What Role Do Sports Play in Race Relations in America?

In 2015, we’re supposed to be more connected.  We should be more aware of what’s going on around us, more empathetic to the tribulations and successes of others, and more united with those who come from different walks of life than we do.

It doesn’t take a Bill Belichick (my synonym for “genius”) to figure out that our society is nothing like that.  We are more polarized than ever, and modern technology is undeniably at fault.  Over half of millennials get their news from social media, in particular their feeds on Facebook or Twitter… which sounds fine except for the minor detail that people control what’s on their feeds.  They block out what they don’t agree with and don’t want to hear, just like a conservative can only watch Fox News or a liberal can only watch MSNBC.

(Side Note: The sole reason I will use politics in this piece is because it is a realm of our society that demonstrates our polarization quite definitively.  I am not going to take a political side, but I will call a spade a spade and identify both crazy political beliefs and people who are far too politically biased to even listen to the argument of someone on the other side of the aisle.  I don’t care if you’re a democrat or republican; I only care that you don’t believe that Obama is a Kenyan-born Jihadist who wants America to be ruled by some combination of ISIS and Al-Qaeda, or that the Ronald Reagan administration created AIDS and spread it to Africa to kill black people – looking at you, Kanye West.  Also, sorry for the Bill Simmons-length side note.)

But it’s not just social media or millennials that cause the division in this country.  Two years ago, NPR posted a column from Alan Greenblatt explaining “How Republicans and Democrats Ended Up Living Apart,” and it’s worse than you think.  In 1976, just over a quarter of Americans lived in landslide counties, or counties where the margin of victory in the 1976 election was at least 20 points.  Now, that number is over half of America.  Put simply, people don’t like living around anybody other than themselves.  Such division is only made worse through the record levels of gerrymandering that we see nowadays.  America was built on the idea that the people choose their politicians, but now politicians choose the people they represent.

You’re probably wondering where race enters the equation here.  Well, race is the epitome of this division that humans irrationally exhibit among each other.  Humans all originated from Africa, yet, over the countless generations, we’ve figured out a way to justify hating each other based on color of skin and where that color originated.  A crucial aspect of what I’m saying about the politicization of society in general is that it’s systematic, and what’s more systematically polarizing than racism?

Here’s the thing about racism though: It’s rooted within us; it’s a natural occurrence.  Part of being human is an innate tribal desire to put ourselves in groups and dislike those who are a part of another group.   Michelle Alexander, the author of the book The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, had a very interesting take on racism and its roots inside every human mind.  Alexander has stated that she believes that we all have certain tendencies and biases that we don’t realize, and when one notices such feelings inside someone else, they should bring it up in a constructive manner so that the offender can realize their bias and say, “Wow, you’re right, I’m sorry about that and I’ll be sure to check that in the future.”  (If you want a video of her saying it, my memory of it comes from her appearance on Real Time with Bill Maher in February 2014.)  Given Alexander’s expertise in writing about race, I find it incredibly fascinating and enlightening, and I believe she’s absolutely right about the biases and even bigotry that lies within all of us.

Here’s a quick story that demonstrates this truth more than anything else, and don’t worry, it’s not a dark story, but actually a funny one.  When I was in high school, two Catholic missionaries visited us after their trip to Africa to help children throughout central Africa get access to better learning materials and basic sports equipment like soccer balls and cleats. When they arrived, the teachers were so excited to have them, but the children started crying to an almost uncontrollable degree.  The missionaries asked the teachers what the issue was, but the teachers didn’t want to say.  When the missionaries pressed some more, the teachers responded by saying, “Honestly, these children have never seen white people before, so they think that you’re ghosts.”

Humans fear and dislike the unknown.  That’s a fact.  And when a person hasn’t been around different kinds of people throughout their lives, they’ll become skeptical of those who they deem to be different.  That’s why I’ll always view diversity as the key to alleviating racial tensions in America or anywhere else.  When we are around those of a different background, we learn to respect types of people other than ourselves.

So how do people connect when they don’t seem to have many similarities?  Well, a lesson that I learned in college about networking applies here perfectly.  My professor informed us that the best way to network is not to walk up to someone at a networking event or hit them up on Linkedin and say “Hi, I’d like to get to know you,” because such a method is too fake and direct.  (It’s pretty hard to be both fake and direct, but this is one of those rare times.)  In order to have someone in your corner, they need to be able to trust you and know what you’re about.  How do you do that?  By some activity outside of strict networking in which the person gets to know you.  My professor used the example of how playing basketball with a few people in the university’s registrar’s office helped him immensely, because they knew to trust him as a companion rather than just a coworker.  In a case like that, the person will get to know you and trust you in a more genuine way, and that’s how you get a real connection to someone, whether it’s from a networking perspective or not.

It’s no debate that increasing the effect that diversity has should be done primarily with regards to children, as racial tensions become rooted in a person from a young age.  It’s quite hard to get an adult to respect someone with a different sexual orientation, gender, or race when they’ve been a bigot for so many years.  Kids are the focus, and school should be the best way to integrate children and — more importantly — to instill a belief inside their heads that superficial differences between people don’t matter.

But what if the classroom doesn’t do it, as is the case in so many schools across the country?  I shouldn’t have to tell you that school districts reflect the statistics of polarization based on where people live that I included in the beginning of the column.  If adults move to homogeneous areas, then their kids will grow up in a homogeneous environment.  Furthermore, many school districts or private schools often make matters worse through their attempts at “diversity,” and my high school was no different.  The school or the district’s intentions may be pure and logical, but there are unintended consequences.  At my high school, we had a “diversity rate” of a little over 11%, and yes, that means that almost 89% of the students were white.  Many of those who weren’t white came from rougher areas of Boston and were brought to school on a bus, and they were the only kids who came by bus.  The black or Hispanic students often felt that they weren’t at home in our school partially because there wasn’t enough diversity for anyone who wasn’t white to feel at home.  The white students often believed, whether they’d admit it or not, that the non-white students were there for disingenuous reasons.  There were few overt racial incidents at the school, but there was not nearly as much social integration as there should have been.  Does that sound like the kind of melting pot that we want America to be?

That’s where sports (finally) show up in this column.  What was going on at my high school (and so many others… you’ve all heard the stereotype of the black kid who has a 4 hour commute on 3 different bus lines to get to a white school) is akin to the networking example from my professor.  You can’t just say “Here, white and black kids, you’re together now.  Be friends.”  No, people gain genuine trust for someone else through activities.  And sports offer a solution.

When children — or anyone really — are playing sports together, they’re not focusing on someone’s race.  During a game or practice, you’re not judging someone by what side of town they live on, but by whether or not they’re gonna make that layup if you dish them a backdoor pass.  Of course, I can’t be too cut and dry with this, as nothing can eradicate racism completely, especially if it’s deep rooted within a family.  Also, sports often can teach kids horrible ethics if they’re coached improperly by the coaches or parents, whether that involves playing dirty to get ahead or a ferocious sense of competition that can’t be toned down in the times of life when it shouldn’t come up.  For the most part, though, sports can serve as a means by which children learn to put aside all the BS that humans often use to judge each other and instead focus on their counterparts in a different way.  Like I said before, when you perform an activity with someone and especially when you succeed at it, you gain a genuine sense of trust for that person that can break down racial barriers.

On a more minor level, even rooting for sports teams can be a method of integration.  Humans naturally have a tribal desire to put themselves into a group and dislike anyone who is in a different group, which is the root of racism.  Sports fandom provides an outlet for fans to carry out those tribal instincts (Yankees fans are scumbags, am I right?) without actually hating each other in a vitriolic way.  When someone crosses the line and confuses their sports hatred for actual hatred, then that’s a problem with potentially terrible consequences, as you can witness at just about any Oakland Raiders game.  But generally speaking, being a fan enables a tribal side of us to come out in a way that doesn’t harm the world around us and provides a high level of entertainment.

The angle of children playing sports is the most important, of course.  With the level of polarization that our society has reached, it’s imperative that we fill the minds of children with acceptance rather than separation.  A shared activity is the best way to foster respect, and sports can provide that level of social tolerance in a way that even school often cannot, so long as the sports teams themselves consist of diverse members.  The polarization in this country is out of control because it comes so naturally to people, and we need natural, genuine ways for adults and especially children to champion tolerance in the face of such division.  Sports can play that role in our broken society.

If you think I’m overrating the social importance of sports or that I’m taking too big of a leap in anything else that I’ve said here, I want to hear from you and have an adult conversation about it.  Please either talk to me on Twitter at @duckboats_ready or respond in the comments.  The only thing that I ask is that you don’t simply say that I’m wrong or that you disagree, but that you specifically say where in my logic that you think I went array.  When analyzing someone’s analysis, we need to talk about it in depth, just like our country needs to discuss race relations, the role of sports in our society, and the specific role of sports in race relations with far more depth than we already do.

4 responses

  1. Great blog! Do you have any helpful hints for aspiring writers?

    I’m hoping to start my own blog soon but I’m a little lost on everything.
    Would you propose starting with a free platform like WordPress or go for a paid option? There are so many options out there that I’m completely confused ..
    Any suggestions? Thanks!

    1. Hi Franziska, I chose to pay for WordPress so that “WordPress” in the URL. It kind of depends what you want to do. I think if you’re just doing one that’s meant to be your personal diary of a blog, then going for the free version is fine, whereas I wanted mine to be an actual website so that’s why I paid.

  2. Good post! We are linking to this particularly great content on our
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