Sport is supposed to be some sort of great equaliser. This is apparently why Australians love it so much — it’s supposedly representative of our deeply egalitarian nature. But people of colour know better than to pretend that Australia is egalitarian — so why then, do we pretend the sporting field is immune to the same white hegemony that so deeply imbues our broader discourse? What is it about the bright lights and garish scarves that stops white people from seeing colour?
Raheem Sterling. Paul Pogba. Serena Williams. What have they got in common? They’re successful black athletes, and all of them maintain a strong social conscience. They’ve also been labelled petulant brats by sporting media. This isn’t an objective retelling of athletes speaking out, but instead white supremacy manifest in the language we use to cover sport.
This isn’t accidental — in a lunchtime interview in 1988, American NFL commentator Jimmy Snyder articulated what he really thought of the players he covered every week. African-American players comprised 56% of the league in 1988, and 70% today.
“The black is a better athlete to begin with, because he’s been bred to be that way… And he’s bred to be the better athlete because this goes back all the way to the slave trading where the owner would breed his big black to his big woman so that he could have a big black kid, see.”
This may well have been said 30 years ago, but the sentiment remains alive in the media today. In 2015, a study from the University of Missouri found that black athletes receive a tenth of the “morally successful” stories in media compared to white athletes. Of the articles discussing the skills and abilities of the players, white athletes receive twice the coverage of black players. This kind of media reporting translates into broader sports audiences reducing analysis of minority athletes to their ethnicity. In 2017, a pair of University of Colorado studies asked black and white college students to rate paragraphs and photos of professional quarterbacks based on parameters like physical strength and leadership. The research found that white participants assigned negative stereotypes to black quarterbacks, whilst assigning positive attributes such as leadership to white ones. The quarterback is the most important position on a football field, and is typically the leader of the team. The NFL has only five black starting quarterbacks in the entire league.
This isn’t only seen in the NFL. Raheem Sterling is a 24-year-old winger for Manchester City and England, having made his debut for Liverpool when he was only 17. Along with Frenchman Paul Pogba at Manchester United, these are case studies in the problematic language used to describe black athletes. Tabloids have run headlines chastising Sterling for (among other things) buying his mum a sink, daring to fly on a budget airline, forgetting to clean his car, buying a pastie, and eating an ice-cream. Whilst tabloid reporting is often entirely vapid, it is difficult to separate Sterling’s position as a young, successful black man from the nature of the coverage he receives. Moreover, Paul Pogba is one of the most technically adept footballers in the world, so much so that he’s able to spend up to 64% of his time on the pitch walking (more than any other midfielder in the Premier League) whilst still contributing as much as top players. Despite this, expert columns focus on his “pace”, “power” and “muscularity” to the exclusion of his technical ability. These are written in good faith but they nevertheless feed into the dominant discourse that the primary attributes of black athletes are physical, rather than intellectual. Sachin Nakrani notes that Pogba is average-sized for the modern midfielder, yet in comparison to similarly-sized players, he is far more often referred to in terms of his physical attributes instead of his craft.
With 39 Grand Slam titles to her name, and being one of only three players to hold two calendar Grand Slams, Serena Williams may well be the greatest tennis player of all time. In the contentious 2018 US Open final, Williams received three scoring penalties which ultimately cost her the match. Williams has consistently said that many male players have not been penalised in the past for similar displays of anger and emotion. Afterwards, Herald Sun cartoonist Mark Knight penned a cartoon using historically racist iconography to depict a burly, exaggerated Serena throwing a tantrum and crushing her racket. After the racist image received heavy criticism, the Herald Sun ran it again the next day on the front page, headlined “Welcome to PC World.” The implication that the greater crime is not the racist vilification of a black woman, but the indignant response to Knight, is precisely what continues a cycle of institutional racial oppression.
When we talk about the normalisation of racism in our media and language, it starts here: at the insidious descriptors used for some of the most prominent black athletes in our society. If we allow the language of media to go unchecked in talking about black sportspeople, it continues a cycle of colonially driven oppression through our media institutions.