The Centrality of Whiteness in Modern Sports

Andrew Luck (Flickr: KA Sports Photos)

Modern sport is racial. This statement has become obvious with the recent protests in the NFL, NBA, and WNBA around structural anti-Black racism and police brutality. What is less evident are the ways that whiteness and white athletes are privileged and protected in sports as a way to reinforce the anti-Black racism that exists in US society. This is the task taken up by David J. Leonard in his important text, Playing While White: Privilege and Power On and Off the Field. Leonard, a Professor of Comparative Ethnic Studies and American Ethnic Studies at Washington State University, has contributed yet another critical study to his already important body of work on race, sports, and gender, this time interrogating the role of whiteness in our daily consumption of sports. Rather than focus on Black athletes, Leonard’s spotlight on white athletes reveals that they are indeed racialized, albeit with vastly different outcomes than their Black teammates. The racialization of white athletes results in discursive and material privileges that reinforces white supremacy in relation to Black inferiority. Leonard highlights how white athletes are predominantly constructed through the tropes of leadership, intelligence, redemption, and individuality, “being praised for embodying the positive values found in our sporting landscapes” (6).

Playing While White is a major contribution to the field of whiteness studies and draws upon a range of scholars, such as Ruth Frankenberg, bell hooks, David Roediger, and W.E.B. Du Bois, to center whiteness, and the profiling of white athletes, as a way to understand anti-Black racism. Contrary to the historical obfuscation of whiteness, Leonard is interested in marking whiteness so that it is no longer normalized, and hence invisible, in our sporting cultures and broader society. Indeed, modern sporting cultures have become a central site where discourses of colorblindness attain legitimacy. Leonard unpacks this language and exposes the hegemony of whiteness in “a sporting world that remains ‘black’ and ‘white’” (12). Moreover, Leonard argues that processes of racialization in sports are relational under a regime of whiteness that privileges white athletes and demonizes athletes of color.

The first three chapters analyze the dominant tropes of white athletes. In chapter one, Leonard argues that the discourse around leadership in sports is constructed through white masculinity. Leonard points out that “within white supremacist discourses, definitions of leadership center around whiteness and maleness,” and that these logics map directly on to the sporting world (17). He does this through the example of white quarterbacks, namely, Johnny Manziel. Leonard suggests that the quarterback position, and its characterization as the “field general,” the individual leader that leads their team to glory, is constituted by the “longstanding whiteness of the quarterback” (18). The relationship between whiteness and leadership is constituted by racial logics that equates whiteness with intellect, and Blackness with physicality.

In Chapter 2, Leonard explores this racially constructed binary of body versus brain and demonstrates how “the dialectics between race and intelligence anchor the sporting world” (45). Indeed, while Black athletes have been racialized as naturally athletic, hyper-physical, emotional, and raw, white athletes are associated with intelligence, intellect, and technical and tactical superiority. His analysis on immigrant athletes of color adds a refreshing perspective to a familiar discourse. Contrary to African American athletes, who are valued and reduced to their athletic prowess rather than their intellectual processes, immigrant athletes of African descent are positioned as exceptional Black athletes. Such exceptions to the racialization of Black athletes is necessary to uphold a colorblind society where athletes of all races supposedly succeed because of their hard work rather than privilege or discrimination. Immigrant athletes of color, such as Freddy Adu, Luol Deng, and Nneka and Chiney Ogwumike, “are imagined as distinct and different” from African American athletes and efforts to explain their achievements “ultimately normalizes racial inequality while maintaining a stance that race doesn’t matter” (58).

Chapter 3 analyzes the ways whiteness filters the “trash talking” by white athletes and condemns that of Black athletes. Indeed, sports media linked trash-talking to Blackness and hip-hop culture, an expression of unsportsmanlike conduct and “a pollutant that is destroying the sports fabric” (65). On the contrary, white athletes engaged in trash-talking are described as free spirited, passionate, and energetic. In short, while Black athletes talk trash, white athletes are celebrated for their competitive banter.

The following three chapters analyze the relationship between sports, race, and crime. In Chapter 4, Leonard argues that sporting discourses reflect society’s structural criminalization of Black athletes while making excuses and minimizing the crimes of white athletes. Juxtaposing Aaron Hernandez and Oscar Pistorius as examples, Leonard explains that athletes of color are collectively criminalized as “thugs,” “gangstas,” and evil while white athletes are forgiven as sympathetic figures whose crimes are individual mistakes. Chapter 5 claims that America’s War on Drugs informs not only the criminalization of Black athletes committed of drug related crimes, but also “the decriminalization of high white bodies inside and outside the sporting arena” (112). Chapter 6 examines the privilege of redemption that is often afforded to white athletes when they are accused of committing a crime. Contrary to the ways Black athletes are defined by their past crimes, “accusations of rape, drug use, assault, and other transgressions have not stopped [white athletes’] successes on and off the field” (134).

While Leonard does an adequate job throughout the text of analyzing how white masculinity constitutes racial discourses about white athletes, Chapter 7 is specifically dedicated to the intersection of gender, sex, and whiteness in the sporting arena. Leonard argues that white women athletes only gain popularity, and legibility, through heteronormative representations of white femininity. Black women athletes who are equally legible as desirable, “sexy” athletes, are “imagined outside the margins of blackness” (161). Moreover, Black women athletes who don’t subscribe to the hegemonic beauty standards defined by heterosexual whiteness — Leonard uses WNBA athlete Brittney Griner as an example — are of “little use” to the national imagination, which is constituted by the heteronormative white male gaze. Chapter 8 is solely dedicated to the regime of whiteness that constitutes the sport of NASCAR. Of particular interest is Leonard’s argument that whiteness in NASCAR sanctions sporting violence that would otherwise be condemned if committed by Black athletes (191).

Chapter 9 is concerned with how discourses of technique and “proper” conduct are structured by logics of whiteness. In short, “to play the right way becomes synonymous with playing the white way, and with being white” (203). Leonard observes that this is largely done by framing whiteness through the lens of nostalgia. Organizations invoke a narrative that remembers the days of all-white sports as the pinnacle of athletic purity. Leonard concludes in Chapter 10 with a discussion about the ways American sporting culture became a central site for white backlash against the rising tide of subaltern politics. Particularly, the hegemonic sporting culture of the US readily deployed narratives of white victimhood as a way to reclaim their space in mainstream popular culture. According to Leonard, athletes like Tom Brady and Grayson Allen not only exemplify white privilege, but “they embody the hegemony of whiteness under attack” (226).

This book is an important text that reveals the centrality of whiteness in modern sports. It is an exhausting account of white athletes and the privileges and power they possess both on and off the field of play. At times, the text felt  redundant with countless examples that bordered repetition. Perhaps this is a reflection of his sources — mainstream sports media — and its embeddedness in racial logics. Moreover, while this text is meant for a wider audience beyond the academy, his decision to consistently use hashtags throughout the narrative of the book, such as #PlayingWhileWhite, #DrivingWhileWhite, and #PlayingWhileSexy, seemed unnecessary and ineffective. For example, while “focusing on the structures of antiblack racism and the privileges of #PlayingWhileWhite” are critical to understand the racial constitution of sports, the use of hashtags reduces the materiality of athletes’ lived experiences to a trendy singular phrase. All in all, Playing While White is a critical text for anyone interested in sports and whiteness studies and definitively puts to rest the claim that race is irrelevant in the commentaries surrounding athletes and their participation in sports.

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Jermaine Scott

Jermaine Scott is Assistant Professor of history at Mississippi State University and is currently the Carter G. Woodson Distinguished Postdoctoral Fellow and the University of Virginia. His research interests include the cultural politics of sport, Black politics, Black diaspora studies, and modernity/coloniality theory. His dissertation sought to understand the ways in which Black athletic collectives in the African Diaspora negotiate the colonial and racial constitution of modern sports, and football/soccer in particular. His writings have been included in ESPN’s The Undefeated and the Journal of Sports History, and he is an active member of the American Studies Association’s Sports Studies Caucus. Follow him on Twitter @itsjermaine.

Comments on “The Centrality of Whiteness in Modern Sports

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    Should anyone be interested, I have a comparatively short “reading guide” (i.e., a bibliography) on “The Black Athlete and Sports” at my Academia page (the material there is listed in alphabetical order).

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