Blacks Winning and Losing in Sports

NPR's Tony Cox talks with Newsday sports columnist Shaun Powell about his latest book Souled Out? It explores the global perception of black athletes and how they are portrayed in the media. He also takes a look at how those athletes conform to or defy expectations.

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FARAI CHIDEYA, host:

And now a new book about the modern black athlete. In "Souled Out," Newsday sports columnist Shaun Powell examines how the media represents black athletes. He also takes a look at how those athletes conform to or defy expectations.

Powell spoke earlier with NPR's Tony Cox.

Mr. SEAN POWELL (Sports columnist, Newsday; Author, "Souled Out): Every day in sports, something racial always seems to come up. And I thought some - most of the commentary on this was sort of, like, skewed. And I also think that when the topic is raised, people are hesitant to speak their mind for fear of being taken out of context.

I think race in this country - people of all colors are still uncomfortable with it. So I felt that it was necessary to clear the air on several subjects with regards to race and with regards to athletes, and also, the perception of black athletes.

In researching this book and doing this book and in talking with a lot of black athletes who play back in the, you know, '60s and '70s, I would probably say most of them are a little disappointed, basically, that their legacy and, you know, the way they went about their business and how they basically paved the way for black athletes today to enjoy incredible wealth and attention and fame, I don't think that the black athletes of yesterday feel that the legacy has been carried out as properly - by some, yes, but not by everybody.

TONY COX: You know, the media has a lot to do with the images of black athletes. And you devote a chapter of the book to that very subject. You called it media madness. And you have a subheading, which I thought was interesting, and it's titled, "The Price of Not Dancing to Their Tune."

So who is they that you're referring to and what is their tune?

Mr. POWELL: Well, they, meaning, the power brokers. Yes, you do see more black faces in terms of writing and on TV, and that gives the appearance that blacks have sort of - are well represented in all facets of the media. But, Tony, that couldn't be further from the truth.

First of all, I still think there are a disproportionately low number of blacks really doing what I do for a living or being authors or being on-air talent. But most importantly, what about the decision makers? There is not a black person in America - still to this day, not a black person in America - who has headed a major sports division in terms of being president of sort of, like, ABC Sports, NBC Sports, ESPN, Fox Sports. No. I mean, blacks are zero, basically, in those decision-making positions.

And I thought that was an important point to raise because - just take for example, the Michael Vick controversy and also the Pacman Jones controversy.

Yes, those were probably two regrettable incidents to those athletes and also to all athletes. But the manner in which it was non-stop covered and portrayed by the media, I was taken aback by that. I don't know, I think if there was probably more black people in decision-making positions, I think some of the emphasis, I would say, on certain aspects of wrongdoing, behavioral, things like that, I would like to think, at least, that those portrayals would be a little bit different.

COX: Well, let me follow that point up with this because not too long ago, Philadelphia quarterback Donovan McNabb, he went on the air and said he felt black quarterbacks and white quarterbacks are treated differently. Earlier this year, Gary Sheffield made similar comments about black athletes in baseball.

Now, as to those events on sports radio, the talk often centers around this, that black athletes always make the race card claim when they're playing poorly or when they are in trouble but that those complaints don't seem to ever arise when they're being touted as the greatest this or the greatest that.

Do you think that black athletes are looking for a double standard when it suits them and only complain about it when it doesn't?

Mr. POWELL: I would probably say, in some cases, maybe yes. But, by and large, I would probably say no. I mean, you cited two examples, but I probably don't think any of us could cite, say, 50 examples.

Donovan McNabb, for example, I would probably say that his timing was not the greatest because at that time he had been struggling in his NFL season. He started to feel a little bit of heat from Philadelphia. And as we both know, Philadelphia is a very rough place for anybody - white, black or whatever…

COX: That's true.

Mr. POWELL: …in terms of fan abuse. And also, he plays quarterback. I mean, you're going to get heat. And also, one other thing I would disagree with Donovan McNabb about, the average black male walking down 125th Street feels more racial pressure or racism than a star quarterback for the Philadelphia Eagles. Please, it's not even close.

COX: Mm-hmm.

Mr. POWELL: We're not a color-blind society, but we are a star-struck society. And Donovan McNabb, he walks in a restaurant or whatever and people are going to move out of the way. I mean, he's going to get the red-carpet treatment, whereas an ordinary citizen wouldn't.

But here's where I would agree with Donovan McNabb. As a black person, in any facets of society, you feel the pressure to be as good as or better than your white counterpart. And I think Donovan could have articulated a little bit better but I kind of had an idea what he was talking about.

COX: You have covered a lot of sports, Shaun. Which sport, do you think, is best suited - if there is one - for black athletes, and which one is perhaps worst suited when it comes to the public's perception of them?

Mr. POWELL: That's a good question. I would probably say the NBA. You know, the NBA, you're getting a lot of younger athletes who are coming in without spending much time on a college campus, without being, you know, making their mistakes away from, you know, the public eye. They come straight from high school and, you know, in a lot of ways, they're unprepared to be adults. And I chalk it up to their youth and I chalk it up also to the culture in which they were raised.

On the other hand, if you look at some of the other sports where there aren't as many blacks like tennis, for example, they seem to be probably a little bit more prepared. And I say that at the risk of even the Williams sisters not really going to college. But to what advantage they've had is that their mother and father were outstanding parents. Same thing with Tiger Woods' parents. Outstanding. They did a good job in preparing their children for what lay ahead.

To be honest with you, the media really doesn't harp that much on the responsible athletes, black athletes of which there are many, by the way, and it seems to really play up or emphasize the - those small numbers who insist on being unprofessional and the like.

COX: All right. Shaun, thank you very much and have a good one. Okay?

Mr. POWELL: Hey, thanks, Tony. I appreciate it.

COX: All right.

CHIDEYA: Shaun Powell is a sports columnist for Newsday. His latest book is called "Souled Out" and he spoke with NPR's Tony Cox.

You can read an excerpt from the book at our Web site, nprnewsandnotes.org.

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