Even coach Bruce Rollinson of Mater Dei High in Santa Ana, Calif., whose predominantly white football team has won the mythical national high school championship in two of the last three years, concedes a physical disadvantage against a mostly black opponent. "Get ready for the speed," Rollinson tells his players. For years the coaches of Nebraska's largely white football team knew exactly what Rollinson was talking about: The Cornhuskers would fly to the Orange Bowl only to get thrashed by Miami or Florida State. In 1993, when the Big Red coaches began talking about recruiting quicker, Miami-type players for their defense, everyone understood the code: Nebraska needed more blacks. The Huskers have gotten them and have won two national titles in the last three years.
The perception of black superiority isn't found only among white coaches and players. A plurality (34%) of black males in SI's poll agreed with the statement, "Whites are not as good athletes as African-Americans." Some 42% of the black males who attend racially mixed schools said that they sensed their white peers backing off from sports because they felt they couldn't compete with blacks. Jason Webb, a nationally ranked backstroker at Virginia who is half black, half white, says, "In general, it just seems that blacks are more athletic." Football coach Walt Frazier of Miami's Carol City High, whose team won the class 6A state championship last year and is 12-0 so far this year, says he hears black parents all the time telling their children, "You can't let that white kid outrun you! You can't let that white kid outjump you! White kids can't run or jump." Says Doug Williams, now the football coach at Morehouse College, "More times than not, it's hard to find one who can jump."
When Barry beat five black players to win the Slam Dunk Contest, some took it as the trashing of a stereotype. "That's huge," TNT commentator Reggie Theus told a national TV audience. "It dispels a heck of a myth." Not in Barry's mind, it didn't. "I like to think [the idea that white men can't jump] is not true, but I find myself at men's clubs and gyms around the country and I see men playing, and I have to say it is true," Barry says. "More often than not, you see white players who just don't play that [high-leaping] style. They play below the rim, they play the court game, they play the savvy game. They're just not very athletic, so that's what they've got to do to succeed."
Such talk may not be politically correct, but the underlying fact—that at the elite level blacks are the fastest runners, the most prodigious leapers, the dominant force on NBA courts and NFL fields—is unassailable. While the scientific jury, faced with intriguing preliminary evidence, still debates whether black athletes possess innate physical advantages, the white athlete works in a world that seems already convinced of the answer. As a kid in snowy-white Iowa, Kevin Little heard the stories: Blacks have an extra muscle in their legs. Blacks have the genetics. "I don't believe the black athlete is superior," he says. "But you don't know that when you're young and impressionable. I'd go to a track meet and people would say, 'Aw, he's going to get his ass kicked.' Even the black sprinters would look at me like, What are you doing here? You're wasting your time. It's not coming just from the whites. It comes from everywhere."
In high school and his first years at Drake, and even at the 1988 U.S. Olympic trials, Little couldn't escape the thought that he shouldn't even try running sprints. He'd sign up for a meet, and people automatically assumed he was entered in a distance event. "It breaks you down," he says. "It makes you question your abilities. It took years before I had enough confidence to say, 'I'm here, and they have to beat me.' "
As some of today's young white males harbor doubts about whether they are good enough to compete with blacks, they find fewer white superstars than ever to emulate. The NBA no longer has a white star on the order of Larry Bird, and in pro football only Troy Aikman and Brett Favre can approach Barry Sanders, Emmitt Smith or Jerry Rice. After Cal Ripken Jr., you'd be hard put to name a current white baseball player with the name recognition of Ken Griffey Jr. or Barry Bonds. In track and field, no white U.S. male has made an impact since Bruce Jenner at the 1976 Olympics. Even distance running is ruled by blacks: In an 11-day stretch in August, black Africans broke seven world records at distances from 800 to 10,000 meters. The SI poll asked kids to list their sports role models; seven of the top 10 athletes cited were black. Aikman and Ripken were the only white males in the top 20.
This is, by and large, refreshing news: Kids seem to be color-blind in choosing athletic role models. Yet the paucity of white stars seems to have subtly affected the perceptions of some whites. Says Texas professor John Hoberman, author of the recently published Darwin's Athletes, an examination of race and sports, "There is definitely a spreading white inferiority complex." One symptom is a near desperate effort to elevate any white talent to stardom. From the time he was in high school in Southern California, Keith Van Horn, the All-America forward at Utah who was chosen second in this year's NBA draft, continually heard himself called "the next Larry Bird." Never mind that Van Horn, now with the New Jersey Nets, lacked the sublime passing touch that made Bird unique; he was white, tall and more than just a shooter, and that was enough. "I talked to [scouts and coaches from] the Utah Jazz two years ago," says Van Horn, "and they named players they thought I played like: Tom Gugliotta, Detlef Schrempf and Toni Kukoc. When they asked me, I said Schrempf—and Derrick McKey."
Blacks, understandably, react to any crisis of confidence among whites with a wry smile. Hoberman points out in his book that until the early 20th century, African-Americans were considered inferior to whites in athletics—weaker physically, less able to handle pressure, not smart enough to understand complex strategy. What black would go out of his way to reassure the white athlete now? "I'd think blacks would always want to keep the stereotype that we're better than whites; it's an advantage," says Isiah Thomas, the former Detroit Pistons All-Star guard. "When two guys walk on the court to play basketball, and the white athlete's dealing with the guy's blackness and the black guy's dealing with the business of basketball, the black guy beats him."
Too often, the full definition of athleticism gets lost in the racial shuffle. Much was made of Bird's work ethic and smarts, but few players of either color have had his uncanny hand-eye coordination. In the mid-'80s no athlete had a broader range of athletic skills than Danny Ainge, who, as an NBA All-Star guard, a near-scratch golfer and an in-fielder good enough to make the major leagues, was actually a better all-around athlete than Michael Jordan. Yet when Ainge was introduced as the coach of the Phoenix Suns last year, his predecessor Cotton Fitzsimmons used a familiar white stereotype to describe him. "He said it as a compliment, but this is typical: Danny wasn't a very talented athlete, but he got the most out of his ability," Ainge says. "You know, I could touch the top of the square [above the rim] in my young days and dunk. Unfortunately, athleticism in our society is all ranked on how fast you run and how high you jump. There's so much more to it than that."
Mix the notion of white athletic inferiority with the comfortable suburban culture in which so many young white males live, and the result is an atmosphere in which commitment to a sport such as basketball or football becomes ever more rare. Growing up in his upper-middle-class East Bay neighborhood, Barry would make weekend trips to inner-city Oakland. "If we drove to our high school [gym], it would be locked up," Barry says. "But if we drove downtown, we knew garbage cans would be holding the doors open, and guys would be playing."