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Black scholars on sports: controversial book brings Black intellectuals together to discuss whether African Americans are preoccupied with sports…

July 14, 2007 by  
Filed under News

John Hoberman, ‘Darwin’s Athletes: How Sport Has Damaged Black America and Preserved the Myth of Race’

(Akiit.com) Controversial book brings Black intellectuals together to discuss whether African Americans are preoccupied with sports

New York — If African Americans have become overly obsessed with sports, the engagement or lack thereof by Black intellectuals on the subject should not be blamed, contend a group of scholars who attended a symposium held here earlier this month.

The scholars convened to critique a controversial book that argues that sport is damaging Black America by helping to preserve racial myths and stereotyping. The book also contends that African Americans are encouraged to be overinvested in sports.

The scholars took issue with numerous observations made by Dr. John Hoberman, author of Darwin’s Athletes: How Sport Has Damaged Black America and Preserved the Myth out Race. Described by the organizer as a “wake-up call” urging Black scholars to begin addressing sport issues, the symposium left little doubt about the willingness of Black intellectuals to answer criticism leveled by Hoberman, an University of Texas scholar whom several symposium participants depicted as an “uninformed” observer of African American life.

As Dr. Donald Spivey, chair of the department of history at the University of Miami, said, “It is not that I find fault with everything that he writes in his book; I find fault with most of it…. Professor Hoberman’s thesis is spurious, historically anti-contextual, unsubstantiated by research, and indefensible.”

Another symposium participant simply declared at the end of his presentation, “F–John Hoberman.”

The book, published in 1997, has stirred controversy among scholars, the sports industry, and the public for alleging that sports are doing more harm than good to the African American community. While a number of Black scholars, such as Dr. Gerald Early of Washington University, have said the book raises important issues, many others have faulted it for its attack on the Black middle class and Black intellectuals.

Black scholars contend that African Americans, especially working class Blacks, are no more obsessed with sports than any other group in America. Additionally, they say that African Americans are certainly no more obsessed than either minority groups or the working classes in foreign countries.

Enlisting Black scholars to speak out on the book, NYU’s Africans Studies Program and Department of History sponsored the symposium “Sport Matters: Black Intellectuals Respond to and Transcend Darwin’s Athletes.” Symposium organizer Dr. Jeffrey Sammons, a NYU historian, says that while Hoberman’s book was the catalyst for the symposium, his purpose is much broader.

“By bringing together, in one place and time, an outstanding array of seventeen Black female and male scholars/intellectuals, including some who have already contributed significantly to sport scholarship and others who have never engaged the subject, `Sport Matters’ should inspire a new outlook on sport and serve as a signal achievement in facilitating a clearer understanding of the relationship of sport to the Black experience,” Sammons said during the symposium.

Symposium sessions, which were open to the public and drew crowds ranging from thirty people to as many as seventy, were held during the weekend of the thirtieth anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King’s assassination. The symposium had the strong backing of NYU administrators, several of whom addressed participants and audience members during the event. The National Basketball Association was also a sponsor of the event, according to Sammons.

Among scholars who participated in the symposium were Dr. Arnold Rampersad, Dr. Gerald Early, Kenneth Shropshire, Dr. Bart Landry, Dr. Gerard Fergerson, Dr. Donald Spivey, Dr. Kenneth Manning, and Dr. Angela Dillard. Novelist Walter Mosely and social critic Stanley Crouch dropped by and attended the symposium as audience members. Sonja Steptoe, national correspondent for the CNN/Sports Illustrated cable television network, opened the symposium as its keynote speaker.

Hoberman did not attend the conference because, he says, he wasn’t slotted enough speaking time to have a “real intellectual exchange” with other scholars. He also says he believed the conference was designed to scapegoat him.

“I don’t think this conference was intended to produce a fair and balanced assessment of my book,” he said.

Described by Hoberman as “a racial history of modern sport that explores our racial predicament,” Darwin’s Athletes is divided into three parts. The first examines the origins of Black obsession with sports and how Western racism has stereotyped African Americans according to their participation in sport.

The second part explores sport as a venue of racial competition. Hoberman argues that the growing perception of Blacks as physically superior to Whites has also reinforced the racist idea that Blacks are mentally inferior to Whites. Sports have functioned to buttress biological ideas about race and racial hierarchy, according to Hoberman.

The third part of the book examines the idea of Black athletic superiority originating in racist folklore about Blacks. It also discusses biomedical evidence of race in athletic competition.

Although Hoberman professes disregard for the idea that genetics can explain Black achievement in sports, his discussion of the issue has led some Black scholars to question his sincerity.

This obsession with Black athletic achievement, according to Hoberman, should have found resistance among Black intellectuals.

He writes that if “there is one interest group that might have been expected to resist Black America’s profound attachment to athletic achievement, it is African American intellectuals, both inside and outside universities. Yet the Black male intellectual that has denounced almost every other form of cultural entrapment has never mounted a campaign against the sports fixation.”

Hoberman believes that African American intellectuals have failed the Black community by not addressing the harmful aspects of sport and not living up to their responsibility as intellectuals. This belief proved particularly galling to the scholars participating in the symposium.

“Ultimately, Hoberman’s treatment of Black intellectuals — left, right and other — lacks seriousness and depth,” according to Dr. Angela Dillard, a historian at NYU.

One commonly heard complaint by participants of the symposium was that Hoberman, a scholar in Germanic and Slavic languages, demonstrated a shallow understanding of the African American athletic experience as well as African American history in general.

Scholars participating in the symposium were invited to the event based on their expertise to critique specific issues that Hoberman raises in his book. For example, Dr. Arnold Rampersad, the Princeton University professor who has written highly-praised biographies of Arthur Ashe and Jackie Robinson, challenged Hoberman’s use of those sports figures in his arguments. And Dr. Daryl M. Scott, a Columbia University scholar on the life and work of author Ralph Ellison, disputed Hoberman’s use of Ellison’s writings to support arguments in Darwin’s Athletes.

Another scholar, Dr. Bart Landry, a sociologist at the University of Maryland who has studied the Black middle class, discussed evidence that suggested the Black middle class may be less concerned about sports than the White middle class.

Sammons, the author of Beyond the Ring: The Role of Boxing in American Society, says convening a symposium on race and sports had long been an interest of his.

I’ve been thinking about doing this for a long time,” said Sammons, who credits Hoberman’s book with helping him to crystallize the idea for the symposium. “What Hoberman did was to give me something to latch onto.”

Sammons and Washington University’s Early are working together on a book of the papers and the commentary presented at the symposium. Sammons says Hoberman will have the opportunity to respond in writing to symposium in the forthcoming book.

By Ronald Roach

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