You know how I feel about Skip Bayless. I rarely agree with him. I think he handles third-rail topics inappropriately, his arguments littered with ill-informed, sweeping generalizations. But, he serves a purpose, and I don’t feel it’s important to grill him again for being an imbecile.
But that didn’t stop others.
I’m going to use one column from The Big Lead as a specific example, but that is by no means the only village where the Town Crier’s standing in the park yelling at every wagon within earshot. You can pretty much google “Skip Bayless.”
Skip Bayless said some things about Washington Redskins rookie QB Robert Griffin III and his ‘battle’ with fellow Washington Redskins rookie QB Kirk Cousins for the starting job. (Spoiler Alert: There isn’t one.) He summed it up thusly:
‘I’m going to throw it out there,’ Bayless continued. ‘You also have the black/white dynamic and the majority of Redskins fans are white and it’s just human nature if you’re white to root for the white guy. It just happens in sports. Just like the black community will root for the black quarterback.
‘I’m for the black guy. I’m just saying I don’t like the dynamic for RGIII. It could stunt his growth in the NFL.’
Now, I want you to digest these next three sentences scribed by the columnist at The Big Lead, where he vapidly tears Skip Bayless apart. He’s right, but I want you to really think about these words below as you’re reading them:
Racism is not “human nature.” Humans do “naturally” prefer the familiar and disparage the foreign. However, race itself is an artificial construct.
Skip Bayless wasn’t wrong when he said ‘It’s human nature if you’re white to root for the white guy.’ He wasn’t. Is it neanderthal human nature? Yes. Is it latent, subconscious human nature? Usually. But it is human nature just the same.
Evolutionary psychologists for at least a decade have argued that racism is a bi-product of people (not just white people, all people) assigning people they meet into ‘groups’ or ‘types’ based on whatever cues available. Cues like age, sex, race and also more subtle cues like perceived sexual orientation, clothing or accent. This has been done since the dawn of organized civilizations, as a cognitive shortcut originally designed to establish a level of rapport with the new person. In fact, babies notice differences in racial appearance as early as six months.
Decisions must be made within varying social context all the time. You conduct yourself differently depending on your social surroundings. It’s a mechanism of social diplomacy and a survival instinct.
Once people began encountering people of other races (which wasn’t immediately), there was, as The Economist explained over a decade ago:
probably good reason to want to be able to place a stranger within the system of tribal groups, coalitions and alliances that early man would have had to deal with among his neighbours. To the extent that the individuals in those groups had things in common, those things might mark an unknown individual as a group member.
Again, neanderthal human nature, but human nature nonetheless.
Humans do naturally prefer the familiar over the foreign. There’s plenty of psychological and anthropological evidence to back that up. But to say race is an artificial construct ignores the very real point that race truly exists, and that people are predisposed to observe differences between them – subtle and as skin-deep as they are.
Assigning negative connotations to one race or another depending upon which race you do not belong to, though, is horrendous, sad and short-sighted. Anyone you would want reading your columns is going to know this.
But, here’s my question to columnists across the country who are busy saying “no, no, big scary racism is wrong and Skip Bayless should be ashamed to even bring this up,” … who are you talking to? The racists reading your column? Skip Bayless? Or are you just shouting over the crowd, pretending like you’re the most revelatory moralist this side of Solomon?
I understand the lure of wanting to change the mind of the narrow-minded. Trust. Me. On. This. But this is no time to admonish idiots for the sake of being on the right side of the moral argument. There are bigger fish to fry, more worthy causes worth championing, more disgraceful creatures worthy of ire and ink.
Perhaps we writers are merely playing down to the constituency that is the North American Sports Fan, trying to illustrate and illuminate some reason without actually teaching anyone anything of substance or nuance – which is to say we’re cooking a steak because people want steak and not because people are hungry.
As I’ve said before:
All we need is the game, and the compelling national storylines, delivered by smooth, polished, engaging personalities – with intelligent, fact-based insight and subtle traces of soupçon. Oh, and laughter’s nice.
All this extracurricular, all the incessant 24-7 village-burning, the rampant repetition of tired talking points, and the voracious ouroboros of fans over-digesting a narrative into its binary poles of “Good v. Evil”, “Black v. White”, “Clutch v. Unclutch”, “Corruption v. Incompetence” … it’s exhausting.
I know, by acknowledging the endless echo chamber of caustic reverb that is the 24/7 sports spin cycle, I’m contributing to the problem, but I’m going to stop now and simply refine my point.
There are stories we can write that use sports as a framework for stories and lessons that need to be told. Real stories with a beginning, a middle and an end. Go read the Grantland story on Mo Isom, for starters. You can learn a lot from it, and you won’t leave feeling beaten over the head with “AND THIS IS WHAT I WANT YOU TO THINK.”
These are stories that resonate deeper, longer and truer than any manufactured pseudo-intellectual slam-piece involving a leather-faced pundit’s verbal flatulence on a morning debate show.