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The Score On Sports With Frank Deford

Saying What Goes Unsaid About Race and Sports

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Air Force Academy football coach Fisher DeBerry apologized for attributing an opposing team's victory to having more black players. Our sports commentator notes that DeBerry should have apologized for not being canny enough to speak in the sports world's "euphemistic code."


When it comes to sports and race, people seem to think that some things are better left unsaid. Commentator Frank Deford has been thinking about one man who got in trouble for saying them.


I hold no particular brief for Fisher DeBerry, the football coach at the Air Force Academy who has tried in the past to make his young American cadets into a sort of gridiron version of Jesus' apostles. To be kind, Coach DeBerry is just not a real savvy guy, and last week after Air Force was whipped by TCU, he allowed as how the winners, quote, "had a lot more African-American players than we did, and they ran a lot faster than we did. It's obvious to me they run extremely well." For these remarks, DeBerry was taken to the woodshed by the head of the academy, and then, all but wearing sackcloth and ashes, he offered an abject apology for being `hurtful to many people.'

Rather, what DeBerry should have apologized for was for not being canny enough to speak in the euphemistic code that coaches and other members of the sporting brotherhood have come to guilelessly employ in talking about race. There is not a single person who has even a nodding acquaintance with sports who does not know that in DeBerry's game of football, at the most accomplished levels, virtually all the speed positions, defensive backs, running backs and wide receivers, are filled with African-American players. Likewise in basketball, in the backcourt, or more simply, virtually all Olympic-level sprints have for decades been won by black runners.

I myself do not pretend to know why this is so. I am not a physiologist, an anthropologist or a sociologist. Authorities in genetics, culture and history have all presented various explanations. I don't know. But I am not blind, and I simply see what everybody does, that when it comes to speed in the top echelons, these positions are filled almost entirely by black athletes.

Within sport, everybody casually acknowledges this. When coaches pragmatically observe that they need more speed or `better athletes,' everybody understands that means recruiting African-Americans. Players themselves, white or black, have joked for years about `white man's disease.' The movie "White Men Can't Jump" could hardly have been more transparent. Comedians of all races tell jokes on the subject. So we can laugh about the situation. We all talk about it in private, but the instant somebody like the artless DeBerry says out loud what everybody blithely accepts, even jokes about, the sports community turns on him and castigates him. It's bad enough that there is so much hypocrisy surrounding the subject. When it is embroidered with sanctimony, it becomes sickening.

You know, in matters of race, we have a hard enough time dealing with the subject without pretending. If we can't be honest with ourselves about issues that are obvious and really inconsequential in the full scheme of things, then how in the world are we ever going to confront what is complex and important about race?

INSKEEP: That's the opinion of Frank Deford, senior contributing writer at Sports Illustrated. We hear him each Wednesday from member station WSHU in Fairfield, Connecticut.

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Sweetness And Light

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The Score On Sports With Frank Deford

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