Racism and Attribution of Credit in Sports Talk Discourse

Posted on January 20, 2011 by


Having read sports message boards for years, one thing I’ve started noticing is how people assign credit to players and coaches over the years.

My hypothesis:  people, whom I almost default as “white”, will tend to give a lot more credit to white players and leaders than they do black players and leaders.  How do they do it?  By attributing success a team might have to single players’ contribution.

What is this based on?  Just observing basketball adjectives.

A casual discussion on a basketball message board was about the NBA  players Amar’e Stoudemire and Steve Nash.

Amar’e and Steve  made a dynamic punch that made the Suns one of the better teams in the NBA.  They played together on the Suns for about 7 or 8 years.  Amar’e Stoudemire was the leading scorer of the team for those years.   Steve Nash was the “leader”, the point guard who was “in charge” of distributing the ball to everyone.  He’d won 2 most valuable players based on this ability to distribute the ball (which was somewhat unusual given that more dominant players who’d won championships had not won as many times as Nash;  can of worms in itself).

Basketball’s not that hard a game.  You put the ball in the hoop as many times as you can or at least more than your opponent.  Passing can put you in a position to get better points, but you still must put the ball in the hoop.  Steve did a lot of the passing and put the ball in the hoop and Amar’e put the ball in the hoop the most.

Recently, Amar’e Stoudemire left the Phoenix Suns and joined New York Knicks.  The first few weeks of the NBA season, Stoudemire struggled, putting up statistics that were slightly below his output during his tenure with the Suns.

Fans said that he was failing with his new team specifically, because he lacked that leader,  Steve Nash to pass him the ball.   Despite being the leading scorer, some people responded to his struggles as the result of lacking Steve Nash presumably to “structure” his scoring opportunities.  Essentially they attributed all of Amar’e’s prior success to Steve Nash’s abilities.

It’s a basketball message board, but having been lodged in this particular discourse and community for over 10 years, these were sincere observations, and pretty annoying to take away credit from Ama’re.

Taking away credit from the black guy and attributing to the white guy.  That’s how I saw it.

I want to emphasize that how I “saw it” was not really a choice, but really you could blame education and knowledge of the history of racial discourse in this country.  Amar’e the black guy, and Nash the white guy, crude categories today.

However, looking at those categories, how Amar’e is seen as this struggling without his leader  and how Nash was blessed with credit seemed like a subtle-stated reprise of Rudyard Kipling’s White Man’s burden;  the white guy the only one having the rationality to lead and educate a bunch of dark, uncivilized people. Knowing what the White Man’s burden is and how its rhetoric is similar to the rhetoric I observe, I couldn’t help but make the connection.  I apologize for bringing up stuff that people might want to forget or “leave” in the past as if the past is something to always be neatly packaged away, categorically dismissed.

This phenomena was limited to just Steve Nash.

I noticed it a lot more when Kirk Hinrich was playing for the Bulls.  He was often framed as the rational determining factor of success; he as was described as having “high basketball IQ”, being “team-oriented”, “defensive-minded” and leader of the team, especially defense.  And fans were not short on attributing those vague-ass characteristics as reasons for the Bulls success.  He was apparently so consumed with “leading” the defense that he got tired when he had to “run” the offense.   Him being tired on defense excused his poor offensive output.

Talk about leadership traits and giving credit to white players with those traits isn’t just something I see in NBA basketball.   I also notice it when they talk about white quarterbacks or center in on the life story of a “folk hero”, code word for white wide receivers and running backs  in the NFL.

And talking about leadership and giving credit to white folks is not just limited to players or just the NFL and NBA.  I also notice it when reading the blog BruinsNation, the blog that covers UCLA Bruins sports.  One poster named Nestor often blames the Asian coordinator Norm Chow for poor and “conservative” playcalling, but defends the leadership of the white coach, Rick Neuheisel, despite all the losing in his tenure. Maybe it is Norm’s fault that the offense stinks, but it doesn’t explain why teams still score way more than our teams did.  Norm Chow has had a long successful history of training star NFL quarterbacks and high-powered offenses.  At any rate, we aren’t really privvy to who’s making what decisions and what the actual dynamics are of who’s in charge and whatnot.

One instance of misattribution is when the Bruins secured top recruit Brett Hundley.   They attributed it to Rick Neuheisel.  However, an LA Times report said that it was Norm Chow who apparently placed a pivotal call to Hundley.