DARWIN'S ATHLETES: How Sport Has Damaged Black America and Preserved the Myth of Race

DARWIN'S ATHLETES: How Sport Has Damaged Black America and Preserved the Myth of Race

Gerald Early

By John Hoberman. Houghton Mifflin. 326 pp. $22.95

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DARWIN’S ATHLETES: How Sport Has Damaged Black America and Preserved the Myth of Race.

By John Hoberman. Houghton Mifflin. 326 pp. $22.95

USA Today recently carried a front-page story about Dexter Manley, the former Washington Redskins All-Pro defensive end, who was about to be released from prison and was trying again, after numerous failures, to recover from the cocaine addiction that was ruining his life. At first glance, this could have been a white athlete’s story. After all, many notable white athletes, such as Detroit Tigers pitching star Denny McLain, San Diego Padres pitcher Eric Show, golfer John Daly, and boxer Tommy Morrison, have been compromised, even (in the cases of Show and McLain) destroyed by gambling, drugs, alcohol, or promiscuity. Such are the dubious privileges of the successful athlete—since the days of naked competition in Greece and gladiatorial combat in Rome. What is striking about Manley’s story, though, and peculiar to his downfall as a black athlete, is that he managed to get through both high school and college without learning to read.

The unique tragedy of the black athlete is brought into bolder relief by the recent appearance of boxing champion Muhammad Ali at the opening of the 1996 Summer Olympics. So severe is the brain damage Ali suffered in the ring that his palsied hand could barely hold the torch to ignite the Olympic flame. Again, many white fighters, from Jerry Quarry to Billy Conn and Rocky Graziano, have met similar or worse fates. But Ali is different. In his prime, he symbolized a new kind of athlete, one with a sense, however inchoate, of his political and social significance. Ali made the world see that he was not simply a brute but a man with convictions, a man who refused to accept the injustice of his society. Therefore, it is especially cruel to see him end up like any other pitiable bruiser.

The cases of Manley and Ali illustrate the need for a book on the impact of sports on the American idea of race. Hoberman, a professor of Germanic languages at the University of Texas at Austin, has a clear thesis: African Americans, foreclosed from many other pursuits, have entered certain sports in disproportionate numbers and, having tasted limited but real success in those areas, distorted the meaning of that success and, more important, failed to see how it is used by whites to keep them in a degraded condition.

During the last century, Hoberman recalls, sports were thoroughly racialized as proof of white superiority and justification for European colonial dominance. But Hoberman does not believe, as many do, that the rise of the black athlete has deracialized sports or made sports into a kind of egalitarian social utopia. What has happened, he says, is that the racial meaning of sports has been transformed. Now, instead of being a sign of white superiority, athletic prowess has become a sign of black inferiority—of blacks’ inability to do anything mental or intellectual. Whites are willing to grant to blacks the ability to run faster and jump higher because such a concession does not in any way affect whites’ status as the superior group. These specialized physical skills have no real function in the modern world, apart from entertainment, and no power apart from charisma. And whites have long cast blacks in the role of charismatic entertainers. For Hoberman, therefore, there is nothing liberating about black athletic achievement—not for African Americans generally, and certainly not for the athletes, regardless of how much money they make. The old racial myth—of blacks depoliticized, trivialized, reduced to the Freudian primitive in the white mind—remains intact.

There is a great deal of talk about "the black body" here (academics who work in this area have all read their Foucault, if not their Heidegger and Derrida), some of it frankly unconvincing. After all, the most eroticized presences in American culture remain the bodies of white women (and men—try selling pornography without a significant number of white people in it to anyone of any race, and see how far you get). Moreover, Hoberman does not deal with the curious fact that black men are far more eroticized than black women, especially among athletes.

More trenchant is Hoberman’s discussion of the meaning of black athletic achievement within the black community. Beyond the clichéd search for heroes, he finds a troubling core of anti-intellectualism, which he links to the terrible restrictions historically imposed upon black intellectual aspirations. A complete and honest understanding of black anti-intellectualism—how it differs from its white counterpart, and what its impact has been on blacks and race relations—is badly needed. By suggesting that black athletic achievement is something that black (and white) Americans should scrutinize instead of regard with unabashed pride, Hoberman has taken a good first step.

—Gerald Early

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