Denmark Vesey's Plantation

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Thursday, February 23, 2006

Phil Taylor on Bryant Gumbel's Comments

It's possible that the only people who were pleased by Bryant Gumbel's rather startling rant against the Winter Olympics recently were Gumbel's old colleagues at NBC. With Michelle Kwan sitting at home, Bode Miller skiing as though he really did hit the sauce before he hit the slopes, and more television viewers choosing to watch the team from CSI rather than the one from the United States, the Games badly needed a little buzz to help the lackluster ratings.

Along came Gumbel to provide it, by taking a few minutes on his HBO show, Real Sports, to rip nearly everything about the Winter Games except Johnny Weir's outfits.

"Count me among those who don't like 'em and won't watch 'em," said Gumbel, a former co-host of NBC's Today show. He added that we should "try not to be incredulous when someone attempts to link these games to those of the ancient Greeks who never heard of skating or skiing," and "try not to laugh when someone says these are the world's greatest athletes, despite a paucity of blacks that makes the Winter Games look like a GOP convention."

He went on to take a shot at highly subjective competitions like figure skating that masquerade as true sports and to dismiss the Games as little more than a marketing plan to fill up time during an otherwise slow sports period, opinions that won't find any disagreement here.

But most folks apparently stopped listening after the "paucity of blacks" line, because that's the one that has some critics calling for Gumbel's firing, charging that if a white broadcaster had made a similar remark, complaining about the absence of whites from the NBA for example, he would be looking for a new job by now.

That might be true, if the white announcer's remark were as misunderstood and inaccurately characterized as Gumbel's has been. In the first place, Gumbel didn't imply that the Winter Olympics needed to be more inclusive, or that blacks were somehow being unfairly kept out of the Games, which is what some of his critics seem to think he was saying. He didn't say that he didn't like the Olympics because there were too many white athletes.

His point was that a relatively narrow portion of the world's population participate in the sports of the Winter Games, and that it's hard to take the Games seriously as a collection of the world's greatest athletes when blacks, who inarguably have a history of producing some of the world's best athletes, are so underrepresented. There is no racism in that premise, only logic.

But the claims of a double standard do have some merit. Black public figures do get more latitude in discussing racial matters than whites do. Charles Barkley can get away with (jokingly) saying, "I hate white people," while Fuzzy Zoeller gets roasted for (also jokingly) suggesting that fried chicken ought to be on the menu for Tiger Woods' victory meal.

Why is that? It's partly a matter of power. When a member of a minority or less powerful group makes negative comments or jokes about the majority, it's easier to dismiss them because we don't perceive any real threat behind the words. When someone from the more powerful majority makes similar comments, it feels somehow more dangerous because of the threat, however small, that they might turn those attitudes into action. It's why it seems amusing when women joke about how clueless men are, but similar comments from a man about women often sound offensive.

It also has to do with history. When a white broadcaster, athlete or team official makes a remark critical of blacks, it dredges up ugly images of past oppression. When the roles are reversed, it is somehow less upsetting to many people because it doesn't conjure up those same memories.

So it's true, Bryant Gumbel's remarks don't elicit the same kind of outrage as, say, Rush Limbaugh's. It may seem unfair, but don't blame Gumbel for that. Blame the history of race relations in America. Fairness has rarely had anything to do with it.


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