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
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
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
“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
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.
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