Race, Redemption, and Respectability: White Racism in Athletics

(This is co-authored with David J. Leonard.)

The ongoing media fascination with Tiger Woods and his personal transgressions should remind us of what a prominent place race, redemption, and respectability play in sport today. Like Michael Jordan, Woods’ immense talent tied to his well-known story of dedication and drive have allowed media commentators, commercial culture, and fans alike to see the golfer as having transcended race, to become emblematic of the ideals of a supposedly post-racial order. In wake of martial infedility, his cultural capital and real capital have allowed him to chart an increasingly familiar course of redemption for the rich and famous: apology, treatment, and a rededication to faith and/or family. Few African American athletes today can become a new person so easily. Redemption is reserved for whites and those who are imagined as Picca and Feagin have argued as “honorary whites.” In fact, we would suggest that commodification and criminalization of blackness, that the class and gendered signifiers associated with dominant “white racial frame,” particularly in the context of sport, has made them unredeemable.

Case in point. Just this week, a more common pattern unfolds, one that colors the possibilities for redemption in a purportedly colorblind era. On Sunday, in the wake of a public spat with a woman at a bar and amid a pending suspension for violating the league substance abuse policy, the Pittsburgh Steelers traded Santonio Holmes to the New York Jets. Media accounts suggest that this was in large measure because of “his rap sheet,” because team owners were tired of Holmes’ bad behavior, which had include illegal drug use and a previous suspension. Fans and analysts, moreover, referred to the MVP of the 2008 Super Bowl as “a problem child” with “a sense of entitlement” and “a bad boy” “infected by low morals” and made regular connections between Holmes and new teammates best known for their transgressions—Braylon Edwards who had previous run-ins with the law and Antonio Cromartie, who was lampooned for having seven children with five different women and needed a large signing bonus to pay off overdue child support. An article in today’s New York Daily News goes so far as to described the team as “[Coah Rex] Ryan’s halfway house for misbehaving millionaires.”In an article on National Football Post, Andrew Brandt questioned the logic behind the Jets’ acquisitions, noting “management feels this coach can take a potentially combustible mix of players and mold them into a productive group” He and others seem to wonder whether or not the father figure can redeem and reform their abject and pathologically dysfunctional black bodies.

Whereas as other athletes and public figures, from Tiger Woods and Ben Roethlisberger to Jesse James and countless politicians, have given the opportunity to seek public forgiveness, Holmes received no opportunity to apologize or make amends for his violation of league policies and bad public behavior. In fact, the elite athlete was summarily traded for a lowly fifth round pick in the upcoming draft–exiled, cast off, pilloried, damned.

In contrast, his former teammate, quarterback Ben Roethlisberger took to a podium in a Steelers’ locker room Monday evening and made a brief statement, stating in part,

“I’m truly sorry for the disappointment and negative attention I brought to my family, my teammates, coaches, the Rooneys and the NFL. I understand that the opportunities I have been blessed with are a privilege, and much is expected of me as the quarterback of the Pittsburgh Steelers…I have much work to do to earn this trust. And I’m committed to improving and showing everyone my true values.”

Roethlisberger offered an apology, the second in nine months, following accusations of sexual assault. In the most recent case, he stood accused of attacking a 20 year-old woman in the bathroom a bar after plying her with drinks. Although the star quarterback received his share of criticism from the public and the owner of the Steelers reportedly was “furious,” he was not quickly traded for a pattern of bad behavior and violation of the player code of conduct. Moreover, in contrast with a number of African American players who have had punitive actions taken before the rendering of legal decisions, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, who William Rhoden described as “the law and order commissioner”who in the past has “wasted no time throwing down the gantlet and issuing verbal and financial penalties” opted to take no immediate action. He preferred to wait on local authorities before acting.

On Monday afternoon, District Attorney Fred Bright concluded he could not bring charges against Roethlisberger due to a lack evidence compounded by the victim’s desire to avoid a media saturated trial. During his press conference, Bright admonished Roethlisberger and condemned his behavior, maturity, and failure to be an adequate role model. He also advised him to “grow up.” These sentiments echoed comments from fans and pundits, who wonder when he would learn from his behavior, mature, and realize his potential. In others, the fallen hero can, and perhaps even must, redeem himself. And this appears to be what Steleers owner Art Rooney hopes to achieve:

During the past few weeks I have met with Ben on a number of occasions, not only to discuss this incident, but also to discuss his commitment to making sure something like this never happens again. The Pittsburgh Steelers take the conduct of players and staff very seriously. Ben will now have to work hard to earn back the respect and trust of Steelers fans, and to live up to the leadership responsibilities we all expect of him.

Responsibility and respectability interwoven in these comments provide a pathway to redemption for the star quarterback.

While one may quibble about the relative value of Holmes and Roethlisberger to the franchise, the difference in their treatment is telling: the former is traded, rapidly punished for violations, and marked as a deviant; the latter is retained and counseled, awaits possible punishment from the league and/or his team, and rendered a broken work in progress. These differences emerge from the application of a white racial frame, particularly the narratives it makes possible. Whereas Holmes fits neatly within pre-existing accounts of blackness—disobedient, transgressive, criminal, unredeemable, childlike—that must always already must be policed but can never been redeemed; whereas Roethlisberger takes on the role of the tragic hero, wounded by immaturity, hubris and wrong actions, who has the potential to be redeemed and otherwise grow-up. Furthermore, where Roethlisberger enjoyed and can earn back respect from his teammates, his boss, his fans, and perhaps even his critics, Holmes became doomed to exile and damned to condemnation. Failing to stay within confines of the politics of respectability and become a racially transcendent commodity, Holmes was sent packing. Writing about black masculinity and the politics of respectability in wake of the election of Barack Obama, Mark Anthony Neal argues that cultural inclusion and the calls for proper behavior and respectable “performances will ultimately falter under the weight of their pretensions. Like a suit that no longer fits, their performances are coming apart at the seams” (http://newblackman.blogspot.com/2010/04/coming-apart-at-seams-black-masculinity.html). For Holmes, his blackness and the associated signifiers within the dominant white racial frame precluded him from navigating the paths toward respectability. Yet for Roethlisberger, the journey toward acceptance, the efforts to perform an acceptable identity were just coming together, albeit with the powerful threads of whiteness.