COUNTING PLAYERS BY THEIR SKIN COLOR PERPETUATES RACISM

Kordell Stewart took the snap, lunged forward and found open ground. Five yards later he was in the end zone. It was delightful, a quarterback sneak that turned into a running touchdown.

Even more delightful was that Stewart was celebrated for this and other miraculous things in Pittsburgh’s win over Denver on Sunday — and nobody mentioned that he was black.

He was not striking a blow for race relations. He was not destroying a stereotype that blacks don’t play quarterback. He was simply a football player scoring a touchdown.

A thousand miles away, Randall Cunningham was making his first start in several years, leading Minnesota in a mud-bowl game against San Francisco. Announcers hailed his return. They marveled at his passing accuracy, and his deft ability to slide past tacklers.

No one mentioned he was black.

The same went for Warren Moon, who was continuing his remarkable year in Seattle. Or Tony Banks, who helped win a game for St. Louis. None of them were
“black quarterbacks.” They were simply players.

And this, I thought, is how it should be. Sports are supposed to be about competition and fair play, a true melting pot, a blind spot for skin color, gender or nationality.

So I was a little surprised to see the cover story of the current Sports Illustrated. Over a grainy photo of crew-cutted basketball players from the
’50s, the headline screams “What Ever Happened to the White Athlete?”

And here we go again.

New second-class citizens

The story — actually several stories — deals with the shrinking number of whites in sports such as basketball and football. Or, put another way, the increasing number of blacks. It claimed that whites don’t even try out for certain sports or positions anymore, considering them to be the exclusive domain of black peers. It explores physical reasons that blacks might be superior athletes. It points out that not a single track record — sprints or distance races — is held by a white man.

It quotes Isiah Thomas, the former Pistons star, as saying: “I think blacks would always want to keep the stereotype that we’re better than whites; it’s an advantage.”

At one point, the magazine even says: “White athletes have, in some respect, become sports’ second-class citizens.”

Wow. Wasn’t it just a few years ago they were saying this about blacks?

Now, I don’t doubt the intentions of Sports Illustrated. I’m sure, as usual, they wanted to do a thorough report on something that would also make for an explosive cover. After all, that’s how you sell magazines.

But at some point, it would be nice if someone in our industry took the lead in realizing that we are more alike than different, and maybe the best way to prove this is to cease counting by color.

Do I doubt the SI statistics? No. Do I doubt that there are more blacks in basketball and football than there used to be? It’s obvious.

My question is, does it matter?

Sports are entertainment. Did it matter to white fans who sang along with Motown music that 99 percent of the artists were black? Or was it simply good music?

Did it matter to white people that in Eddie Murphy’s film “The Nutty Professor” everyone in the dinner-table scenes was black? Or was it simply funny?

We’re not talking about political representation here. We’re not talking about denying people jobs. Should it matter that the basketball team you’re watching is five black guys, five purple guys, or five men from Mars? As long as everyone’s being given an equal shot, and you enjoy the game, what difference does it make?

Hunger still the driving force

Personally, I suspect the numbers of blacks in basketball and football has more to do with poverty and role models than it does with race. The most telling statistic — and the most disturbing one — is that half of the black kids surveyed think they’re good enough to someday play in the pros. This reflects unrealistic perception and a socioeconomic pessimism.

But if those things change, so too will the racial makeup of athletics. Sports have always been a place where hunger counts, and when that hunger is driven by a belief that sports is your best way out, you’re going to see results.

Meanwhile, a magazine cover that says “What Ever Happened to the White Athlete?” only furthers the idea that sports is something that belongs to
“them” or “us.”

And this can only ignite hostility.

At some point, the emphasis of this world needs to be on the humanity of people, their insides, not their wrapping. I remember when Doug Williams led Washington to the Super Bowl, and a reporter asked him how long he had been a black quarterback.

“All my life,” Williams said.

If we have to monitor developments in the racial quadrant, I prefer the part where announcers no longer see color when they call Kordell Stewart and Warren Moon, rather than an article on the disappearing white athlete.

In the end, it’s not the number of black or whites in a sport that perpetuates racism.

It’s the counting.

Mitch Albom will sign copies of “Tuesdays With Morrie” at 12:30-1:30 p.m. today, L&L Books, Penobscot Building, downtown Detroit; 7:30-8:30 tonight, Barnes & Noble, Okemos; 12:45-1:45 p.m. Thursday, B. Dalton, Tel Twelve Mall, Southfield; and 7-8 p.m. Friday, Waldenbooks, Summit Place Mall, Waterford. To leave a message for Albom, call 1-313-223-4581.

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