How Double Standards in Sports Reflect Racism in Society

September 6th 2015

Adeshina Emmanuel

One of the most interesting dynamics in the NBA, where most players are Black, is how league officials, fans, and pundits respond when players fight each other.

Racism permeates the world of professional sports in ways big and small — sometimes embodied by a true villain like former Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling, but more commonly illustrated by subtle double standards that reflect prevalent racist attitudes painting Blacks as violently passionate, impulsive, and dangerous. The sports brawl is perhaps one of the most obvious examples of how the media and broader public see people through varying lenses depending on the color of their skin. 

Take the National Hockey League (NHL). It's a league made up of mostly white players where fighting is ingrained in the culture of the game and considered business as usual. That's right — the NHL allows fighting. Players in a fight are docked with a penalty, but they can continue playing the game. Despite the frequency of fights, NHL players are rarely accused of thuggery, that is, unless you're Ray Emery, one of the NHL's Black players.

And when race car drivers Jeff Gordon and Clint Bowyer, both white, exchanged blows after a NASCAR race in 2012, the brawl spurred columns blasting how lightly the media seemed to be taking the altercation compared to fights in the NBA, which frequently fuel rhetoric that Black culture and hip-hop culture are somehow to blame or that combatants are undisciplined thugs. And despite Gordon's history of going after opposing drivers, including kicking off a high-profile melee last year, he hasn't earned the thug label that other Black athletes, such as former NBA star Ron Artest, have been slapped with.

In 2006, sports writer Michael Wilbon wrote a piece for the Washington Post that delved into a trend he saw of Black athletes being unfairly demonized.

Of the four major team sports in America, basketball has the least amount of fighting. The NHL sells fighting, promotes and glorifies it. Major League Baseball can't go two weeks without somebody rushing the mound to start a bench-clearing brawl, and suspensions are minimal. Pro football, in what seems almost an outgrowth of the mandatory contact, has its skirmishes and fights all the time...So, fighting's okay in baseball but not basketball? Why? Fighting is cool for the NHL, but not the NBA? Why?

The NBA's reputation as a "Black league" is the answer that he and other observers have settled on, particularly in the aftermath of the infamous 2004 brawl between members of the Detroit Pistons, Indiana Pacers, and Detroit fans. The fight, which Artest helped accelerate, has been dubbed the "Malice at the Palace."

Washington State University professor David Leonard wrote a book providing context for the brawl, titled "After Artest: The NBA and the Assault on Blackness." In it, he examined a skirmish that broke out during a New York Knicks game at Madison Square Garden two years later.

"According to several commentators," Leonard writes, "the post-Madison Square garden Brawl discourse was littered with racial tropes, stereotypes, and the usual scapegoating, which not only revealed a racial double standard, but once again focused public attention on the failures — cultural, sporting, and personal — of the NBA baller specifically, and the contemporary black athlete in general."

Beyond brawls, basketball also helps frame racist attitudes about the cognitive ability and work ethic of Blacks compared to whites.

A 2005 study "found that announcers continue to paint a picture where African American athletes are portrayed as physical specimens using their God-given, natural ability, whereas white athletes are hardworking and intellectually endowed."

Because sports have so much influence on our popular discourse, we need to be aware of the double standards that exist in sports culture because they impact our broader discussion about race.