“It just seems to be that way, that Afro-American kids can run very, very well. That doesn’t mean that Caucasian kids and other descents can’t run, but it’s very obvious to me they run extremely well.” These are the words that U.S. Air Force academy football coach Fisher DeBerry said in remarks broadcast Tuesday night by Denver television station KWGN. Given that his comments were about race, and may have been courting a stereotype, I suppose we should not be surprised that he is in hot water. I hope that my civil rights/anti-apartheid historian credentials are enough that what I am about to say does not get me in hot water, but I hope Air Force does not punish DeBerry, who, in addition to being a very successful coach, also did not really say anything wrong.

Now don’t take me the wrong way – I would not place DeBerry as the most eloquent spokesman on race in America. But look at what he said – from his years of coaching football, in general black kids run well. There are white ids and others who run well, but black kids run well. Now I do take issue with the implied inclusion that “all ” black kids run well. They do not, of course, and I am sure DeBerry knows this.

Let me illustrate my argument by way of two anecdotes, both related to my own years as a track athlete in college, one of which may not make me look all that great, so I will tell it first:

I competed in events that Fisher DeBerry might associate with black success: The jumps, especially the long and the triple jump. Williams had a very good track team, and one of the great things about track and field is that you get to find out exactly where you are in the global hierarchy. In addition to being very numbers driven, if you are good enough at a lower level you will qualify for bigger meets. Williams is a division III school, but we routinely competed against DI schools. I was a good enough jumper to compete against the big boys, but I was well aware of where I fit into the overall world of track and field. In any case, when I would get to bigger meets where I may have known fewer of the athletes, or if I competed away from New England, say in the South, I would look around and scout out the competition. When I was trying to size up the other jumpers, when I was looking at strangers wearing university of Miami or Florida State or Christopher Newport or whatever other jerseys, I would tend to focus more on the black jumpers than the white guys. I am not proud of it, but I am also not ashamed. And I certainly would not say that it was an illogical conclusion to draw. I would guess that I have a batter grasp on track and field than most of my readers, but even acknowledging that, I think I am on pretty firm ground to ask anyone who would criticize me the following question: Name five truly great white American long jumpers in the last ten years. Twenty years. Now the irony, as I discovered many times, is that there were times when I should have been watching out for the big white guy from Western Carolina or Albany State or the University of Miami (at the biggest meet I ever competed in, the Florida Relays in 1993, I got beaten out for third place by a Miami [Florida] guy on his last triple jump who was, if it is possible, paler than I am. There were even times when those guys maybe should have been looking out for me, as I ended up winning.

Anecdote #2: When my fellow jumper and teammate “Boogie” (His name was Stuart, but we called him Stu, and then it became “Boogie” after the Led Zeppelin song “Boogie With Stu”) would get to the really big meet, the DI/All New England meet, say, we’d always joke as we watched the early rounds of the sprints about the white guys and how they had better enjoy their time, because they would be watching the finals. Boogie was also a sprinter. He was also black. And lo and behold, once the finals of the 60 or 100 rolled around at the All New England meet or the Florida State relays or nationals, the finals were overwhelmingly African American. We were always joking, but the joke, like many jokes, had an element of truth to it.

I have no idea why this is so. There are certainly fast white guys. And Asian guys. And Hispanics. And most people, black, white, Asian, and Hispanic, are slow, cannot jump, cannot lift things and so forth – when you are looking at college athletes you are already talking about a genetically exceptional subset, so drawing widespread racial differences from the whole population seems foolish. But I will double down my bet on the long jumpers. I’ll grant you Jeremy Wariner, the 2004 Olympic Champion in the 400. I’ll even give you the Greek 200 runner who won in 2000 (and who failed a piss test in 2004 . . .) And I will remind you exactly what DeBarry said about white athletes: “That doesn’t mean that Caucasian kids and other descents can’t run.” And then I will ask a simple question related to the one I asked earlier: Howe many white medalists have their been in the Olympics and World Championships in the 100, 200, and 400 since 1968? That is 10 Olympics, times three events, times three places in each event. I’m not much at math, but that is 90 possible medals. Even keeping in mind that the United States, the world’s most dominant sprint nation for most of that period, boycotted the 1980 Olympics, is there anyone out there who wants to bet that thirty of those medals went to athletes who were not black? Anyone want to bet on whether or not twenty did?

Now let’s bring it back o football. Jason Sehorn made some waves for the very fact that he was a decent white starting cornerback in the NFL. And in some attempts to explain why that was so, there was one compelling argument made: That one factor is that coaches simply steer black athletes toward certain positions and white athletes toward others so that irrespective of actual abilities, black kids in integrated high schools will play corner, their white teammate safety. That makes at least some sense. But whatever the case, can anyone honestly say that however anecdotal, and however clumsily stated, Fisher DeBarry was actually wrong? And can his desire to recruit more black athletes to the Air Force Academy actually be something we want to condemn? Especially when DeBarry’s black players have rallied around him? It would seem patently unfair to punish him for his comments. There is lots of very real, very serious, very disturbing racism out there. There are coaches who certainly are racists. But it would be absurd to punish Fisher DeBerry for the current reality of the nature of the sprinting and jumping events and the skill positions in the NFL (and anyone who has been to a college track meet knows that these two things are fungible).

Cross-posted from dcat.

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