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‘Playing While White’ examines privilege on and off the field

New book says that sports, like America itself, is a place where race matters

Playing While White: Privilege and Power on and off the Field by Washington State University professor David J. Leonard shines a light on whiteness in sports culture and the ways in which white athletes are characterized compared with black athletes. Leonard wrote an adaptation from his book, released in July, for The Undefeated.

Playing While White: Privilege and Power on and off the Field explores the ways that white athletes are profiled as intelligent leaders, hard workers, underdogs and role models.

Exploring a spectrum of athletes from Tom Brady to Johnny Manziel, several teams, including Wisconsin basketball and the St. Louis Cardinals, as well as extreme sports, NASCAR and lacrosse, I look at the ways whiteness is imagined within America’s sporting cultures.

America’s sporting fields are not postracial promised lands; they are not places where race doesn’t matter because the only thing that counts is whether you can score touchdowns or make buckets. Sports is not the “colorblind mecca” that we are routinely promised each and every weekend.

Sports, like America itself, is a place where race matters. While writing about the NBA, USC professor Todd Boyd makes this clear, writing that sports “remains one of the few places in American society where there is a consistent racial discourse.”

It is a place where anti-black racism is ubiquitous, from the press box to the coach’s office, from the stands to the White House. It is also a place where the privileges of whiteness are commonplace.

After my book was published, San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich highlighted the nature of white privilege, or what it means to be #PlayingWhileWhite inside and outside the sporting arena.

“It’s like you’re at the 50-meter mark in a 100-meter dash,” Popovich said during a recent news conference. “You’ve got that kind of a lead, yes, because you were born white. You have advantages that are systemically, culturally, psychologically rare. And they’ve been built up and cemented for hundreds of years.”

The power of whiteness can be seen in the celebration of Brady, Aaron Rodgers, Tim Tebow and countless white athletes as leaders and role models on and off the field. Praised as disciplined, hardworking and humble, while their black peers are consistently depicted as either “ungrateful millionaires” or “natural athletes,” the power of race can be seen in the descriptors afforded different athletes.

To be a white athlete is to be a scrappy and gritty player, whose motor never stops, whose “drive never relents” and whose determination is unmatched. To be a white athlete is to “play the right way,” to be unselfish, to be without ego and to always put winning and team first and foremost. These sorts of racially stratified descriptors are common in the sports media, from coaches and general managers, and from fans alike. As are the consistent attribution of hard work and intelligence to white athletes whose IQs, work ethic and intangibles are the source of constant celebration. To be a white athlete is to be cerebral, a student of the game, a throwback to a different era.

The power of whiteness is equally evident in the trash talk of John Stockton, Larry Bird, Brady and Manziel. Amid widespread nostalgia for greater sportsmanship and respect for the game, whereupon hip-hop and black athletes are blamed for the intrusion of toxic values, the trash-talking of white athletes is either ignored or celebrated as evidence of their passion for the game and competitiveness.

Brady is what #PlayingWhileWhite looks like inside and outside of sports. Despite coming from immense privilege and opportunity, earning a scholarship to the University of Michigan and being drafted into the NFL, Brady has been recast as an underdog, who through hard work, intelligence, dedication and unselfishness has become the league’s greatest quarterback. He’s a winner and a leader. Yet he also is a victim of being underestimated, and of those who “falsely” accused him of cheating. The story of Brady is the story of whiteness, of advantages and systematically produced opportunities.

White privilege is also the celebration of Bill Belichick’s hoodie as African-American youths are seen as criminals and “thugs” for their similar clothing choices. It is “Gronk being Gronk,” while any number of black athletes are denounced as selfish and out of control.

White privilege is the NASCAR CEO endorsing Donald Trump, while its fans historically waved the Confederate flag, all while it threatens consequences to anyone who protests during the national anthem.

White privilege is fights in hockey, among NASCAR pit crews and in baseball being recast as tradition, as fun and as part of the game, while the shoving matches in the NBA prompt national panics.

White privilege is silence about drug use in extreme sports and in those white-dominated collegiate sports amid headlines about NFL and NBA marijuana arrests and a war on drugs waged in black and Latino communities.

To #PlayWhileWhite is to be seen as smart, scrappy, determined and a leader. #PlayingWhileWhite is to win, to be celebrated in victory, redeemed in defeat, lifted up when down and sympathized with by others as a real or imagined victim. It is to be innocent and a repository of excuses for failure. It is being empowered to be silent; it is being seen as a person and not just as an athlete, as a commodity, as someone who dunks or makes spectacular catches. And that privilege is bigger than any contract, any commercial and any award, one that extends beyond the playing field.

David J. Leonard is a professor at Washington State University. He is the author of After Artest: The NBA and the Assault on Blackness and coeditor of Commodified and Criminalized: New Racism and African Americans in Contemporary Sports.