In a bizarrely positive sign for race relations in America, a small number of grumbling Mississippi State fans, in the tailspin portion of an awful season, are calling for Sylvester Croom’s dismissal because of long-simmering Southern prejudices – not against African Americans, but against the West Coast offense.
However, don’t adopt “It’s a Small World” as your school’s fight song just yet, college football fan. If he sticks to his schedule of one hot-button issue per season, and having exhausted religion and race already, Fisher DeBerry will be asking incoming Air Force recruits to take a virginity pledge throughout the 2006 football season. Furthermore, tomorrow’s game against the Bulldogs reminds fans that Coach Croom is the first and still only black head coach in the SEC, one of only three in all of college football. Notre Dame, who hired (and fired) Division I’s first black head coach, has to fend questions for why a 5-2 first-year coach receives a 10-year extension when the 7-0 first-year coach didn’t.
Coach DeBerry’s job, like Croom’s and Willingham’s, is to win football games. So it’s hard to fault him for being ignorant about things beyond his scope of influence. But when looking across the landscape of football and seeing a high percentage of African-Americans on the playing field, it’s not too much to ask that he occasionally ask why that is and follow his logic more carefully.
Scientists who know us better than we’d like to know ourselves, slicing our cells to the point of infinite complexity, say that there’s only a fractional difference between Karl Marx and King Kong. Furthermore, there’s no genetic difference between any race and the next, making the idea of ‘race’ itself questionable and leaving it worthless within the bounds of the research lab.
Why is this fact not more fully popularized? For starters, not everything of consequence lives in a Petri dish. After you’ve taken in the game tomorrow afternoon, hop on the interstate and head south. Tell the folks living in tent cities around the gulf that race doesn’t matter.
If there are no ‘real’ differences between different races, then the existence of race isn’t flattering for the species. It means that, over time, we’ve proven ourselves damn near incapable of living together peaceably, that given half a chance and a scapegoat of geographical or climate preference, we’ll invent reasons to dislike and dismember one another to the point that, over the eons, we’ll begin to breed into ourselves superficial physical characteristics that consume our attention and become the basis for later preferences.
None of this answers the DeBerry dilemma: Why are those black kids so fast?
Well, coach, let’s begin with what we know. The bigwigs at the Genome Project say it’s not because their skin is darker than yours and their parents’ hair looked way cooler in the 1970s. In fact, they’ll tell you that assigning race to the question is about as useful as asking which side of the bed did the fast kid wake up on.
That rules out biology and leaves you with the sciences where race still is studied, not as a genus but as a culture. For there to be a disproportionate number of African-Americans to exhibit athletic prowess in relation to other races, it would mean that, as a culture, black people in America have emphasized athleticism as a positive cultural totem, a recognition of status.
This offers DeBerry his answer, and also explains the vacuum of great Chinese polka musicians, but opens the door for a cruel truth. What horrors have been done to a people when parents and grandparents and great-grandparents emphasize outrunning other races as a good thing?
In 1967, when many college football programs were introducing African-American players to their rosters, the University of Alabama’s team was still segregated and Bear Bryant’s favorite player Pat Trammell, who turned down the fledging NFL to become a doctor, died of cancer in his thirties.
For the next few seasons the coach seemed buried in his own skin. Bryant’s teams eked out winning seasons, but just barely. And despite his heroic status, Bryant had to fend off pressure to resign for the first time in his career. Then it all turned around; then the team integrated. And onto the spring practice field came players who, despite the Guvnah’s removal, never thought it possible they would attend the University of Alabama. But there they were, certainly not because their families had connections or enough spare dough to donate a wing to the library, but because they could play football as well as any other kid and better than most.
When asked how he handled having black players on his team, Bryant, who grew up in conditions so poor that his family didn’t notice when the Great Depression started or ended, replied, “Easy. They’re just like me.” Good answer, coach.