No, this is not another Tiger Woods post. I’m too through with Tiger and his foolishness. However, this post does deal with elite African American athletes and their treatment in the media and by American culture in particular, and in the end, I extend the argument to include successful people of color.
This conversation grows out of one I began several days ago with Symphony of the blog Essential Presence about the Billy Corben directed documentary The U (a promotional clip is embedded above) which chronicles the rise and fall of the University of Miami football program during the 1980’s and early 1990’s.
According to the documentary, prior to the 1980’s the University of Miami was a lily white campus in the sleepy, lily white Miami suburb of Coral Gables with a failing football program. However, this all changed with the acquisition of Coach Howard Schnellenberger who was given the charge of rebuilding the program.
Coach Schnellenberger had the genius idea of rebuilding the program by going into the inner-city and ethnic neighborhoods of Miami and stocking the Miami football program with the best players, the vast majority of whom were black, which resulted in the University of Miami football team absolutely dominating college football for more than a decade.
And this domination was thorough and complete. However, they became more notorious for their on-field antics and off-field exploits than their football prowess. On the field, they danced, they clowned, they acted a complete and utter fool even as they were completely obliterating opponents. For this the team was labeled pompously arrogant.
Off the field they conducted themselves in an even more egregious manner; over the years, several players were arrested on charges ranging for assault to dealing drugs. For this the team got the reputation of a roster of criminals funded by rapper Luke Campbell.
But for all their on- and off-field exploits, during this period, the football team not only made a ton of money for the university, but they brought the university unprecedented exposure and prestige. Every game was a sellout, not to mention the millions for bowl appearances, and because of the success of the football program, the student body population grew by leaps and bounds.
Perhaps it would not be an overstatement to say that the University of Miami is what it is today because of the success of its football program. However, the football team’s reputation as a gang of lawless, arrogant thugs prevails.
This is my question to you, and I really hate to deal in hypotheticals, but I can only wonder how America would have treated, would have labeled, the University of Miami football team if that dominant team had been anything other than a group of predominately inner-city black kids? Would the terms have been different for Notre Dame? This brings us to our favorite foil as of late, Tiger Woods.
Every since he turned pro, Tiger Woods has absolutely dominated the sport of golf. And not only has he dominated the game; he has transformed the game as no golfer has before him. But even as he cut a wide swath through his competition, he has always been seen and labeled as arrogant.
And with this latest faux pas, the media and the golf establishment appeared only too eager to pounce. The golf establishment even characterized his actions as somehow outside some unwritten moral code of the pro golfing community. But I’m willing to bet my dollar to your dime that if there was some golf groupie sex to be had, Tiger was not the only one having it.
The common dominator here is money; money has the capacity to buy access to people and pleasures not available to those without it. And I am sure that for those who have it, those people and pleasures are hard to say no to.
Furthermore, what about the Williams sisters, Venus and Serena? This is another example of athletes who have absolutely dominated their sport, yet in seemingly every move they make, in every utterance, they been defined as ungraciously arrogant.
But I have not noted any such arrogance. Instead, I see their on the court posture as extremely competitive, extremely passionate, perhaps to a fault, but not arrogant. Most competitors, most people who reach the very pinnacle of their field seem to display many of the same behaviors. So why must they downplay their ability and accomplishments for their conduct to be deemed acceptable by some undefined, ever-changing standard?
And we can extend this argument far beyond the milieu of sports. I may be wrong; sometimes I feel that perhaps I am wrong more than I am right. From the limited purview of my subject position, I may simply be inserting inequities and inconsistencies where none exist. But it seems to me that standards of conduct differ for successful people of color.
While others may be given the latitude to celebrate their victories, to indulge in the excess allowed by the access that money and power provide, people of color are required to be humble, almost obsequious, in their success perhaps so as to be as non-threatening as possible.
But again, perhaps I may be wrong. What do you think?