Barry appreciates players who clamber out of the ghetto. "But it almost takes more effort to get out of a situation where you could sit back and be comfortable," he says. "If you're struggling, you could say, 'I don't need to do this anymore. My parents have great jobs, I could go to any college I want.' It's a much different set of social barriers; the pressure on you to perform isn't so great. If you're the white kid and you've got glee club after school, the ski trip on the holidays and Stratomatic baseball in the spring, well, that's what you're going to do. I pride myself on the fact that I had to have a lot of desire and will and competitiveness to get out of white suburban America and make it in a game dominated by great black athletes."
One of the SI poll's more striking findings was that even though whites at racially mixed schools have been dropping out of basketball and football, these students are less likely to buy the idea of black superiority in athletics than students at all-white schools. The less whites are exposed to blacks, the more inclined they are to believe in the athletic stereotypes. (The reverse, however, is not true; according to SI's poll, blacks at racially mixed schools are more likely than those at all-black schools to believe African-Americans are athletically superior to whites.)
While SI's poll did not find a direct admission of inferiority by a majority of white kids—66% of white males disagreed with the statement that whites are not as good athletes as African-Americans—the playing patterns of white athletes are more telling. In football, for example, both blacks and whites report volunteering, or being led by parents or coaches, to play certain "white" or "black" positions, a practice Lapchick calls "positional segregation." SI's poll found that 54% of white kids tried out for positions on the unglamorous offensive line or defense, compared with only 31% of black kids.
"You see a dominance, and that's what you believe," says Se-horn, who grew up in a poor, racially mixed suburb of Sacramento and whose coaches never discouraged him from playing defensive back and wide receiver. "You begin to believe that black people are better in basketball or can just run faster. We place people in boxes: one kid in this position, one kid in that position. I was fortunate to be directed in a different way."
Most kids, black and white, report that coaches generally are the ones who encourage positional segregation. But Mater Dei's Rollinson often encounters white parents who won't consider that their child might be good enough to play a "black" position at the college level. He says these parents see their son lining up at cornerback or wide receiver and say, "He'll never make it because he's not black." Rollinson tries to tell them their boy runs a 4.5 40-yard dash and has great hands, but they don't want to hear it. "They come right back and say, 'Don't give me that BYU story,' " Rollinson says.
Brigham Young is perhaps the most prominent exception to the black domination of sports. Relying almost exclusively on white talent, the Mormon school has fielded teams that have continually competed at the highest level. The football team sits perennially in the Top 20, making an occasional run at a national title. The basketball team has won 15 Western Athletic Conference titles, made 17 NCAA tournament appearances and produced a dozen All-Americas, and for a week in 1987 it held the No. 2 ranking in the country—yet the Cougars have never started more than one black. "I don't think I had ever played on or against an all-white team," says Van Horn, the former Ute. "When we played BYU, it was strange."
The paucity of African-American players on BYU teams has worked against them. "We haven't had the quickness that a black student-athlete has," says Roger Reid, a Cougars basketball coach for 19 years, seven of them as head coach. Nevertheless, BYU has beaten predominantly black teams from such schools as UCLA, Notre Dame and Virginia. The Cougars have defeated black teams that started games thinking that when push came to shove, their own athletic superiority would tell. San Diego Padres out-fielder Tony Gwynn learned this. As a junior point guard in 1980 he went to Provo, Utah, with his San Diego State team and got beaten badly. "Those BYU guys were flying through the air, jumping over guys, getting rebounds, and that's the first time I thought, These guys are really athletic," Gwynn says. "Our whole club was shocked."
The next day someone tried to soothe Gwynn's pain by saying that the Cougars had special springs under their floor. "We're like, Aw, no wonder! I knew they couldn't jump!' " Gwynn says with a laugh. Only later did he realize: "How come I wasn't jumping any higher?"
Strange, the way things turn around. Now that the superb white jumper or sprinter is such a surprise, blacks can easily ensnare themselves in an old web and underestimate the next Don Beebe because of his skin color. Rollinson, whose team is all but a high school version of BYU, says, "I really believe that the school that is majority black is more apt to buy into the stereotype: 'You white guys aren't going to run by us. We're going to beat you with our speed and our athleticism.' The problem is, football is won in the tackle box...and now all of sudden here come the honkies, and we're just pounding on you and pounding on you. We start the game ass-kicking, and we just don't stop. And now we've created doubt."
That's what Kevin Little looks for. He uses black dominance as his weapon: No one wants to lose to him. "Then the edge goes to me," he says. "I can look into their eyes and their faces, and if they have a little fear of losing to a white sprinter, I've won right there. I'm holding the cards."