Black and White

Johnny Manziel, Collin Klein, Manti Te'o

I am traveling, so haven’t been able to post over the weekend. So, just a quickie here. Jason Whitlock’s column last Wednesday makes the case that the Johnny Manziel autograph issue might prompt a sea-change in public attitudes toward the NCAA and its policies regarding amateurism:

Unfortunately, it takes a victim who looks like Manziel for the masses to fully grasp unfairness. It took Manziel’s autographs for the masses to understand a point Jay Bilas has been making relentlessly on Twitter for at least the last two years. The NCAA can profit off Manziel’s name and fame, but Manziel can’t? Really?

It’s way past time for a new NCAA rule book and policies that make football and basketball players feel less financially exploited. Most people — regardless of color, family background or economic status — respect rules based in fairness. Manziel is no different from Newton or Bush. The only difference is America’s largely sympathetic reaction to Manziel’s NCAA problems.

The reason:

The explanation is rather simple: It’s been difficult for America to hear us unless we’re loud, obnoxious and rebellious. Reasonable claims of injustice and unfairness are dismissed as excuse-making by people who allegedly don’t have the necessary integrity and resolve to pull themselves up by their bootstraps.

Our shouts are heard, but they often go unaddressed until similar injustices impact the majority community.

Johnny Manziel is the latest example of this phenomenon.

As Whitlock noted, the aforementioned Reggie Bush and Cam Newton were pilloried for having been (or having been alleged to have been in Newton’s case) in violation of amateurism rules. Race may not be the only factor here, of course. There has been, as I’ve written before, a dramatic change in public discussions about the NCAA over the past two years. It is now mainstream and downright fashionable to to bust on the NCAA for its various and sundry inane rules and hypocrisies. But it seems that, in general, when black players are out of line, or in violation of rules, the tendency is to focus on their behavioral deficiencies. Plenty has been written about Manziel in that regard in recent months, but with a nuance and subtlety that does not appear to extend to the typical high-profile African American athlete.

It’s long been observed that sports broadcasters use different language to describe black and white players. African Americans are typically characterized as being “natural” athletes, or “freaks,” or some variation on that theme. White athletes are much more likely to be described as “heady,” “scrappy,” “gritty” or “smart.” This doesn’t mean that whites are never described as athletic, nor blacks never called smart (it’s hard to avoid using that term when discussing Russell Wilson and RGIII, for instance). But the general patterns are clear. Much as we might wish we were only evaluating players – and individuals  more generally – on their own attributes and merits, we can’t avoid being creatures of context.

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