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Basketball players are pushing for racial justice, but commentary can be riddled with colorism

And yet, says sports commentator Chris Broussard, “who is viewed or described as more cerebral than LeBron James?”
Players including Brooklyn Nets' Garrett Temple, center, keel around a Black Lives Matter logo before the start of an NBA basketball game in Lake Buena Vista, Fla., on July 31, 2020.Ashley Landis / Pool via AP

The NBA has resumed play after the coronavirus pandemic sidelined it for months. While the sport and everything else was under lockdown, however, a renewed call for racial justice emerged, and athletes in the NBA and other major sports leagues were not immune.

On the first day back to the hardwood – all games are being played in a “bubble” inside Disney World in Orlando, Florida – NBA players took a knee during the national anthem and wore “Black Lives Matter” T-shirts during warmups. Players also returned with specific social justice messages on the back of their jerseys, like Marcus Morris of the Los Angeles Clippers who had “Education Reform.”

But one concern athletes may want addressed is the rhetoric used to describe themselves on and off the court.

A 2019 study, Skin in the Game: Colorism and the Subtle Operation of Stereotypes in Men’s College Basketball, showed that insidious, implicit bias has been embedded in the on-air commentary and conversations about athletes based on the color of their skin: Lighter-skinned athletes are presumed to be more intelligent, while darker skin designates athletes as physically superior.

“When discrimination occurs, researchers talk about the why it’s occurring, and I think one of the problems we often run into is this knee-jerk reaction of [whether] the stereotypes are fair,” said Steven L. Foy, a social scientist and the author of “Racism in America: A Reference Handbook,” who is the study’s co-author. “In basketball we have all these objective data on performance: shots taken, shots made, shots blocked, height, weight, all these objective criteria. So, if someone is talking about, for example, how strong a player is, and we may be thinking that there is a racial difference in the way that players are described in terms of who’s strong and who’s not, someone might come back and say, well what if that person is legitimately stronger or what if that racial group is stronger?”

“We can actually point to objective data and say this is happening in terms of stereotypes even though it’s not happening in terms of the actual physicality of players,” said Foy, a professor at the University of Texas, Rio Grande Valley.

Foy and the study’s other co-author, Rashawn Ray, an associate professor of sociology at the University of Maryland, analyzed a decade’s worth of video broadcasts of the NCAA’s annual March Madness tournament from 2000-10, with a follow-up in 2018. One of their findings is that discriminatory bias is so ingrained and unconscious that it didn’t matter who the commentators were.

“It didn’t necessarily matter who they were, what their race was, what their age was, they were operating in similar ways,” Ray said. “We definitely don’t think that it’s overwhelmingly explicit — it’s implicit.”

They found white and lighter-skinned athletes were described as heady, crafty, clever and able to control the game with mental acumen. Black players were described primarily as athletic, or in some cases using words typically used to describe animals.

Ray added that many of these descriptions are not solely attributable to the commentators, who are often “given talking points about different players based on their number, their name and then things about them.”

“So, people have had collective conversations about players, and — Steven says this all the time — for the most part commentators are trying to give positive feedback and positive comments about players,” Ray said.

The researchers found that because of the fast-paced nature of basketball, commentators needed to react to the action quickly, which often means drawing on the emotions and sounds of the moment. It also means that surface-level biases may be the most accessible comments they can make in a given moment.

Foy and Ray said that the anachronistic notions of race and ability play out because of a lack of diversity, particularly, in the areas that govern sports, including the administrators who oversee college sports, to the decision-makers and members of the sports media.

Chris Broussard, a Fox Sports analyst and commentator best known for his coverage of the NBA, said one example of a darker-skinned player who is known both for his brains and his brawn is the most famous player on the Los Angeles Lakers right now.

“Who is viewed or described as more cerebral than LeBron James?” Broussard said. James is one of the favorites to win the championship in this pandemic-truncated season, and he even sank the game-winning bucket in the Lakers’ first game back.

Broussard said James is clearly not an outlier when it comes to darker-skinned professional players, including Chris Paul of the Oklahoma City Thunder and the retired Chauncey Billups, who won a championship with the Detroit Pistons and is now an ESPN broadcaster and the voice of the Los Angeles Clippers.

“Obviously he’s athletic, too,” Broussard said of James, “but he is very much described as having a high basketball IQ, maybe being the smartest player in the game.”