SI Vault
S.L. Price
December 08, 1997
Unsure of his place in a sports world dominated by blacks who are hungrier, harder-working and perhaps physiologically superior, the young white male is dropping out of the athletic mainstream to pursue success elsewhere
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December 08, 1997

What Ever Happened To The White Athlete?

Unsure of his place in a sports world dominated by blacks who are hungrier, harder-working and perhaps physiologically superior, the young white male is dropping out of the athletic mainstream to pursue success elsewhere

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While the SI poll did not find a shattering of self-confidence among young white males, it did reveal cracks: Some 34% of them agreed that "African-American players have become so dominant in sports like football and basketball that many white athletes feel they cannot compete at the same level." Fully one third of white males in the poll believe that blacks are more aggressive in sports, and nearly a third believe blacks are simply bigger and stronger.

The poll indicated dramatically divergent views on athletics and race, which reflect an increasingly polarized sports culture. The responses revealed that while many young whites are unsure of their place in athletics, young blacks, brimming with self-confidence and certain that sports are one of the few professions in which they can make it big in America, are pouring heart and soul into team sports. This is no surprise to longtime observers who have noted two vastly different attitudes on the playing field. "Suburban kids tend to play for the fun of it," says William Ellerbee, basketball coach of national power Simon Gratz High in Philadelphia. "Inner-city kids look at basketball as a matter of life or death."

White kids in search of a new athletic niche are casting a wide net. Whites in the SI poll cited 33 sports—compared with 20 among blacks—that they themselves are best at, and a substantial plurality of white males (46%) agreed that "white athletes are turning their attention to new sports...partly because they can make breakthroughs in these sports that they are less likely to make in major sports."

"The white kid has found other things to do," says Carlos Cespedes, president of the Dade County Coaches Association and an assistant football coach at Miami's Palmetto High. "My school is very affluent, and our enrollment is only 17% black. But our football team is usually 50-50. Why? A lot of the white kids wouldn't bother doing the work we require of our football players. They're skiing in Colorado. They're flying over to Europe. I go to every national convention. I hear the same thing from the coaches: The white athlete is not as hungry as the black athlete. Period."

Of course, the differences Cespedes cites are socioeconomic and cultural, not inherently racial; given the opportunity, a black teen might also choose to ski in Colorado rather than play football. But that option is not as widely available to blacks as it is to whites. More than 40% of black children in the U.S. live below the poverty level, compared with 16% of white children.

All of which leads to a question that's often at the heart of the discussion of race and achievement: Does one group outperform another because of innate ability or outside influences? Is it nature or nurture (page 52)? Cespedes chimes in with those who argue that, in this case, economic forces are responsible—that black males, like some Italians and Irish in the first half of the century, are using sports as a way to a better life. SI's poll found that young African-American males see sports as a rare opportunity for advancement: Some 51% of them agreed that blacks "care more about sports because sports are one of the few ways in America that blacks can make a lot of money," and by almost a 3-to-1 margin over whites they said that one of the most important reasons to play is "If I am successful at sports, I can make a lot of money."

But many people find it hard to believe that economic incentives alone account for black athletic dominance. These observers offer a simple theory: Blacks dominate sports because they are faster, quicker, better. "If you want a gauge, go to the track meets," says Bowden. "Who's winning all those track meets?" Certainly there is a chuckling acceptance, among both blacks and whites, of the inability of whites to leap high and run fast. It's not that whites won't play anymore, the thinking goes: It's that they can't.

Though open discussion of inherent black athletic superiority remains taboo, few deem it offensive to joke about "white man's disease" or to make a movie called White Men Can't Jump. When tennis player Jim Courier, in a press conference at this year's U.S. Open, described fellow American Chris Woodruff as "one of the fastest white guys I've ever seen," no one blinked. An exceptionally fleet white athlete such as Chrebet, Sehorn or Green Bay Packers wide receiver Don Beebe is, as Little says, "looked at as a freak of nature."

Black is best. That is the understanding in sports now: not just that blacks are the dominant racial group playing, but also that they possess superior athletic skills and have thus transformed the way sports are played. "You see better catches, runs, tackles—anything involving mobility, toughness, anything physical," Bowden says. "An [all-white] football team in the South in 1960 couldn't touch a football team today that's integrated. Couldn't even touch 'em. You ask what [blacks have] brought to the table? They've brought better athletes."

When coaches and players talk about the issue, they usually use the logic of the obvious: Open your eyes. Look around. "If 80 percent of the league is black, that means that black players are that much better than white players," says Orlando Magic center Rony Seikaly. "The black players are superior. No doubt. I go to Lebanon in the summer, and we have pickup games, and there's this one 18-year-old Nigerian playing in the Lebanese league who can touch his head on the rim. It's amazing, [blacks'] athletic ability. They're built, they're buffed. We work out to get a body like that, and they just come out naturally buffed."

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