College Media Network - Search the largest news resource for college students by college students

Forum explores race, gender and sexuality in sports culture

Sports Editor

Published: Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Updated: Wednesday, September 15, 2010 13:09


Tuesday, the Office of Multicultural Affairs held a Contemporary Issues Forum titled “Tiger Woods, Caster Semenya and Dennis Rodman: Representations of Race, Gender and Sexuality in Sports Culture”. The discussion was led by Professor Michael D. Cauthen from the African American Studies Program and Jack Bonney, General Manager for the campus radio station WUAG. The goal of the forum was to discuss how gender, race and sexuality are represented in sports and how these issues both marginalize communities and liberate them.

Professor Cauthen began the discussion by defining race as a culturally constructed demographic profile. The Human Genome Project concluded in 2003 that DNA studies do not point to separate classifiable subspecies within modern humans.

“Human beings cannot be divided in race,” said Cauthen. “Racial dominance is an illusion…and we have an emotional investment believing races are real material things.” He went on to explain that the scientific classification of a wolf is “Canis lupus” while a dog is “Canis lupus familiaris”. That means a dog is literally a domesticated wolf. Visual diversity, according to Cauthen, does not constitute species diversity.

Race, Cauthen explained, is a “social construct”, meaning races are different in different cultures. For example, Cauthen explained that you might hear a quarter of English doctors are black while only 10 percent of the population is black. While African Americans make up 14 percent of our population, they make up only 4 percent of our doctors. The difference is that in England, the black race includes people of Indian and Pakistani descent.

The way we look at a person’s skin very often determines an incorrect assumption about their abilities as an athlete. Cauthen talked about coaching track and field at the junior high and college level at Purdue University. At both levels, he said, race played a large part in placing athletes into assumed roles.

“We have these stereotypical notions about people from different races and American track and field is very powerfully shaped that way,” said Cauthen. “There is a belief that blacks are natural sprinters and whites are distance runners. That is such a problem that if you have a white kid who is a great sprinter the coaches will focus on making her a distance runner.”

He talked about a white runner he coached in junior high that ran the standard time in the 400 meter hurdles for a college scholarship sprinter. However, in large part to the color of her skin, scouts weren’t interested in her and other coaches wanted her to start running long distances.

“If being black makes you a natural sprinter, how do explain that the great distance runners are from Africa?” continued Cauthen. “Nobody tries to make black distance runners in the United States…There is absolutely no reason we can not have as many great African American distance runners as we have sprinters.”

So if race isn’t so much a factor in the interests and successes of American athletes, than what can we point to in shaping athletes? According to Cauthen, the answer is economics. Tiger Woods and the Williams sisters helped bring minorities to the forefront of golf and tennis, yet the country hasn’t seen a flood of black athletes in either sport.

“Economics,” said Cauthen, “has more of an effect than community issues.”

He highlighted this point by talking about his days playing basketball in high school. Growing up, Cauthen went to a Jewish school in New York and one that was a city champ in basketball. In those days, he said, the original best basketball players were Jewish-Americans, belonging to the middle to lower class in the city. Cauthen played on the school team and was considered the best athlete even if he wasn’t the best basketball player. Naturally, his team assigned him to guard the opponent’s best player, typically a Jewish-American, and every game he got schooled.

The discussion also touched on the country’s contradictory infatuation with the black body. For example, Serena Williams’ is often criticized for promoting her body when she, like Maria Sharapova, is promoting her clothing line. In this year’s US Open, the commentators took the time to count how many times Serena pulled down her skirt as compared to her opponent. Serena’s body is portrayed as simultaneously beautiful and curvy and distracting and inappropriate.

Jack Bonney talked about the white male perspective which runs the media and is “in control of what and how we watch sports.” This is contrary to the fact that minorities make up a majority of professional athletes in America. Rosters in the NBA are 80 percent minority, in the NFL are 70 percent and in the MLB are 40 percent. However, of those leagues, there are only two majority owners of color and only 15 of the 119 Division I football coaches are minorities.

The Office of Multicultural Affairs will hold “Hot Topic” Contemporary Issues Forums throughout the year. The next discussion is titled “I’m Native American But I Don’t Live in a Tepee: Addressing the Stereotypes that Still Exist” and will take place Tuesday, November 16.

Professor Michael D. Cauthen teaches African American Studies 320: The African American Athlete, an examination of the lives and careers of African American athletes and their struggles to gain acceptance in both competitive and social settings. The course is available in the spring and fall semester.

Recommended: Articles that may interest you

Be the first to comment on this article! Log in to Comment

You must be logged in to comment on an article. Not already a member? Register now

Log In