The Dallas Cowboys receiver Dez Bryant’s outburst on the sidelines last Sunday raises interesting questions about race, rage, and the black athlete. While some commentators berated Bryant for his supposed immaturity, others TV personalities, especially retired black players like Keyshawn Johnson, noted that the star wide receiver was exhibiting passion and a desire to win. The debate showcases that there is a very fine line between immaturity and passion, and for many people race is the barrier that separates the two terms. For example, future Hall of Fame receiver Terrell Owens created controversy when he claimed that when white athletes like Tom Brady yell on the sidelines at teammates and coaches they are seen as passionate and full of heart, whereas black players are seen as selfish and immature. While many dismissed TO because he is TO, Owens raised an important observation about how the media has historically viewed the black athlete. In challenging their bias, TO tapped into his inner Jackie Robinson.
According to Robinson, when Branch Rickey finally allowed his star player to show emotions, Jackie quickly realized that the media treated his passion differently than white players. “Very soon,” Jackie claimed “I learned that as long as I appeared to ignore insult and injury, I was a martyred hero to a lot of people who seemed to have sympathy for the underdog. But the minute I began to answer, to argue, to protest—the minute I began to sound off—I became a swellhead, a wise guy, an ‘uppity’ nigger.” However, Robinson realized when “a white player did it he had spirit. When a black player did it, he was ‘ungrateful,’ an upstart, a sorehead.” If Jackie spoke his mind he became a “‘pop-off,’ a ‘troublemaker,’ a ‘rabble-rouser.”’ Robinson remembered, “it was apparent that I was a fine guy” until “‘Success went to his head,’ until I began to ‘change.”’ In other words, the media expected their black athletes to be quiet, humble, and grateful for their opportunity to get paid to play sports. But why was/is this? Why see whites’ antics differently?
The rise of sports in post-Civil War America coincided with a crisis in white masculinity. In short, the white middle class worried that they lacked necessary aggression, virility, or physicality and sports were supposed to be an anecdote to modernization and softness. Teddy Roosevelt, for example, wrote about the “strenuous life,” and the importance of sports in America, saying “I have always been fond of boxing, and have always believed in it as a vigorous, manly pastime, one of those pastimes which have a distinct moral and physical value, because they encourage such essential virtues as courage, hardihood, endurance and self-control.” At the turn of the century when reformers tried to ban boxing and football, Mayor Carter Harrison II of Chicago claimed “if you legislate against football and boxing, the next generation will be a generation of sissy boys. I intend to teach my boy how to box and how to play football. I think such sports make boys manly. The Lord help this country if we knock out boxing and football.” In this context to have spirit, vigor, hardihood, or “passion” in sports was signs of manly maturity and a component of whiteness.
On the other hand, the natural inclination was to think the black athlete lacked these positive manly characteristics. Instead he was often deemed to be yellow, without pluck, hot headed, a braggart, and with child-like immaturity. “The question has often been asked,” one reported noted, “has the Negro the grit and the staying qualities of the white pugilist?” In other words, they assumed the black fighter lacked manly toughness, he was less than a man, and had to prove otherwise. But manliness came at a price. The black athlete had to be docile and humble too. For example, the white press celebrated boxer Joe Gans because Gans was “meek and humble,” in comparison to other black men who would “put on” and “swelled up and burst with inflated pride” in front of a crowd. Early in his career Jack Johnson was praised as being “a well behaved, orderly negro.” And the great fighter Peter Jackson was “frequently called the whitest black man who ever lived.” “Jackson’s main assets” one writer reflected “were his excellent behaviour [sic] and his sportsmanlike qualities. He was never known to boast.” Any deviation from acting humble, staying quiet, and being restrained, the white press attacked the black athlete as being immature.
Jackie Robinson had to face that assault on his character, Terrell Owens battled this, and Dez Bryant continues to struggle against this character assassination. While Bryant and Owens never had to face the racist animosity that Robinson battled, and the star receivers are not civil rights icons, like Robinson they want respect. In many ways, viewing Bryant’s tirade on the sideline as passionate and not immature is recognizing that Bryant has manly virtues that sports cultivate.