White Blindness: Racism on ESPN?
The right-wing media hordes, in a mad dash to deflect attention from Dick Cheney’s shooting spree, may have found their target of mass distraction: Bryant Gumbel. At the end of his HBO show "Real Sports," Gumbel unleashed a prolonged rant about the utter unwatchability of the 2006 Winter Olympics in Torino. The Winter Games certainly are a worthy target. On ten-hour tape delay, NBC has been force-feeding us highlights of sports that seem concocted on Madison Avenue to sell Mountain Dew. As Gumbel took the Xtreme winter games to task, he said, "So try not to laugh when someone says these are the world’s greatest athletes, despite a paucity of Blacks that makes the Winter Games look like a GOP convention." Immediately, and predictably, the bloviating bigots of the blogosphere started splattering Gumbel’s statement all over the web.
This was to be expected. But more striking was the reaction to Gumbel on ESPN Radio’s "The Dan Patrick Show." Normally, in the red meat world of sports radio, Dan Patrick seems happy to be veal: no gristle or fat, morally offensive to some, but generally just plain and easily digestible. But Dan blew a gasket on the air, going after Gumbel like he was president of the Willard Scott fan club. He called for Gumbel’s job, saying that if Rush Limbaugh was fired from ESPN for making racially insensitive comments, a firing Dan says he opposed – then Gumbel should suffer the same fate. Comparing Gumbel to Limbaugh is like comparing apples to an obese drug addict. Gumbel is an award-winning journalist who has had a foot in the world of hard sports commentary for three decades.
Limbaugh is a gaseous hop-head who once asked, "Why do all composite criminal photos look like Jesse Jackson?" and telling an African-American caller to his show who somehow got through the screeners — to "Take the bone out of your nose." Gumbel hosts a critically lauded show. Limbaugh was a hired by ESPN as a gimmick by their ownership group, Disney, as part of their mission to make America stupider.
But when you actually compare their respective comments, the Dan Patrick argument not only collapses, but becomes intellectually dishonest. Limbaugh, of course, said on ESPN’s NFL show that Pro-Bowl Philadelphia Eagle Donavan McNabb was "overrated" because of the "media’s social concern" to see a successful Black quarterback. This was exactly the kind of ignorant garbage Disney hired him spew. What the rat shack didn’t count on was thousands of phone calls and emails demanding the fat man’s Sosa-sized head.
Let’s look at Gumbel’s comments again. "So try not to laugh when someone says these are the world’s greatest athletes, despite a paucity of blacks that makes the winter games look like a GOP convention." Patrick told his listening audience that Gumbel was "playing the race card" by claiming whites couldn’t be good athletes — when in fact Gumbel was hardly saying anything so shocking, or even that new. The fact is — and Sports Illustrated’s Rick Reilly confirmed this — that the athletes and the audience in Torino are almost entirely white. This isn’t because Black people aren’t comfortable in the cold, but because of access to the types of sports on display at the Winter Games. In fact, the Winter Olympics are such a Snow White affair, it became international news Saturday when Shani Davis became the first Black Olympian to win an individual gold, not only in the 2006 Olympics but the entire history of the Winter Games. Davis knew it himself, saying, "I’m one of a kind." For Davis, his special status was heightened by messages he received on his personal web site, revealing, "they hoped I would fall, break my leg, using the n-word." [Maybe Davis is "playing the race card," too?] In the history of athletics, anytime African-American athletes have had access and opportunity they have excelled. Sports that require thousands of dollars of equipment, country club memberships and trips to Vail will continue to be as segregated as New Orleans.
Gumbel’s comments on winter sports are not different from what John McEnroe and Andre Agassi have argued about tennis. They have both said, with no backlash, that there are potentially incredible tennis players in the inner cities of the US that we will never see because of an absence of public tennis courts and basic infrastructure. It’s not different from the lament of Negro League baseball players of the 1930s like Satchel Paige, Josh Gibson, and Buck O’Neal who didn’t understand how Joe Dimaggio and Dizzy Dean could be called "the best" baseball players when they didn’t even have a chance to compete. Yet Gumbel is a target for stating the obvious. Dan Patrick wanted Rush to stay. Now he wants Gumbel to go.
The problem is not that Dan Patrick is a raving right-winger who likes to spend his weekends shooting 78 year old lawyers in the face. It’s that he and ESPN are the anti-political guardians of sport. They are instinctually hostile to anyone who tries to challenge the athletic-industrial complex. ESPN Radio’s "Mike and Mike In the Morning" even have a "Just Shut Up Award" for any athlete who dares step outside the box. One player said to me, "The fastest way to win the Just Shut Up Award’ is to actually have something to say, particularly about race or [the war in] Iraq."
If we are going to have honest discussions about sport and society, we should look at the content of what Gumbel is saying. And if we are going to look racism in the face, then we can’t let someone get canned for having the temerity to talk truth. Maybe if Gumbel had just shot someone in the face instead, Patrick and company would be more forgiving.
DAVE ZIRIN’s new book "What’s My Name Fool? Sports and Resistance in the United States" is published by Haymarket Books. Check out his revamped website edgeofsports.com. You can receive his column Edge of Sports, every week by e-mailing firstname.lastname@example.org. Contact him at email@example.com.