Sports underdogs and race


Bomani Jones had a great monologue last night about underdogs. He argued that while Americans almost uniformly profess a great love of underdogs when it comes to sports, the word has a very specific operative meaning. For example, he said, when Cornell faced off against Kentucky in the 2010 NCAA tournament – the year Cornell made a surprising run to the Sweet 16 – Cornell became a darling of fans everywhere because they were underdogs. Except, Bomani’s not buying it. Jones says we’re just confusing “underdog” with “not very good at basketball.” He noted that the Cornell kids, no doubt, had all the advantages growing up, with access to great facilities, coaching, and so forth. By contrast, that Kentucky team, led by the likes of DeMarcus Cousins, John Wall and Eric Bledsoe, featured several kids from difficult backgrounds. Bledsoe in particular grew up in extremely trying circumstances. In a larger sense, therefore, Jones insisted that the Wildcats ought to have been deemed the real underdogs.

This was all a prelude to his discussion of the Williams sisters. With Serena’s 20th grand slam title victory on Saturday, she ought rightly to take her place as the greatest American woman tennis player of all time. More than that, the Williams sisters should be viewed as a remarkable and indeed iconic realization of the American dream. Two black girls, whose dad used a shopping cart to gather up tennis balls while they learned the game in the public parks of Compton. Yes, Serena began going to elite academies when she was a small child. But a better Horatio Alger story one would be hard pressed to find.

At one point, Jones read a tweet noting that when we talk about underdogs, we’re talking about underdogs on the field play, not in life.

But that’s not really true. The underdog typically carries with it connotations that transcend the game or match itself. The qualities we typically associate with underdogs – grit, “character,” work ethic, a never-say-die attitude – all carry with them larger judgments about the man or woman to whom we ascribe those qualities. Being a “natural” athlete doesn’t require any of these more admirable traits.

So, instead of being celebrated for their grit and character, Serena and Venus and especially Serena, have long been regarded as overdogs with overwhelming advantages that made them, in many ways, unsympathetic athletic figures. The implication is clear – they never really had to *work* for anything. They just had it all handed to them.

I discussed some of these issues when Michael Sam was preparing for the NFL draft in early 2014 – the warped way in which we discuss character. Jones’ reframing of the discourse of the underdog is another good illustration of the phenomenon. Of course, to paraphrase Freud, sometimes an upset is just an upset. A manifestly inferior player or team nevertheless pulls off an unexpected win (the Giants’ win over the Patriots in Super Bowl XLII is one of the highlights of my life as a fan, precisely because the Giants had no business winning that game). But like the movie Rocky, the larger sporting conversation – while not exclusively so – often propounds a fantasy version of reality in which it’s the white folks who have to scratch and claw for everything they have, while the black folks have it made in the shade.



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