doubly pernicious. For accomplished white players playing positions perceived as "black", it creates additional barriers to success by engendering skepticism among coaches and talent evaluators (and not just at the NFL level Silver documents - it wouldn't surprise me if one reason there aren't more Toby Gerharts is that promising white runners are often moved to other, more "white" positions by high school or college coaches). Worse, however, is the implication for black players - the idea that only blacks can effectively play positions that demand elite athleticism dovetails with old, racist stereotypes that while black athletes excel solely because of natural ability, their less-gifted white teammates must rely on "smarts", "savvy", or "dedication" to compete. Pretty much everyone who makes it to the NFL, white or black, is an elite athlete (though some more than others), and with the exception of truly rare genetic freaks, anyone who succeeds at that level has to be smart and dedicated as well. I remember Michael Jordan saying that one of the things he always resented about people talking about how great a natural athlete he was was that it slighted all the hard work and mental effort he put into mastering the game of basketball. Here's hoping that Gerhart succeeds as a white running back the same way a guy like Warren Moon succeeded as a cerebral black quarterback, and drives another stake into this rather annoying stereotype. And here's hoping that if he does so in a manner reminiscent of, say, Jerome Bettis, people will make that comparison rather than the more racially obvious John Riggins or Mike Alstott ones.

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