Sports one way to fight social ills

Tuesday, November 30, 2004 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 7:59 a.m. CDT, Thursday, July 3, 2008

It never ceases to amaze me how the sports world can bring the real world’s biggest problems to the forefront.

Take racism, for instance.

Many people, regardless of race, don’t like talking about racism. It makes them uncomfortable, and they’re often afraid of offending others.

But somehow, Nicollette Sheridan jumping into Terrell Owens’ arms two weeks ago on Monday Night Football sparked some interesting discussions about racism in sports.

Indianapolis Colts coach Tony Dungy, who is black, said the skit promoted the stereotype of black athletes as sexual predators.

Chicago Bears coach Lovie Smith, who is also black, said the skit was borderline pornography but didn’t find it racially offensive.

You can argue Monday Night Football made a poor judgment in this situation, but in many cases, the visibility of big-time sports in America has had a positive impact on racism.

Columbia, for example, is about 81.5 percent white. But how many white kids in Columbia grew up idolizing Doug Smith or Kareem Rush?

Columbia resident Jason Meyer, who is black, said Jon Sundvold is his favorite player in Missouri basketball history.

“Sundvold was the best shooter I’ve ever seen; white, black or whatever,” he said. “The man played the game the right way, and you have to respect that.”

At the student recreation center, I’ve played basketball against white guys wearing Allen Iverson jerseys and black guys donning Larry Bird throwbacks.

Even if parents say all the right things about race, a kid seeing prominent athletes of all races treated equally reinforces those values.

However, Mark Pioli, an MU sociology professor, said the amount of minority exposure in sports can be good and bad.

“(Sports) is an area where both majorities and minorities get to see those faces and what they’re doing,” he said. “On the other hand, because minorities are underrepresented in other areas like political power and economics, it can sort of maintain negative stereotypes.”

While Pioli makes a good point, the closer you look at sports history, the easier it is to see how erroneous racial stereotypes are.

Older generations of sports fans have seen several archaic stereotypes come and go.

Before Yao Ming, the idea of a 7-foot-6 Chinese man being the No. 1 pick in the NBA draft was a punch line.

From 1958-60, Al Abram proved to everyone in Columbia that blacks can compete with whites on the same court. He was the first black man to play basketball for Missouri, and he led the team in scoring and rebounding in the 1958-59 season.

Pioli said minority achievement in sports has forced many to rethink their misconceptions.

“If people did have those attitudes, they have to stare right in the face of reality,” he said. “Affirmative action did not get Tiger Woods to the top. The extent to which minorities in sports achieve in areas they aren’t expected to is definitely a progressive thing.”

Meyer, 40, has been a basketball fan since his youth and is coaching his daughter’s sixth-grade team in Columbia for the first time.

“When I was a kid, about the only interaction I had with the white kids was playing basketball,” he said. “Some of them I didn’t like, but I became friends with some of them, too. In fact, I was probably their only black friend, at least to most of them.

“It was good for me to figure out that all people are pretty much the same. Some are really nice, and some are jerks. Race can’t predict that.

“I think basketball is a good way for my daughter and her teammates to learn to get along with all kinds of different people, not just people of different races.”

Pioli agrees that participating in sports helps eliminate negative stereotypes.

“I played soccer a lot in high school, and there were people of every background in that,” he said. “When you’re working together as equals, you start forgetting about the racial stuff.”

Unfortunately, the sports world has yet to create a utopian society.

Sadly, racism still exists.

But hey, at least we’re talking about it.

That’s a start.

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