In 1964, Cassius Clay, then only 22, brashly boasted that he would upset 7-1 favorite Sonny Liston for the world heavyweight championship. “I am the greatest!” he shouted. In retrospect, Clay clearly was the greatest. Why did his outbursts upset so many white sportscasters and fans?
In 2000, San Francisco 49er big personality and wide receiver Terrell Owens was hit with a one-week suspension and a $24,000 fine for twice placing the football on the opposing team’s mid-field logo after scoring a touchdown. The claim was that Owens incited the crowd and disrespected his opponent. Did he?
Many similar incidents later, in the Dallas Cowboys 2008 opening game, Owens was hit with a 15-yard penalty for dropping into a sprinter’s starting position and emulating Olympics gold medalist Usain Bolt after catching a second quarter touchdown pass. The NFL has a rule against excessive celebration. Why?
Last month, Denver Broncos wide receiver Brandon Marshall caught what turned out to be the winning touchdown in a 34-30 victory over the Cleveland Browns. He reached into his pants to pull out a half-black, half-white glove, intending to put it on and raise his fist like sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos did at the 1968 Olympics. Marshall explained his intentions in the post-game interview below (starting at 0:24).
[youtube 5mVYo693bK8 nolink]
But when teammate Brandon Stokley ran over and convinced Marshall that the penalty that would almost certainly ensue might cost Denver the game, the glove disappeared.
Marshall wanted to celebrate unity and the racial progress of America’s multicultural society. His gesture would have transcended sport and national boundaries. It was only two days after the historic U.S. presidential election, so from as far away as Chennai, India, blogger/journalist Siddhartha Mishra of Express Network Private Limited commented, ”Marshall was a historic moment away from becoming the first athlete to publicly honour US president-elect Barack Obama” Why did the rule book prohibit a statement that would have done more for this country than any football victory?
Since the NFL and the NBA got serious about this in 1984, there have been scores of such behaviors and resultant penalties. Why should we care?
In a 2003 paper (International Review for the Sociology of Sport) entitled “Race and Penalized Sports Behaviors,” UC Berkeley professor Herbert D. Simons asserts that because black athletes are overwhelmingly responsible for such prohibited behaviors, the sanctions levied are racially motivated.
There are a number of verbal and non-verbal behaviors exhibited by football and basketball players, such as trash talking, taunting, celebrating, dancing, etc., that are penalized and heavily criticized by the athletic officials, coaches, the media and fans. The amount of attention these behaviors receive seems out of proportion to their importance, since they provide little if any competitive advantage and seem to be only peripherally related to the actual competition….These behaviors are a reflection of urban African American cultural norms, which conflict with white mainstream norms. The sanctions represent white male mainstream society’s response to the threat to white masculinity represented by black athletic superiority and by African American athletes’ assertion of the right to define the meaning of their own behavior. In this contested terrain, African Americans are resisting white male hegemony and asserting their manhood and cultural identity.
Simons contends that some sportsmanship values are culturally relative:
[T]hey conflict with the cultural patterns of many [African American] athletes participating in basketball and football for whom appearing to be humble, showing respect for one’s opponents, and not calling attention to oneself is less valued than in mainstream white male society….In a multicultural society like the US, groups differ in their histories and cultural values….[The] expressive features of African American culture are…coping mechanisms made necessary because African Americans have historically been denied the opportunity to achieve respect and self-esteem through the traditional means of education and jobs. [F]or African American males, sports [has] been a major vehicle for asserting manhood and gaining the respect and self-esteem that flows from it….[C]elebrating, dancing, high stepping, spiking, dunking, [and] taking off one’s helmet are reflections of the expressiveness and performance aspect of African American culture. These behaviors are a performance…and are not necessarily directed at their opponents. They are designed to encourage spectators and teammates to validate one’s performance by responding to it. The desire for audience involvement may be related to the call and response features of African American churches.
Is the prohibition of these behaviors, as Simons contends, racially motivated? The culture of white owners and officials is:
“so fundamental, pervasive, ingrained, invisible, and normal that [they are] not even aware of its existence…..[T]he invisibility of one’s own culture makes it difficult to recognize behavior that conflicts with one’s own cultural expectations as an expression of a different cultural pattern. Behaviors that differ are seen as abnormal and deviant….When African Americans behave according to the standards of their culture, they make whites feel uncomfortable….(Black athletes] pose a threat to white male control of sports….In response to this threat, they have made normal African American behavioral expression abnormal and deviant by penalizing these behaviors.
One has only to look at sports in which African American do not participate in large numbers to see the hypocrisy. Score a goal in the NHL or world soccer and the athletes go wild. No penalties.
A young, black, athletic man will soon be our president. He has already offered an opinion—unrequested and probably unappreciated by the NCAA—about how college football should decide the national champion. His presence alone will engender cultural shifts in many areas. Sports is surely one of the less important spheres, but its ubiquity in our culture—almost every newspaper gives more column inches to sports than to national news—means that its lessons have much influence. And these lessons remain long after the knees give out.
Loosen up. Let the players dance.