By Gabriel Woodiwiss, Columnist
MOUNT BERRY, Ga. – Close your eyes. Picture a sold-out stadium for any one of the major American sports, one filled with raucous supporters cheering on their team.
Now, zoom in to focus on the loudest, rowdiest fans. If you had to describe their appearance, how would you do it? If you’re picturing adult white males standing on two legs and screaming their heads off, I am speaking to you.
As a young, white man passionate about sports and heavily invested in the outcomes of games that, if I’m pressed to admit, I know are ultimately meaningless, I feel qualified to speak on this topic. But, it’s not just “average” fans who can pinpoint this default persona and the archetypal power it holds as a default. Broadcasters and advertisers in all-American athletic competitions know who they are pitching to, if you will allow the baseball pun.
When it comes to sports fandom in this country, the white, able-bodied, heterosexual male reigns supreme. These are the defaults. Are we mature enough for a more nuanced understanding?
Viewing athletic competition through a Western lens, it might be understandable to think that sports were invented by white men for white men, with little room for inclusion of any other race, culture, or even gender. The original Olympic Games designed by the Greeks featured exclusively white male competitors for exclusively white spectators. Following from this origin, European and American games inherited and propagated this built-in bias. Football, basketball and baseball all were invented by white men, and for a long time they were only played professionally by white men. In fact, it hasn’t been all that long since women were discouraged from attending sporting events of any kind.
So, it should come as no surprise that white men still possess a disproportionate power in and over the hierarchies of these sports. Franchise owners, investors and front office staff members in the NFL, NBA, MLB and NHL are overwhelmingly white males. Watch the advertising during any major sporting event in the United States, including and especially the Super Bowl, and the prized demographic is not difficult to parse.
At this point, you may be thinking, so what? White men show up to the games and watch on TV or stream to their devices. White men spend considerable amounts of money on team merchandise. What’s wrong with advertisers, league officials and teams catering to their largest bloc of ticket-buyers?
The problem is not that these organizations seek to reward and build relationships with their most invested supporters. If anything, this is a good business strategy that should be encouraged. The problem is that these financial power brokers only focus their attentions on this one bloc, denying other fans the same respect and opportunities.
For white, able-bodied males, as for other people, sports are an escape. They provide a safe, comfortable environment in which one can tune out to forget life’s demands. But as a white fan, one doesn’t have to worry about being misrepresented or feeling valued. One can enter a sporting venue without worry of becoming the target of derogatory comments about race or gender. Even when the outcome isn’t quite what was hoped for, sports remain a celebration.
Shouldn’t this be the case for every fan who walks through the turnstile and puts on the television broadcast, regardless of what they look like? Unfortunately, for many in this country, this is not true.
As a white male who watches sports, I enjoy a certain kind of privilege. Even though I might be uncomfortable admitting this, I can’t dispute it. Famous athletes have brought this to my attention time and time again: Katherine Switzer, Tommie Smith and John Carlos, Billie Jean King, and Colin Kaepernick, to name only a few. Each time, with very few exceptions, these athletes were met with responses ranging from indifference to resistance to outright malice. And because I recognize, either actively or on a subconscious level, that I benefit from the status quo, I am hesitant to speak out against it.
But times are changing, and so must we.
With the #MeToo and Black Lives Matter movements, the last few years have demonstrated that women and racial minorities are tired of being sidelined. While neither social crusade originated in a sporting context, their impact has certainly been felt in the athletic arena.
In the aftermath of the tragic killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor at the hands of white males, the summer of 2020 saw the first instance in my lifetime of American sports teams and leagues issuing joint statements vowing to change the way they conduct business. What resonated so profoundly with me was not only that these teams and individual players were speaking out against injustice. After all, female athletes and competitors of color have been doing this for decades. What struck me was that this time, white men were joining in in numbers. Not all or even most, but enough to seem significant.
While these movements of solidarity should arguably not have been necessary in the first place, it is at least encouraging to see some fellow white males, so often the source of pain and anger, begin to understand and to act on that understanding. The toughest part still remains, however.