And Now Denver Is Lonesome for Her Heroes

I'm really uninterested in the fact that Peyton Hillis is white. It's not that white people being successful in areas dominated by blacks is, in itself, uninteresting. There's a lot to be said about Eminem, for instance. But I don't really see it here. Hillis seems equally uninterested ("I don't put race into the equation.") Which leaves me wondering about this:

Since Hillis can't make sense of his past, I'll take a stab at it. His previous coaches likely spent so much time looking for runners with certain skill sets that they never envisioned that Hillis could be more than what he was. He got placed in a box, and that's not just because of his skin color. It's because this is what happens when people don't have the vision to see beyond the expectations they've already established in their own minds. 

If you think this is flawed logic, just consider the plight of black quarterbacks in the past. Many were labeled as "athletes" or "scramblers" and rarely given a chance to show their abilities as passers because they didn't fit a certain NFL mold. The irony now is that mobility is a treasured asset in quarterbacks, but that's also beside the point. In those days, if you didn't look the part, you didn't get the part. 

 In Hillis' case, some people will see race attached to this story and assume it's an attempt to be controversial. It's actually just an attempt to be honest. Hillis is showing us something we haven't seen in the league in awhile. In the process, he's reminding us of what makes sports so special in the first place -- that the whole point of competition is to make us understand what can happen when somebody gets a chance.

I don't think this is controversial, I just think it's baseless. To say that people didn't think blacks could be quarterbacks was because they were "placed in a box," is reductive. Blacks were thought to be bad quarterbacks because, for over three centuries, black people were generally thought to be stupid. We have, as a society, only recently begun the work of disabusing ourselves of such beliefs. But this was not merely a matter of, say, Tom Hanks trying to avoid being stereotyped as a comedic actor. The problem of the black quarterback was the result of deep, systemic beliefs and practices stretching back to the founding of this country.

Moreover, there is an actual history of racial discrimination in pro sports at large, and in the NFL in particular, where black players were barred between 1933 and 1946. Integration in the NFL wasn't completed until 1962, when the Kennedy administration threatened legal action against the Washington Redskins. (Almost 25 years later, Doug Williams would lead those same Redskins to victory in the Super Bowl.) Again, this wasn't a matter of putting players in a box. It was actual, documented, undisputed racism.

I mean, surely people develop certain pictures of what success looks like. That's unavoidable. But the problem of the black athlete and discrimination was never that people couldn't picture certain realities, it was that they actively worked to prevent those realities from coming into being. 

I think there's this tendency to over-think race. Shani Davis is sort of interesting, but I'm not sure that race is the best lens through which to examine him. I'm not sure that the declining number of black players in the major leagues, necessarily, says anything significant about racism
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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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