Mande Wilkes | In football, are black players getting played?

02/02/2013 5:00 PM

02/01/2013 1:46 PM

White men can’t jump. We know this. That’s why it’s peculiar that most of the high-profile athletes, in football especially, are white. Of course, the exception proving the rule, in tonight’s Super Bowl we’ll be watching one of the only non-white quarterbacks in professional football.

Admittedly, I know little about the world of sports (which is why it’s funny that for the second column in a row, I find myself writing about the subject.) Because I know so little about sports, I pay attention not to strategy or score but to the optics of the game. And for some time now, I’ve noticed that while black men make up most of the roster, it’s the white players who make most of the plays, most of the money, and most of the headlines.

Which, come to think of it, makes football not unlike politics – a world dominated by white guys, even though in sports at least it’s the black people who are often the fittest and the fastest. (Come on, you know it’s true, some people can just move.) And just like in politics, when a black guy makes it to the upper echelon (Tim Scott, anyone?), it becomes a gigantic news story.

That’s kind of what’s happening with Colin Kaepernick, much-hyped quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers. Not the team’s first choice for the top position, Colin is leading the 49ers in tonight’s Super Bowl because the actual first choice – the very white Alex Smith – was injured. And even after Alex Smith recovered, the team’s management realized that – surprise! – the second-string guy was in fact the better man for the job. So, then, it’s only by sheer force of accident that there’s even one non-white headlining footballer right now.

Add to that the emerging research about CTE, the degenerative brain disorder brought on by repeated head trauma and characterized by tendencies to depression and suicide. New findings suggest that players for the defense – players who are primarily black – are most susceptible to the condition.

Seems to me – and forgive me for playing the race card here – that black athletes are getting the short end of the stick. It’s the black players who are arguably the most talented and valuable, yet it’s the black players who occupy mainly the positions that are low in relative prominence and pay, and high in relative risk.

But wait. There’s good news.

Fortunately – and not a moment too soon, folks – Congress is on this. Having nipped in the bud the use of steroids in sports (a matter of intimate national security, no doubt), the planet’s highest deliberative body is now set to take on the issue of veiled racism and disparate impact in the NFL. Already President Obama has weighed in on CTE, a sure sign that the federal government is uniting to tackle (ha!) the problem.

Politics being the spectator sport that it is, it’ll be interesting to watch the congressional hearings on the matter – a bunch of white guys wagging their fingers at the NFL (a private organization, by the way) for putting blacks disproportionately on the front lines.

Kind of like, come to think of it, President Obama is the not-quite-white guy on the front lines of the otherwise-white federal government. I’m telling you, it’s uncanny the resemblance between Congress and the NFL.

Anyway, it’s always a good thing when the federal government involves itself in sports. Don’t you think?

Contact Wilkes, a local cultural commentator, at

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