“Too often the intelligence of black athletes is negated,” Spike Lee once told an interviewer. “(It’s presented as if) we come out of the womb dunking and running. There’s hard work involved. That stuff is never talked about.”
‘Oh, but that’s just Spike Lee – a dogmatic zealot with an axe to grind,’ right?
The issue isn’t whether white and black athletes are ultimately able to receive approximately equivalent praise in an overall, ‘I-like-him,’ ‘she’s-a-good-player’ sense. It’s that race-based assumptions about the reasons for their successes and failures still pervade.
Perhaps the most revealing crucible is the NBA Draft, where every player’s supposed strengths or weaknesses are dissected when projected to the next level from college.
All that must be done to see that this year and its race-based faux-analysis are no different is to consider early armchair evaluations of two of college basketball’s most promising freshmen – UCLA’s Kevin Love (white) and Kansas State’s Michael Beasley (black).
Love, according to Aran Smith at NBADraft.net, has a “great basketball IQ,” is “a fierce competitor” with “passion” who “really understands the game” and “makes those around him better.” He also, apparently, is “a great kid with personality.”
Beasley, Drew Wolin wrote for the same Web site, is a “big time athlete” who’s “brash” and “intimidates most players,” albeit one who is short in “maturity,” has an “attitude problem” and “lacks the discipline to be coached.” Also, according to Wolin, he “puts in very little effort” and “some wonder if he’s willing to work to be the player he can be.” Smith and Benjamin Egger chime in that Beasley needs “mental toughness,” as he can be “lazy and unfocused.”
What a bum.
Jonathan Givony of HoopsHype.com called Love “incredibly smart and polished” while Beasley “lacks focus and maturity.”
Believe it or not, both Web sites have Beasley as the No. 1 prospect, while Love barely scratches the top 15. That must have been some womb, because obviously Beasley didn’t work to attain that No. 1 status, nor his 40 points and 17 rebounds in 27 minutes Saturday. Those things just happened.
There is a chance Love actually may be smarter and more hard-working than Beasley.
However, past examples show this dichotomy is born not from a case-by-case assessment, but rather a recurring the-white-guy-just-tries-harder neurosis.
Matt Stock of NBADraft.net wrote that Oregon forward Luke Jackson (white), who was chosen 10th overall in 2004, “plays under control” and is “very unselfish.”
An unknown grader wrote of Western Carolina guard Kevin Martin (black), chosen 16 picks later, “perhaps his biggest challenge is developing his mental toughness.”
Apparently he did that, because he averages 23.3 points per game this season for the Sacramento Kings; Jackson, on the other hand, has posted 3.5 points per game over the course of his career.
Leading up to the 2002 draft, another unknown scribe called Stanford guard Casey Jacobsen (white) “a fundamentally sound, strong competitor with great basketball IQ.” Years after being the 22nd overall choice, he currently contributes two points per game for the Memphis Grizzlies.
Prior to the 2001 selection meeting, an unnamed author deemed Notre Dame forward Troy Murphy (white), the 14th pick, “a warrior” who was “very strong mentally” and “strongly motivated.”
Wow. It’s surprising he wasn’t cast as Neo in “The Matrix.”
Although he’s had a decent pro career, his hasn’t been as accomplished as that of the 10th pick, Arkansas guard Joe Johnson (black), who’s averaging nearly 10 points more per game despite having to, according to the site, “stay aggressive.”
Smith wrote Gonzaga forward Adam Morrison (white), 2006’s No. 3 overall pick, “competes and inspires others to play hard” while simply being a “hard worker” himself. The player taken one slot above him, Texas center LaMarcus Aldridge (black), according to Smith, needed more “intensity” and “in high school he developed a reputation for being soft and not showing enough heart.”
In reality, Aldridge went on to have about the same kind of rookie season as Morrison, if not better, and this season has been central to his Portland Trail Blazers’ resurgence.
Neither Smith nor any particular individual should be blamed, though. Pundits universally portrayed Morrison as a one-of-a-kind entity while Aldridge and other similarly sought after blacks were merely good ballplayers, with no mention of desire or work ethic.
Of course, basketball isn’t the only such plagued sport.
Beginning with this week’s NFL scouting combine, more than 300 of the country’s best college football players will be interviewed, poked, prodded, measured and analyzed. Their past athletic successes and failures, and their futures, too, will also inevitably be viewed through a lens crafted from mental dispositions regarding race.
Year after year, the most cerebrally demanding position – quarterback – is also the most heavily scrutinized.
Invariably, the top-rated white QBs, much more often than overall equivalently-rated black QBs, are praised for possessing polish, game-management skills, intelligence, poise, leadership, intangibles and being “pro-ready,” dedicated workers.
Black QBs’ shortcomings, meanwhile, are annually pointed out to be rawness, needing to sit a few years to learn an offense and not being “pro-ready.”
A year ago, Pro Football Weekly’s draft guide characterized Notre Dame signal caller Brady Quinn (white) as a “very intelligent” player who “takes the game seriously, studies it and really competes” and had the “mental makeup” to be successful.
LSU passer JaMarcus Russell (black), conversely, was pigeonholed as “not a great worker” who “may not have the mental makeup that is so critical to succeeding at the QB position.”
Mental makeup? Since when has the NFL Draft been an exercise in phrenology?
Russell, whose completion percentage and touchdown-to-interception ratio improved every year in college, had told reporters since he was a high school star about the necessity of hard work.
Quinn, who was passed on by 21 NFL teams, may never start for his Cleveland Browns, even though he makes a mean Subway commercial with his shimmering Caucasian marketability. The Oakland Raiders saw through myth and took Russell with the first overall pick; in their season finale he started for the first time and earned a 91.3 passer rating.
Not bad for such a dummy.
A similar injustice is taking shape this year. According to his NFLDraftCountdown.com profile, Louisville’s Brian Brohm (white) “has a terrific football IQ and knows how to read a defense” as a QB who’s “very smart and doesn’t make many bad decisions” and a “hard worker.”
Kentucky’s Andre’ Woodson (black), though, “has some issues when it comes to reading coverages” and “needs some development.”
But Brohm, the Web site’s second-ranked quarterback, compiled a 46-to-17 touchdown-to-interception ratio over his final two seasons while fifth-ranked Woodson’s was 71 to 18.
In fact, when Woodson’s Wildcats defeated Brohm’s Cardinals 40-34 last season, Woodson threw four touchdowns with no interceptions, while Brohm passed for a more pedestrian two scores with one interception.
Who, again, had difficulty reading defenses?
Then again, Russell vastly outplayed Quinn on his way to a bowl victory the previous year – “mental makeup” and all – only to still be stamped as less intelligent, so maybe there’s nothing the black QB can do.
As vividly as ever, this year’s coronation of the non-athletic prowess of the white, individual darling of college basketball, paired with the looming, latest edition of the-white-guy-is-smarter-than-the-black-guy quarterback analysis indicates our society still largely regards whites as harder workers than blacks.
When high-profile black athletes fail, it’s usually reasoned they didn’t put in enough work or weren’t smart enough. And when white, similarly high-profile athletes don’t live up to such expectations, it’s usually explained they simply weren’t “good” enough, even if that’s not actually the case.
There is a persisting distinction as clear as that between 1958 and 2008.
Let’s analyze athletes like it’s the latter year.
Donovan Aird is the Mustang Daily sports editor and a journalism senior.