With the meteoric rise of horse racing’s popularity in the decade before the Civil War, fueled heavily by laissez–faire regulation that aided gambling, cheating by all involved became as common as it was unchecked. So it was befuddling what befell a jockey, Abe Hawkins, in 1851: expulsion from The Jockey Club in Metairie, La., the cradle of the industry, on a charge of throwing a race.
For Hawkins was the most-celebrated jockey, if not athlete, in this country at the time. Horse racing was the national pastime. But he was black, too, a former slave as were many jockeys.
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As I wrote a couple of years ago in an entry for the Oxford African American Studies Center: “It [Hawkins’ charge] was an accusation that echoed suspicions from white citizens of enslaved Africans, and their progeny, as dishonest. It became one of many racial stereotypes in the white-owned and operated sports media for years to come that either created or perpetuated unfounded ideas about African-Americans, athletes and otherwise, in the public psyche.”
So the only thing surprising to me about the Richard Sherman affair is that Richard Sherman, a star NFL cornerback for Seattle — expressed surprise to the reaction he received, most of it condemnatory from the media and patronizing from authorities in the game (like his coach).
Sherman, on a Sunday post-game interview on Fox TV, called his opponent a “sorry receiver,” amid other reactions that ignited a firestorm on Twitter. Sherman, a Stanford graduate, was called a “monkey” and a “thug” on social media, NPR reported.
The reaction has been racist from the cowardly and ignorant in social media, who are emboldened by the digital soapbox’s prophylactic of stealth and virtual anonymity.
Sherman is the latest link in a lineage of black athletes in this country to be cast in a negative light by a majority white sporting press and public for violating an unwritten constitution they ignore for others, by virtue of screaming no profanities during a post-game interview in the immediate aftermath of a highly charged championship game.
Take, for example, the first freshman football player to win the Heisman Trophy, Johnny Manziel, two seasons ago. That he spent a night in jail on three misdemeanors following a fight with a black man angered that Manziel’s friend, white like Manziel, spat a racial epithet in his face, was dismissed as college shenanigans. It wasn’t dissected as was Sherman’s brief rant as some sort of character flaw, and then denounced in every quarter.
Take Marshall Henderson, a star basketball player for Ole Miss who, despite his antics on the court that include taunting and troubles off it that include drug and alcohol abuse, was celebrated by CBS Sports during its NCAA Tournament coverage as a free spirit. Henderson is white. Black athletes who engage in such histrionics and compile such an inglorious curriculum vitae aren’t granted such promotion.
Indeed, an article about Sherman on CBS Los Angeles’ website a day after Sherman’s post-game on-field interview included a poll for readers to decide what they thought of Sherman. It provided three choices, all pejorative.
We in the media often report about racial profiling around us. We never report about the racial profiling we commit in the commission of doing our jobs. But many among us racially profiled Sherman and, more disturbingly, provided the public excuse to do the same.
Sherman was portrayed as self-centered and arrogant. He was described in words and phraseology that infantilized him. (His coach, Pete Carroll, told Seattle radio station 710 ESPN: “I look at it like this: What would I tell my son? I’m a dad. I speak from that perspective. Maybe [the players] don’t always want to hear it that way, but it’s the best way I can communicate.” Sherman didn’t grow up in the media’s stereotypical view of a broken Compton, Calif., home with a dad in prison and mom on drugs. He grew up in a traditional American nuclear family that encouraged his athletic excellence be matched by academic achievement.
Sherman was painted as deviant, a menace to society, or a “thug,” the new millennium’s euphemism for “young black man misbehaving.”
“What’s the definition of a thug? Really?” Sherman asked members of the media during a press conference on Wednesday. “Can a guy on a football field just talking to people [be a thug?] … There was a hockey game where they didn’t even play hockey! They just threw the puck aside and started fighting. I saw that and said, ‘Ah, man, I’m the thug? What’s going on here?’”
The story from the press conference noted that the assembled media chuckled. We don’t get it, we really don’t.
It isn’t Sherman who should apologize for his actions; it is too many of us in the sports media who should ask for forgiveness for ours.
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