Tuesday, January 01, 2013

Jon Gruden's "Beast" Comment Reflects Disparities in Media Coverage of Black Athletes

ESPN football analyst Jon Gruden
Like millions of other Americans I spent the first day of 2013 nursing a hangover and watching college football; caught a good game between #10 South Carolina versus #18 Michigan in the Outback Bowl in Tampa, Florida.

But listening to ESPN football commentator Jon Gruden analyze South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney gave me a bit of a headache that had nothing to do with the Stoly and tonics I drank last night.

Clowney is African-American, in the first quarter while previewing the key player match ups, Gruden, attempting to convey the 6'6" 256-pound player's incredible talent, offered this three word analysis, "He's a beast."

Seemingly innocent comments like that, often said in front of millions of viewers during moments of passion and excitement, bother me as a former college and professional football player; and as a person of color.

Calling a young man a "beast", even though Gruden obviously intended it as a compliment, tends to have the unintended effect of dehumanizing Jadeveon Clowney to a degree, reinforcing myths of inherent physical superiority and minimizing the intelligence, exhaustive mental and physical preparation and skill required to perform at that level.

 Over the years I've watched enough football and basketball games to credibly make the observation that television sports color commentators and analysts who use adjectives like "beast", "animal" or "monster" to describe a player, tend to use those kinds of simplistic animal metaphors to describe African-American athletes much more so than white or Hispanic athletes. Conversely, comments about white players tend to revolve around assumptions about inherent mental superiority; for example a white quarterback makes a good pass and he's "got a good head on his shoulders" or is a "very smart player."  

I've lost count of the number of times an African-American basketball player blocks a shot, or a linebacker makes an intense tackle and the very first thing out of the color commentator's mouth is, "This guy is an animal!" Now I'm not suggesting the "beast" comment Gruden made was racist, but I do think it reveals and reinforces some unconscious, very old and deeply ingrained assumptions and myths about black physicality and black athletic performance that many Americans (especially sportscasters) unknowingly perpetuate.

Like race in America, sports broadcasters and the way they cover and talk about black athletes is a very complex issue as evidenced by infamous career-ending verbal gaffes by Jimmy the Greek and Howard Cosell. Or much more recently the media controversy created by ESPN "First Take" co-host Skip Bayless's moronic observations about Washington Redskins quarterback Robert Griffin, III; or Terry Bradshaw's idiotic "bucket of chicken" comment which I blogged about recently.

But let's focus on Gruden's comment for a moment. Now I generally like Gruden as a color football analyst, he's got a decent sense of humor and he offers some valuable insights into the game. I don't think he's a racist or anything, but what exactly is going on in his mind when he comes up with the word "beast" to try and describe Jadeveon Clowney? Is he referencing his physical stature, his hard-hitting style of play, or something else?

Clowney is certainly an imposing presence on the field, but he also made an impact last season as a freshman in the SEC (Southeastern Conference) the toughest athletic conference in Division I college football. Not only was he the first freshman defensive lineman to start at South Carolina since 2007, Clowney was selected as the 2011 SEC Freshman of the Year, second team All-SEC, honorable mention All-American for SI.com, was selected to numerous Freshman All-America teams and was the only freshman in the SEC to be in the top ten leaders in sacks (8.0) in 2011. This year as a sophomore he won the Ted Hendricks Award which recognizes the nation's top defensive end; which analyst Desmond Howard noted over on ESPN's sister channel ABC during the half-time show.

Does that sound like a young man you would describe as a "beast"?

Or does it sound more like a committed student-athlete who's spent countless hours in the gym strengthening his body, hours studying game preparation film to analyze his opponents and critique his own practice tapes in order to become a better player? Not once did I hear Jon Gruden credit or mention the University of South Carolina's defensive line coach Brad Lawing; a man with 17 years of coaching experience who's a big part of South Carolina having back to back 11-win seasons and has clearly helped Clowney develop into the player he is.

Did Gruden bother to mention that Clowney was the nation's consensus top high school recruit as a senior? Nope, he pretty much summed up Jadeveon Clowney as a "beast".

Interestingly enough during the very same game a University of Michigan linebacker named Jake Ryan (a white player with long blond hair streaming out of his helmet) cut across the field and made a nice tackle, Gruden lavished him with praise too. But he didn't call him an "animal" or a "beast". Noting Ryan's outstanding play Gruden said admiringly of the Michigan sophomore, "Jake Ryan is a fine player from St. Ignatius High School in Ohio, I know exactly what kind of stock he comes from."

Jon Gruden's comments are neither unique, uncommon or unexpected. I conclude my first blog of 2013 with an excerpt from the forward of a fascinating paper written by Emily Plec, a faculty member of the Western Oregon University Communications Studies department entitled:
 "The Great White Hype:Rhetoric and Racial Biology in the Coverage of the 1968 Olympic Protest"

Plec observes:
"Since the 1950's, U.S. Americans have experienced a substantive shift in public discourse about racial identity, difference, and inequality. Despite those changes, popular ideas about inherent African-American physical prowess continue to demonstrate, and likely reinforce, racist thinking and rhetorical practices. Such discourses contribute to the production of racism in three major ways: (a) by essentializing difference in racial terms, (b) by alluding to a "law of compensation" in which physical ability is juxtaposed with mental acuity, and (c) by utilizing dehumanizing animal metaphors."

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