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Racial stereotyping in sports discussed at academic conference

STANFORD -- Does the stereotype of black athletes as super physical beings encourage racial violence in America? Is basketball star Charles Barkley rejecting a myth when he claims he is no role model for American youngsters? Who is responsible for the low college graduation rates of star male athletes, particularly black athletes?

These were some of the questions that athletes, former athletes and scholars grappled with at a symposium on the role of sports in race relations and vice versa,at Stanford's Kresge Auditorium on Thursday, May 11. The panel on racial issues, the opening session of a three-day conference on "The Athlete's Body in History, on the Field and in Society," included white and black Stanford athletes, former athletes and leaders in athletic organizations.

Two players who don't fit the racial stereotypes of their sport -- freshman golfer Tiger Woods, who recently was the top amateur finisher in the history of the Masters golf tournament, and senior wide receiver Justin Armour, who recently was drafted in the fourth round by the Buffalo Bills -- said racism in harsh and subtle forms is still very much a part of sports.

Woods, an economics major who is only the third black golfer in American college competition during the last 15 years, told of the racist mail he receives among his fan mail, the unwelcome attitude with which some tournament organizers greet his plans to host clinics for youngsters while he is competing, and of incidents where his golf prowess is invisible to people who see only his skin color. Just in the past two weeks, he said, he has received two letters from people telling him that "niggers" do not belong in golf. On a recent trip to his Southern California home, the owner of a house facing a golf course that Woods played was so convinced Woods was trying to hit balls at the house that he demanded course officials "kick this nigger off the f-ing course."

"People get this stereotype that racism is in the South. That's B.S. It's everywhere," Woods told the campus audience.

Even golf great Jack Nicklaus, he said, "made a mistake" recently by making public comments to the effect that black and white players' muscles are different, which leads them to play the game differently. "We have this stereotype that black players are gifted and white players are heady," Woods said.

Armour, a public policy major, told of his experience in February at a National Football League training camp where he was the only white among 44 wide receivers who were being looked over for the draft. In informal conversations with the mostly white physicians, coaches and trainers, he said, he was frequently asked about his academic work and non-athletics-related plans for the future. The same people, when talking to black players, he said, were not only less talkative but brought up "nothing to do with scholarship."

During a pencil-and-paper problem-solving test, he said, some of the black athletes pretended to be sneaking a peek at his paper. This joking behavior, he said, was encouraged by league representatives in the room. On the field, he said, coaches made comments when seeing him about having a "smart guy" in the group. Only after the camp was over, Armour said, did it strike him how pervasive the stereotyping had been. "It is perpetuated over and over," he said, by well-educated people. "What scares me about racism is that the majority of it is pretty subtle."

Stanford soccer player and long-distance runner Dena Dey said that "the whole time I was growing up, race was my defining characteristic." A junior American studies major, Dey is an African American who competes in two sports in which blacks are common in other countries but not in the United States. The racial climate of those sports is influenced, she said, by the publicity in other more publicized sports. "The participants, the fans who follow these other sports are affected by Tiger's situation. It proliferates everywhere I go," Dey said.

In opening the conference, Stanford Athletics Director Ted Leland said the planners wanted to challenge a "deeply entrenched stereotype" that sports and intellectual activity have nothing in common. One misconception, he said, is that the sciences and humanities have nothing in common, and another is that sports and intellectual activity are equally estranged. The dichotomy, he said, is "arbitrary and unnecessarily limiting."

Hans Gumbrecht, the Albert Guerard Professor of Literature and one of the organizers of the conference, asked the athletes and former athletes to speculate on whether they thought Michael Jordan was, or could be, a "role model" in this society. In literature, he noted, an "angel" is often conceived of as disembodied but an athlete's body is emphasized.

Most professional athletes are disembodied in that they are "too distant from the community" to be role models for youth, said Rodney Gilmore, a San Francisco lawyer and Pac-10 football broadcaster who played football for Stanford. "Tiger's clinics are the kind of contact that makes a difference," he said. Gilmore also said he was concerned that sports is no longer the vehicle for improving race relations that he thought it had been when he was an athlete.

The Rev. Floyd Thompkins, the associate dean of Stanford's Memorial Church who also runs programs for African American adolescent boys in 10 local schools, said that the youth he works with in local schools aren't looking for celebrities of any type to come speak to them. If he announces a speaker lately, Thompkins said, the youths in his groups say to him something like " 'Good God, another astronaut! We want to meet a real person.' That's why I think Charles Barkley was not all wrong" about professional athletes not being role models to youth.

Thompkins also said he worries that the "glorification" of professional black athletes as "people who are stronger, faster and bigger than everybody else" gives everyone more permission to be fearful of, or more violent against, black males in general. "It seems innocuous, but it's profoundly dangerous," he said, not to challenge the stereotype of the superhuman black athlete. "It could give permission for police to be more violent or to again lynch [blacks] because there is a Michael Jordan and an L.T. Taylor."

Former sportscaster Jan Hutchins said that television sports coverage emphasizes aggression and violence, downplaying the actual subtleties involved in playing most sports.

The idea of a role model, Leland said, comes from research literature that suggests young people "mirror" the behavior of adults, rather than their ideas. For example, he said, those who are abused as children are more likely to be abusers of children later than those who were not.

Richard Lapchick, the director of Northeastern University's Center for the Study of Sport in Society and the founder of a program that trains athletes and former athletes to work with youngsters, agreed that athletes must make more than one visit to a school to be effective. In his program, athletes and former athletes take a human rights training course so they can work with kids on reducing violence, sexism and racism in their schools and neighborhoods. The athletes commit to visiting a particular school at least once a month and do not go simply to make speeches, he said.

Lapchick, the son of Joe Lapchick, the Boston Celtics coach who brought the first black player onto that team in 1950, successfully organized the U.S. boycott of South African athletic competition in the 1970s. In 1984, he founded a consortium of academic institutions to provide a tuition-free education to their former athletes who didn't graduate. In exchange, the athletes do community service work with youth. So far, 117 colleges and universities have provided $56 million in tuition assistance to more than 8,000 former athletes who have worked with 2.3 million youths, he said. During the nine-year period, 2,001 current-roster professional players completed their degrees. (Stanford does not belong to the consortium, Leland said, because some of the organization's bylaws do not fit within the university's existing policies.)

Lapchick was critical of professional and college sports for their lack of racial integration in management, and he said the proposal before the National Collegiate Athletic Association to require college athletes to earn a minimum SAT score is irrelevant to the current problem of undereducated athletes. Change needs to begin by "raising the bar" for academic performance much earlier in youngsters' lives. More than half of young African American high school athletes believe they can make the pros, whereas the odds are really 10,000 to one, he said. Parents, teachers, coaches and the general community "encourage them to develop their bodies, not their minds," he said, and rags-to-riches stories of a few stars create "an illusion of fairness in a nation of despair."

"We have to give youngsters a better game -- one that develops, not debilitates, them."



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