ESPN’s “The Undefeated” Ignores Facts to Play Race Card

Recent comments made by Cleveland Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield regarding former head coach Hue Jackson have made some headlines. Jackson had recently been fired as Mayfield’s head coach and almost immediately took a job with the division rival Cincinnati Bengals. Following the Brown’s win over the Bengals that came in the aftermath of Jackson’s firing and hiring, Mayfield was asked about the situation. He responded by saying:

“He left Cleveland and goes down to Cincinnati? I don’t know. It’s just somebody that was in our locker room asking for us to play for him, and then goes to a different team we play twice a year. Everybody can have their spin on it, but that’s how I feel.”

One writer who certainly had a problem with this was William C. Rhoden, who writes for the ESPN owned site theundefeated.com. Rhoden’s article criticizing Mayfield is entitled “Who does Baker Mayfield think he is?” The first part of his criticism focuses on the young quarterback not being in the league long enough to call out a veteran coach like Jackson. If Rhoden simply believes that Mayfield’s comments toward Jackson were in bad taste, that would be one thing. But since Mayfield is white and Jackson is black, a racial spin had to be injected to satisfy the criteria for The Undefeated. Thus, Rhoden proceeds with the following bizarre and unfounded quotes.

“Mayfield, the latest Heisman Trophy winner, was touted as a hero and matinee idol since his college days. This follows a pattern for just about every major white college quarterback who has talent.”

As if this isn’t the case for major black quarterbacks coming out of college who have talent. Somehow Rhoden was oblivious to the hero and idol status of recently great black college quarterbacks like Cam Newton, Vince Young, Deshaun Watson, Robert Griffin III and Jameis Winston. Some of these quarterbacks have been successful at the NFL level, some were not, and others are a little too young to make an official judgement on. But Rhoden is either completely ignorant of the hype surrounding these black quarterbacks coming out of college or he’s dismissing it out of convenience.

“Black quarterbacks like Lamar Jackson, on the other hand, play under the ever-present cloud of being told they should switch to wide receiver. Even today, if you listen closely to the language around black quarterbacks, they are praised for exceptional athletic ability but not their throwing accuracy…When is the last time an elite white college quarterback was advised to switch to wide receiver?”

It now appears that Rhoden is oblivious to the brief professional football career of Tim Tebow. Numerous journalists and analysts expresses the belief that Tebow had to change positions from quarterback if he wanted to stay in the NFL. It seems rather impossible that anyone with even a basic knowledge of football would be capable of not remembering Tebow’s collegiate and professional quarterbacking. It appears that Rhoden is most likely hoping his audience has erased the quarterback’s career from their memories.

As far as Lamar Jackson goes, perhaps the reason that the Ravens’ rookie starter has been praised for his athletic ability rather than his throwing accuracy has to do with what has transpired on the field. As of Rhoden’s writing, Jackson had run for 188 yards in just two games. However, he had also passed for one touchdown and three interceptions during the same time. Is an assessment of ability still racially coded if it proves to be accurate?

“Earlier this season, after the Houston Texans suffered a loss to Tennessee, Onalaska (Texas) Independent School District superintendent Lynn Redden posted this comment about Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson:

‘That may have been the most inept quarterback decision I have seen in the NFL. When you need precision decision-making, you can’t count on a black quarterback.’

Clearly not everyone feels this way, but enough people still do to raise concerns.”

Unsurprisingly, Rhoden doesn’t mention that this superintendent resigned over these comments. He also apologized directly to Watson in his resignation letter. So why doesn’t Rhoden mention this? Probably because it shows that the country is far less tolerant of racism that his main thesis implies that it is. Racist comments making someone an unemployable pariah don’t exactly mesh with an author and a website that attempts to drive home the idea that race and racism is still an overwhelming presence in our society.

Perhaps what’s even more unfortunate than this article from Rhoden is what it reveals about the agenda of his website. Sports journalists who live and breathe statistics, information and sports history are conveniently omitting actual facts to push certain ideas. It’s a sad state of affairs when these types of issues take precedence over reality. An informed public and critical thinking remain the best antidotes to this kind of selective truth.

Diversity Surging in Baseball Despite Lack of Black Americans

In response to the protests of the National Anthem by NFL players like Colin Kaepernick, Baltimore Orioles center fielder Adam Jones stated his opinion as to why there aren’t baseball players taking part in similar social activism.

Jones told USA Today, “baseball is a white man’s sport.”

He later told the Baltimore Sun, “Baseball is numbers. It’s 8 percent black. I didn’t make that up. In football, basketball, the numbers are in the 60s and 70s. These aren’t made up numbers. It just is what it is. I’m part of the 8 percent.”

Jones is correct that the number of American blacks playing Major League Baseball is at roughly 8% (but remember that these are American blacks). This percentage has also been declining for most of the past 20 years after being at over 17% in 1994. But do declining numbers of African Americans necessarily mean that the organization as a whole has gotten whiter? Let’s take a look at who the rest of the Major League Baseball players are.

 

Although the percentage of African Americans playing professional baseball has been declining, the percentage of Latino players has been holding steady at above 25% since 2001. Many times these Latin players are just as blackas their African American counterparts having been descended from African slaves brought to the west. Therefore, MLB players like Edwin Encarnacion, David Ortiz and Francisco Lindor would be categorized as Latino despite people likely identifying them as being black based on their appearance. Add these foreign born black players to the number of American born blacks in the league and their percentage would look far less depleted.

 

Asians are another minority group who has seen significant growth in the number of Major League players. As recently as 1993 there were no Asian players competing at the big league level. But their numbers grew steadily throughout the next decade and have been sitting consistently around 1%-2% throughout the 21st century. Obviously this isn’t a huge percentage, but it does show a significant increase.

 

But what about all of those white players? Surely a “white man’s game” like baseball has seen an impervious level of white participation at the highest level, right? Well, not exactly. The percentage of whites in MLB hasn’t been above 70% since 1989 and has been below 65% since 1995. The past two seasons have seen the percentage of white players at just below 60%.

 

So how do these percentages correlate to the racial composition throughout America? As it turns out, non-Hispanic whites comprise about 63% of the American population (according to 2012 numbers). This has been roughly similar to the percentage of that same race in Major League Baseball. Blacks are now underrepresented in the sport as they are about 12.5% of the population and only 8% of professional baseball players. But with the decline of American blacks in MLB, the Hispanic percentage has become overrepresented considering their US population is at around 17% and they comprise over 25% of Major League players. Asian players are underrepresented still, standing at between 1% and 2% of big league ballplayers and being about 5.5% of the American public. But again, that race was nonexistent in the game before the number of American blacks began to decline.

 

What’s interesting about the current racial makeup up Major League Baseball is that it isn’t any “whiter” than the American population in general. If one simply observes it with regard to whites and non-whites, baseball at the professional level doesn’t seem to be quite the “white man’s game” that Jones seems to be insisting that it is. Yes, baseball is certainly whiter than the NFL (about 68% black) and the NBA (about 75% black). As a result, the leagues which have more blacks are more likely to have members speak out against things which negatively affect the black community in America (like police brutality, etc.). But to jump from being considerably more white than two other professional leagues to being a “white man’s game” seems to be a bit of a stretch.

 

What’s more, the American populace in general is often celebrated and championed as a result if its diversity. If you were to ask Americans what their definition of diversity is, many would define it as “looking like America.”  So an entity reflecting the country’s diversity would have many different races and ethnic groups represented in similar fashion to their percentages in American society (even though no entity exists which looks exactly like America percentage wise). The funny thing is, baseball does reflect a white population percentage similar to that of the rest of the country. The non-white portion of the Major Leagues (also a similar percentage to the non-whites in America, naturally) is comprised of American born and foreign born blacks, a growing Hispanic population and a newly established Asian contingent. Sound a whole lot like America to me.

 

So the decline of American blacks playing Major League baseball has resulted not in those blacks being replaced by whites, but by other minorities who are talented enough to play the game. Thus, one could argue that rather than getting less diverse as a result of depleted numbers of African Americans, baseball is actually just as diverse or even more diverse than it has ever been. If people are to take pride in the diversity we have in this country, then baseball should be embraced for exhibiting the percentages which in many ways reflect the different races and ethnicities that the country has. Rather than being the exclusive game of the white man that it used to be many decades ago, baseball has become a game featuring a various array of races, ethnic groups and nationalities of those who are able to play it on its highest level.

Disconnect Between Player Success and Coach/Manager Success Shows Reason for Racial Incongruity

It has recently come to the attention of ESPN senior writer Mike Sando that the NFL’s self-imposed effort to hire more minority head coaches has failed to achieve its goal. The requirement behind the effort, named “The Rooney Rule,” was imposed by the league in 2003 and required that NFL teams had to at least interview minority candidates for head coaching and senior football operation positions. However, NFL teams are not required to hire the minorities they interview. Sando discovered that the number of first time minority head coach hires is no higher than it was prior to the rule’s inception.

The issue was of such importance that the revelations discussed in the article actually led off the popular ESPN debate show Pardon the Interruption (PTI). On this day, the show was co-hosted by Tony Kornheiser and Pablo Torre (who was filling in for the usual co-host Mike Wilbon). Sando’s article was cited at the beginning of the segment as an introduction of the topic about to be discussed. The following is the bulk of what transpired between the two talking heads.

Torre: When we talk about race and diversity in this country, whether it is college admissions or head coaching jobs we like to talk about equality of opportunity, access to those jobs, not equality of outcome. We don’t want to falsely engineer diversity. But to me there’s a certain point where the outcome is so stark that clearly there is not equality of opportunity. Clearly it is the case where there are just not enough qualified candidates for these jobs, or head coaches of African American descent are not seen as having the mental acuity to do these jobs much as the stigma has applied to quarterbacking and may also apply to coordinators and head coaches as well.

 

Kornheiser: I think we are struck by the incongruity that the league is two thirds black and head coaches are nowhere near that percentage. There are five black head coaches at the moment and seven general managers.

 

Torre making the claim that he favors equality of opportunity and not outcome is a fair enough point on its surface. But he then makes it clear that he refuses to accept the outcome if it crosses some under-diversified threshold that he is uncomfortable with. He then floats the possibility that there may not be “enough” qualified black candidates for these jobs. However, the word “enough” is entirely subjective as some sort of proof of success for blacks in certain coaching and front office positions.

Kornheiser’s claim of “incongruity” stemming from a 2/3 black league only having five black head coaches is rather flawed when one looks at the track record of former successful professional athletes in these kinds of leadership positions. For example, Art Shell made eight Pro Bowls over a decade and a half career and is now in the NFL Hall of Fame. But he was fired after his final coaching stint with the Oakland Raiders as a result of going 2-14 that season. Matt Millen won four Super Bowls and made two All-Pro teams throughout a 12 year career as a linebacker. Millen’s tenure as the General Manager of the Detroit Lions was an emphatic failure as his team was a whopping 50 games under .500 during his seven year run and had a losing record in each of those seasons.

Looking at other sports, we can see that this disconnect is not specific to the NFL. Isiah Thomas won two NBA Championships in a spectacular Hall of Fame career. However, Thomas performed so badly as the President of Basketball operations for the New York Knicks that just a few short years after his hiring the Knicks had the highest payroll in the league and the second worst record. He was then named the team’s head coach for the two following seasons in which they went on to miss the playoffs both years.

Being the greatest player in the history of your sport is likewise no guarantee of coaching or front office success. Michael Jordan has been either a minority or majority owner of the Charlotte Bobcats/Hornets for ten years while that team has only made the playoffs three times. Charlotte was so bad in the strike shortened 2011-2012 season that they set the record for lowest winning percentage in NBA history. Wayne Gretzky, who was to hockey what Jordan was to basketball, failed to make the playoffs or even post a .500 record during his four year run as head coach of the Phoenix Coyotes.

This is not to say that being successful as an athlete means success as a coach or front office holder is unobtainable. LA Clippers head coach Doc Rivers is considered one of the best in the game and was also able to play fourteen years in the NBA while making an All Star team. Ozzie Newsome made three Pro Bowls, four All Pro teams and was inducted into the NFL Hall of Fame in 1999. After retirement he developed himself into one of the best general managers in football with the Baltimore Ravens.

So in response to Kornheiser’s claim of racial incongruity when it comes to the percentage of blacks in the NFL and head coaching/front office positions, it can also be said that there is incongruity in success as an athlete and success as a coach, GM or owner. This disconnect persists regardless of race. Jordan and Thomas are both black whereas Gretzky and Millen are both white. All of them struggled significantly in their post-athlete days in other positions within their respective sports. However, both Rivers and Newsome are black and have achieved significant success in other leadership positions in the game which brought them success as a player. Considering that head coaching, general managing and ownership success is clearly a mixed bag when it comes to the former athletes who attempt those ventures, it is hard to see why the racial composition in one realm would reflect the other. Since skills to excel professionally as a player obviously do not always carry over to the nonathletic positions within the sport, let’s not pretend that those who succeed in one of those areas are going to look like those who succeed in an unrelated area. To assume a similar racial makeup would result is to ignore many recent examples which prove otherwise.

 

Conventional Perception of Leadership Driving Negative Opinions of Cam Newton

The two week lead up to the Super Bowl typically gives enough time for those in the sports media to dwell on seemingly every possible angle before the big game. Usually one or maybe a couple of stories dominate the headlines and sports talk shows. Among those big stories this year seems to be the constant asking of why such a large portion of sports fans across the country hate Carolina Panther’s Quarterback Cam Newton. There appears to be no one clear answer, though several theories persist.

Newton is frequently seen in celebratory mode after scoring touchdowns. His dance routines following scores seem to be what rubs so many people the wrong way. Celebrating in this way is thought to be arrogant and unnecessary by those who criticize him. But if we dig deeper, we see that there are many more layers to Newton’s dislike than merely attributing it to his post-TD rituals.

Unsurprisingly, race has been tossed out by some as a reason for the abundance of Newton’s disfavor. According to this theory, many people don’t like the way Newton conducts himself in celebration because of certain stereotypes that still surround blacks in America. A somewhat related claim has also been made about the urban culture (which applies to some, but not all American blacks) that Newton represents and how it is something that the rest of America has difficulty relating to. But both of these claims fail to address why there isn’t similar disdain for wide receivers and running backs who often dance and express an abundance of emotion after scoring touchdowns. After all, not only is the NFL roughly 2/3 black, but the wide receiver and running back positions are dominated by blacks to an even greater degree. Why would race and culture fuel a resentment of Newton, but not other players who are so frequently of the same race and background?

Much of the answer to that question lies in the position in which Newton has had so much success. Quarterbacks are often referred to as “the face of their team” and even more often as the team’s “leader.” Different standards are applied to leaders than those they lead. Many people prefer leaders to be more reserved emotionally. This gives the perception of a more “grounded” leader who is thought to not let his emotions get the best of him. While others may be off dancing and celebrating, the leader is imagined to be calmer and more level headed in order to deal with the added pressures that come from his job. Thus, when these people see Newton showing the kind of emotion he shows, it flies in the face of what they perceive leadership to look like.

The image of a less emotional and more stoic leader doesn’t just persist in the sports world, but in Hollywood as well. In the climactic scene of the 1995 movie Apollo 13, when it first becomes apparent that the main characters have made it safely back to earth, seemingly everyone in the movie seems to be erupting with emotion by clapping, shouting, hugging, or doing a variety of all three. However, the NASA flight Director (played by Ed Harris) doesn’t do any of these things. He shows a bit of relief as he slumps down into his chair exhausted. This character’s lack of emotion is not by accident. The film’s director, Ron Howard, knew the way he wanted the character to act at the moment that those he led were celebrating. His subdued emotion exemplifies his status as a leader that much of the viewing audience could relate to. Many other movies also portray a leader with these near emotionless characteristics that remain even in times of celebration for other characters that they supervise.

All of this leads us back to Newton and why people are so uncomfortable with the way he celebrates success. Here we have a quarterback and leader of his team showing just as much if not even more emotion than that of the players he leads. Those who don’t like this characteristic of Newton will also find it unsettling that his team has been wildly successful this year despite his unconventional leadership style. If Carolina were a bad or mediocre team, then the narrative would be that Newton could have more success if he were less concerned with dancing and celebrating and more concerned with helping his team win. Well, despite all of that dancing and celebrating, Newton’s team has won more games than any other NFL team this season.

Thanks to Newton, the public may be forced to change the way it perceives NFL quarterbacks and the dynamics of leadership that they provide. Rather than being seen as a negative or a detriment to their team, celebrating in the way that Newton does tells us that leaders can show this kind of emotion and still be considered elite in their position. Future NFL quarterbacks displaying this kind of flair may be favorably compared to Newton rather than being maligned as unserious distractions. But it’s difficult to be among the first top tier quarterbacks to exhibit this kind of unconventionality. Those similar to Newton who come after him might have an easier go of it.