Gerald L. Early, a professor at Washington University in St. Louis whose cultural commentary has appeared in The New York Times and other major national media, spoke in the first installment of this year’s three-part Alain LeRoy Locke Lecture Series.
“Sports are a great deal, socially and psychologically, like fine art in this culture,” he said. “They are live narratives, intensified by the uncertainty of outcome, that say a great deal about what it means to be human and what we value.”
The Barker Center’s Thompson Parlor echoed with a heated discussion of race, equality and athletics yesterday, as Early read his most recently composed essay entitled “The Next Level: Race, Sports and Affirmative Action in the United States.”
To frame his remarks on race in American culture and sports, Early focused on the recent controversy involving conservative radio commentator Rush Limbaugh and Philadelphia Eagles Quarterback Donovan McNabb.
Limbaugh came under fire when he described McNabb as an overrated black athlete in a Sept. 28 broadcast of ESPN’s pre-game show “Sunday NFL Countdown.”
The network fired Limbaugh from his job as a commentator for the show the same week.
According to Early, who studied several articles surrounding the controversy and McNabb’s reaction to it, the incident exemplified the ability of sports to reveal social and cultural context in America.
“ESPN hired Limbaugh to suggest that football had some wider meaning beyond the obsession of the passionate fan,” he said. “His political opinions themselves signify social commentary of some sort or another.”
Limbaugh’s remarks, according to Early, point to deeper-seated racial attitudes that fail to give some black athletes their due credit.
Although statistics suggest McNabb’s on-field performance is average, Early argued that McNabb plays an important role as a strong leader of his team that cannot be quantified.
“Limbaugh slurs black ability by implying that affirmative action is the reason why McNabb is quarterback, which is also tantamount to smearing affirmative action itself,” Early said.
He also spoke more generally about the political and social implications of sports.
“Who plays high-level sports has as much meaning as how well they play,” he asserted.
Early discussed the competition between black and white athletes, noting that the competition complicates definitions of affirmative action in sports.
At the end of his remarks, Early observed that the inherent inequality of athletic competition further complicates racial tensions on the playing field.