Sports Illustrated posed an interesting question to its subscribers who received the Dec. 8, 1997 edition of the magazine: “What Ever Happened to the White Athlete?”
I saw that cover, which utilizes a photo of four white basketball players, for the first time Wednesday afternoon when Scott Brooks of Arizona State University showed it to our class during his presentation, “Sociology of Sport and Race.”
With scenes from ESPN’s “The Last Dance” etched into my memory, I immediately thought about the primarily white Boston Celtics team Michael Jordan dropped 63 points on in the 1986 NBA Playoffs. In today’s NBA, such a team with this racial makeup doesn’t exist. It hasn’t for a while.
The truth is, it’s not as if the Black athlete arrived. They were always there. It’s just that opportunity was withheld from them. And then, once Black athletes started to excel in sports, they became threatening. They had to be undermined.
W.E.B DuBois put it best in his 1903 work Souls of Black Folks: “How does it feel to be a problem?”
I wrestled with this question when I saw that Sports Illustrated cover. I wrestle with it when I think about how some suggest Simone Biles downplay her excellence to make things “more fair.” I wonder why it is that when Black athletes succeed despite the systemic roadblocks they may face, the narrative is somehow that they are stealing something.