Monday, March 2, 2009

Green and White Color Lines: Sport as a Metaphor for Race Relations

As a young man growing up in Crowley, Louisiana, I’d watched the high school football team - The Fighting Gentlemen - through the leanest and meanest of years. The lean years occurred while my father was an assistant principal and my sister the head cheerleader, and included a winless season in the mid 80’s where I watched every single heartbreaking loss. The meanest of years included a run wherein the Gents won the 3A state championship in 1989 and when they returned to “The Dome” in 1991. In my four years at CHS from 1992-1995, we’d won a district championship, made it to the state playoffs each year, and continued building a tradition of hard-nosed, blue-collar, smash mouth high-school football played every week at Gardiner Memorial. And yet, in my lifetime, ground which I’d never seen broken by the Gents was about to be broken, and I was about to be a part of it - The Gents were going to take on the Pioneers of Notre Dame.

“The Pios” were the cross-town rivals for reasons that had very little to do with sport. While the students who attended CHS were primarily working to middle-class, comprising an ethnically and culturally diverse student body, Notre Dame was a parochial school, its student body primarily white, primarily middle to upper-middle class. We perceived them to be the “rich white boys” and we were what was left. In retrospect, we were full of erroneous misconceptions about each other. Nonetheless, we reveled in each other’s failures, despised one another’s successes, and dreamed about the day when we could test our mettle against one another on the field of play once and for all. Players at Notre Dame claimed their technical proficiency and discipline would prevail. We, of course, were convinced that our skill and work ethic would triumph. We were about to find out, as all summer long our coaches talked up our contest against them to open my senior season in a two, twelve-minute quarter jamboree and I hoped we could topple the cross-town rivals for good.

The game, unfortunately, never happened. Life went on, and we were certainly disappointed, but what was more telling than any outcome of a game that was never to happen for us, was the players’ reactions to the cancellation.

My black teammates were convinced that Notre Dame pulled out because “them white boys didn’t wanna be embarrassed by a bunch of brothers,” or because “them boys were scared of us!” For many of my black teammates, this was more than a gridiron matchup. It was a gladiatorial opportunity to address, and perhaps conquer the deleterious and pernicious impact that racism, segregation, and denied opportunity had had on them and their families by finally defeating whom they perceived to be the beneficiaries of unearned and undeserved financial and cultural privilege. White friends of mine who attended Notre Dame, who were often alarmingly honest with their feelings about black people with me, wanted to finally show us “who was boss,” and put us “back in our place” - disturbing metaphors, to be sure, considering the history of black/white race relations in the South. When the game was called off, part of me was relieved because frankly, there was no outcome that I could envision that wouldn’t end in increased strife and conflict between racial groups in advance of and after the game took place.

I am troubled all the more in reflection, because to me, football was but one of many activities and aspects of my upbringing that have determined who I am as a human being. Moreover, I know that the work of promoting harmony among diverse constituencies has taken place on territory much more treacherous than a 120 yd X 54 yd square of grass with white lines painted on it. Its just football, isn’t it?

Though I have participated in organized athletics since I can remember, and enjoyed success as an athlete and now as one who researches sport culture, I have never quite properly estimated or understood the level of significance with which many individuals regard athletic competition. I especially do not claim to understand the consideration of sport as a means to promote racial healing (or division). Surely Pios and Gents fans alike understood that no matter the outcome of the game, that twenty-four minutes of organized football could not redress past wrongs, revise social order, or represent any more than a blip on the radar of racial progress in South Louisiana history. Right?

And yet, sporting events and organizational exploits continue to carry disproportionate influence in the daily lives of many Louisianians. The New Orleans Saints and New Orleans Hornets have been (incredulously) attributed with helping heal New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. Years of below-the-surface racial division and enmity in North Louisiana were said to have melted away instantly when The University of Louisiana-Monroe finally invited historically black college Grambling State last year after years of insisting the matchup would never happen (the record crowd and ticket sales probably didn’t hurt). I personally know many individuals who count as a sign of considerable progress that a black quarterback (Jamarcus Russell) could lead the Bayou Bengals to a national championship. Regardless of these athletic successes, however, the material existence of the same people who cheer alongside them continues to stagnate, and the institution of racism continues to rear its ugly head and cast a pall over the American topography regardless of the irrationality and rabidity of black sports fans across the nation. So is this fervor for organized sport simply wasted energy and investment in empty metaphors?

So long as racial progress and harmony in sport, as a part of the tableau of American cultural expression (including the arts, political movements, music, dance, etc.) serves as inspiration for social change, then the oft irrational and rabid investment in sport often observed in many Americans can be quite useful. Imagine that the next generation of black leaders will, in their young lives, witnessed Tiger, witnessed Tony Dungy, witnessed so many prominent and successful black athletes and coaches and derived significant inspiration from them. If successes in sport by teams and individuals spark revelation in the minds of progressive thinkers that much can be achieved by people, regardless of their ethnicity, then I hope that face-painting, tailgating, and hoarse throats in the morning continue to proliferate exponentially. Especially if the face painting is green and gold (CHS’ colors) and the Pios go down in flames!

nota bene: Only a decade after that game never happened, Crowley High School and Notre Dame High School are now in the same district and compete against one another every year. Every report I have heard about the matches has been positive, and the contests have been for the most part competitive, without significant conflict, and have rallied the entire city around the event. Perhaps this is evidence that the city and its citizens have come very far in the decade since I left - a positive development, indeed.