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  Web Editor:
  Vernellia R. Randall
Professor of Law
The University of Dayton
Web Editor
Race and Health Care
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Performing in a racially hostile environment

Phoebe Weaver Williams

Associate Professor of Law, Marquette University

6 Marq. Sports L.J. 287 b(1996)

[In her article "Performing in a Racially Hostile Environement, Professor Williams discusses the racial harassment of black athletes to demonstrate another paradigm for understanding African-Americans' experiences.]

. . .The fact that Black athletes remain targets of racial abuse from sports fans is perhaps another one of America's racial dilemmas. As a group, Black professional athletes conform to the American meritocratic model. Their successes allegedly affirm the fairness and equality of the American system. They have not only played their sports well, they have excelled at America's game. Their successes "fax" to us America's message: if you are truly talented, work hard, have something of value to offer, and function from an "individualistic" rather than victim perspective, our society will reward you in a "colorblind" fashion. Frustrations surface when Blacks observe that professional athletes and others who have mastered the game are still objects of racial scorn. Another message emerges: no matter what the accomplishment, no matter how appropriate the deportment, for some, African-Americans will remain an objects of racial hostility. . .

My own frustrations surfaced after reading an article about the fire- bombing of a church in Knoxville, Tennessee. At the time this article was brought to my attention, I had purchased my green and gold "Miracle Man No. 92" t-shirt. Like the rest of the "cheeseheads" in Wisconsin, I was anticipating and awaiting a Green Bay Packer trip to Superbowl XXX, which would come after the victory that weekend over the Dallas Cowboys. As the game approached, I looked forward to putting aside for a few hours the inevitable despair that accompanied this research. My plans for escape were marred after I learned that Reggie White, a defensive lineman for the Packers, is an associate minister of the church at issue. I knew that during the upcoming game I would filter White's performances through the prism of experiences of other African- American athletes who have had to perform at the height of their careers while coping with the severe emotional pain that results from racial violence.

From all accounts, it appears that the church bombing was motivated by racial animosity. Further, while I admit the speculative nature of this contention, it at least appears this violence may have been a deliberately timed attempt to impact White's performance during the Packer playoff game. Prior to the NFC playoff game in San Francisco against the 49ers, Packers' security personnel were informed that a telephone warning had been received which stated that Reggie White's Baptist church would be burned down. The Packers did not "brief" White about this problem until after the game or until after the bombing. The fire-bombing occurred three days after the telephone threat. White and his teammates were required to prepare for the playoffs against the Dallas Cowboys during the wake of investigations about racial violence. White expressed frustration that "the country isn't taking this kind of thing seriously enough." While he was confident that he could block these events out of his mind and not allow them to interfere with his ability to play in the upcoming game, I wondered why, after all these years, he must perform under these circumstances.

Verbal racial abuse and actual racial violence present some complex issues for sports industry employers. To what extent were the Packers required to address racial harassment from unknown parties against their employee? What reasonable measures should sports' employers adopt to prevent and address this type of racial harassment? . . . While White clearly indicated that he would not allow these events to affect his play, what if he had refused to play, or felt unable to play due to the emotional pain resulting from these events? What if he misdirected his frustration while on the field towards the opposing team? Should his play under these circumstances influence whether the NFL fines or sanctions his behavior? I do not plan to specifically address these hypotheses. Their resolution would require consideration of a number of facts and circumstances. I do raise them so that the complexity of the problem of racial harassment in the sports industry may be better appreciated.

Some may consider White's experiences as unique, isolated occurrences. Unfortunately, the history of Black athletes in interracial athletics suggests that they are not. It is against this historical backdrop that we must measure the extent we have progressed in providing an environment free from workplace racial harassment. It is against this backdrop that we should measure contemporary experiences of racial harassment and consider whether the sports industry has done enough to address this problem. . . .

When seeking social reforms, African-Americans are reminded that our society rewards merit and excellence. Yet, the experiences of Black athletes, whose merits are meticulously, statistically, and publicly documented, undermine arguments that merit alone rather than race matters in our society. If Black athletes still experience racism, what of other African- Americans whose meritorious performances are not so quantifiable, not so public, and not so clearly extraordinary? If the wealth, the performances, and the economic value African-American athletes bring to our economy do not shield them from racism, then what will shield the rest of us?

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