The Ugly Side of Sports

Some of the most influential events in America's troubled history of racial and ethnic conflict have occurred in the arena of professional sports. The grand national tribute recently paid to Jackie Robinson's legacy underscores the fact that his stride across Major League Baseball's color line had significant political and social ramifications. To some degree, the extent of the national progress toward equality and racial harmony can be measured through the lens of pro sports. For example, the prevalence of black athletes in football, baseball and basketball--as well as the paucity of black coaches and executives in these sports--reflects an enduring barrier that blocks minorities from securing positions of power in many facets of American society.

Sports have also provided a disturbing insight into the nature of the stereotypes and ethnic slurs that are often unarticulated in polite conversation. The comments of the late sportscaster Jimmy the Greek, expressing a bizarre attempt to link the institution of slavery to the prowess and accomplishments of African-American athletes, provide one of the more infamous examples of this phenomenon. Several months ago, this trend continued as New Jersey Nets coach John Calipari was fined by the NBA for referring to a reporter as a "Mexican idiot."

The most recent demonstration of racial insensitivity in the sports world occurred in the field of golf. Since the PGA tour remains such a lily-white enclave, perhaps it was only a matter of time before someone associated with the game made an asinine remark about the sport's new phenom, Tiger Woods. Last week, Woods won the PGA's Masters Tournament, setting records for being the youngest Masters winner in history, as well as winning with an 18-under-par score and a 12-stroke lead. However, Woods' unofficial record is being labeled the first black golfer to win a major tournament.

As Woods was closing in on his astounding victory, longtime golf pro and former Masters champion Fuzzy Zoeller referred to Woods as "that little boy" and said that he should not serve fried chicken or collard greens when he selects the menu for next year's Champions Dinner. These comments were part of an interview with CNN's "Pro Golf Weekly."

Zoeller has since released a half-hearted apology, claiming that his "comments were not intended to be racially derogatory" and expressing his regret that "they were misconstrued in this fashion." He also said: "It's too bad that something I said in jest was turned into something it's not, but I didn't mean anything by it."

Zoeller's remarks not only reflect bad taste and poor judgment, but also illustrate how some people's conception of humor is a flippant reference to a crude stereotype. It is even more discouraging to note that Zoeller does not seem to understand that he did not merely make a bad joke, but that what he said was racist. Zoeller has not demonstrated any true remorse for his statements or even expressed an understanding of why he should not have attempted to make a wisecrack about fried chicken. His "apology" could have easily been prompted by his publicist or PGA executives, who wanted merely to stem a public relations fiasco.

What makes this issue even more complex is that Tiger Woods is constantly identified in the press as an African-American, although he is uncomfortable with this racial classification. On yesterday's "Oprah Winfrey Show," Woods said that it bothers him when people call him an African-American because his background also includes white, Asian and Native American heritage; he is actually only one-fourth black.

Woods' melting pot lineage is just a precursor to a entire generation of interracial Americans. So far, both whites and blacks have often expected those of mixed heritage to follow the one-drop rule and to classify themselves as black if they have any fraction of African-American blood. Woods' rejection of the one-drop rule is indicative of new attitudes among interracial Americans. Hopefully, interracial people such as Tiger Woods will also help to demonstrate just how ridiculous racial stereotypes are.

David W. Brown's column appears on alternate Wednesdays.