Race at the Center of Sports Scandals?

Barry Rothbard

In the past week, two racially charged scandals have been at the forefront of the sports world. The ramifications of these scandals will long be felt. The Duke Lacrosse scandal finally came to a rest last week when all charges were dropped against the three alleged rapists. At about the same time, CBS fired its longtime, legendary “shock-jock” Don Imus because of his derogatory comments about the Rutgers’s women’s Basketball team. Add that to the NFL suspending players Chris Henry and Pacman Jones, and the past week has been full of controversy. It is no coincidence that at the center of each of these stories is race. Race has become one of the biggest issues in the world of sports. Were the Duke players really innocent? Is Don Imus a racist pig who deserved to lose his job? Are Henry and Jones thugs, or are they just unlucky?

First of all, race will always be an issue in sports. The NBA is predominantly black. Nearly half of the NFL’s players are black. Hockey is nearly all white, and there are few black baseball players. These gaps in race cause significant controversy. Would Peyton Manning have been suspended for “making it rain” like Pacman Jones? Probably not! But there’s the difference. Peyton Manning is certainly not Pacman Jones. They come from different places, they have different values, and they live different lives. Whether we choose to admit it or not, race plays a deciding role in who we are and what we can become. Was the alleged victim in the Duke case simply looking for a nice payday or did the Duke players slide because of superior lawyers? We will never know what goes on beyond the scenes and what actually happened that night, but race was certainly at the center of the issue. Had the stripper been white, this story probably would have been less overblown, since part of the controversy stemmed from the derogatory email and racial slurs. But when race comes into play, chaos evidently ensues. Different people have different viewpoints and thus, while some became enraged and furious, others stood by the lacrosse players. Race is the one unifying factor amongst all people. White people don’t like to think that their race is so intolerant and inhumane. Black people likewise stand up for one another and will tend to believe when someone says they are harmed. Bias, although not necessarily right, is unavoidable and natural at times.

But Don Imus’ firing was more than just a situation of black versus white. It was more indicative of where our sports culture currently lies. Yes, Imus was wrong when he referred to the players as “nappy-headed hos,” but at the same time, that is Imus’s job. He is known for having inflammatory viewpoints, and his listeners are used to controversial remarks. While Imus certainly crossed a boundary and should have known better given his experience, he did not deserve to lose everything he had worked for in his life over one wrong statement. We all, at some point or another, will say something we regret (although admittedly not on the radio). In the wake of the Imus firing, the two best explanations for what was wrong with the whole ordeal that I heard came from African American sports authorities, Jason Whitlock (an article that can be found in the Kansas City Star) and Stuart Scott (commenting on Sportscenter). The two pointed out that Imus, although definitely wrong in his comments, is not solely responsible for his own remarks. We have to look at our culture. Both pointed out how influenced the sports nation, specifically basketball, has been by the hip-hop industry. The NBA markets itself towards a largely “hip-hop” demographic and has become almost synonymous with the gangster lifestyle, as derogatory statements are continuously flung around in rap lyrics. Additionally, instead of recognizing that our whole culture is way too labeled and stereotyped, Vivian Stringer, the Rutgers coach, and black activists, Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson, became extremely defensive, hurt, and aggressive towards Imus. Instead of focusing on Imus as a criminal, as Whitlock and Scott suggested, we should be focusing on how one of the most well-known radio personalities could casually make a statement like this. The explanation is pretty clear cut as to why this story got blown up and why Imus has been hit so hard with backlash. The world of sports is dominated by a racial dichotomy. The athletes are predominantly black. Thus, when they commit crimes, they are unavoidably viewed as criminals and subsequently stereotyped, whether fair or not. Likewise, when white radio personalities or lacrosse players commit a crime, black people automatically leap to conclusions and become defensive. How did our society get to this point, with race still playing a decisive role in controversy? Until the major sports change their images and stop being viewed as leagues full of thugs and entourages, there will be an endless cycle of athletes making it rain and people saying the wrong things. Race issues are an undeniable barrier and problem that exists in he world of sports-one that must be broken.