When winning is losing

Published: Thursday, January 18, 2007 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, January 17, 2007 at 3:20 p.m.
The Florida Gators' convincing victory over the Ohio State Buckeyes was more than a football game. It also showcased America's enduring racial stereotype that muscular, speedy blacks are athletically endowed, making them superior to whites on our fields and courts.
When I saw the large number of black players celebrating after the game and as I thought of how blacks now dominate college and professional basketball, I was reminded of John Hoberman's 1997 book, ''Darwin's Athletes: How Sport Has Damaged Black America and Preserved the Myth of Race.''
Hoberman, a professor of Germanic languages at the University of Texas at Austin, argues that the nation's obsession with black athletic prowess has evolved into a destructive force in black society and plays a worrisome role in race relations in general.
Because blacks traditionally have been excluded from other areas of success, sports stars have become our role models, our ''race heroes.'' We have given our most gifted athletes messianic status, a conferment that prevents us from confronting the realities beneath the illusions.
One of the biggest illusions of black athleticism, Hoberman contends, is the belief that the high numbers of successful blacks in most sports indicate that sports have become a deracialized utopia where blacks are equal to their white teammates, thus making America itself more egalitarian.
Nothing could be further from the truth, Hoberman writes. The specter of rich, flamboyant, black superjocks constantly in the public eye does not indicate real success but, on the contrary, contributes to deepening racial divisions and the further degradation of black athletes and black life per se.
During the 19th century and the early 20th century, sports were proof of white superiority, authority and entitlement in Western civilization. Today, paradoxically, instead of elevating blacks to a level of respectability, our dominance in many sports has become a sign of our inferiority.
Our extraordinary physicality has come to mean that we are incapable of intellectual achievement and other significant mental activity that the nation values.
Who really cares that we can jump higher, run faster, slam-dunk with more ferocity, catch passes more gracefully and steal more bases? Aside from their entertainment value, these skills have no application in contemporary life. Whites, in effect, do not sweat relinquishing dominance in sports to us.
''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,'' black scholar Gerald Early wrote when he reviewed Hoberman's book. ''The old racial myth - of blacks depoliticized, trivialized, reduced to the Freudian primitive in the white mind - remains intact.''
White America sees black male athletes as over-sexed, undisciplined savages and violent criminals. These stereotypes fuel the theorizing that blacks are less intelligent and less ethical than whites. And the likes of Terrell Owens and Mike Tyson give weight to ''the growing black-pathology business'' and a host of cynical myths associated with black superjockdom.
But these and other problems pale beside the anti-intellectualism that our sports fixation has spawned across black America, an anti-intellectualism that encourages tens of thousands of young black males to shun academic achievement. Wealth and fame from athletics are so valued that being ''smart'' is uncool for many black males.
Hoberman condemns black intellectuals for railing against other forms of cultural enslavement while remaining mute on our sports fixation. He argues that ''some black writers see stylish black athleticism as a kind of cultural avant-garde.'' Nelson George, for example, has referred to black athleticism as a ''black athletic aesthetic'' or ''music put into physical motion.''
Hoberman continues: ''When Michael Eric Dyson writes of Michael Jordan's 'herculean cultural heroism,' he is making the athlete an artist by placing him in the vanguard of modern black self-expression. At a time when a flamboyant black athletic style is widely seen as opposed to a more sedate white one, the celebration of black athleticism as culture is an implicit act of resistance directed at white cultural standards.''
Black superstars - college graduates - who speak poor English confirm the racial inferiority of the ''muscular Negro'' who, as part of the Darwinian struggle of survival, cannot compete with ''civilized whites in a modern society.''
Although Hoberman's book is 10 years old, it is still worth reading. You will either love the book or hate it. But no one can read it without being disabused of many illusions about blacks and sports.
Bill Maxwell is an editorial writer and columnist for the St. Petersburg Times.

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