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Bomani Jones on race and sports

Bomani Jones is a sports journalist and radio talk show host who has written for ESPN.com’s Page 2 and hosted “The Three Hour Lunch Break” on WDNC-AM 620 The Bull. Recently prominently featured in the HBO documentary “The Battle for Tobacco Road: Duke vs. Carolina,” Jones has an in-depth knowledge of Duke sports. On October 28, Jones visited Duke University’s campus and spoke with The New York Times columnist William Rhoden as a part of the “Sports, Race and Power Conference.” Taylor Doherty and Ben Brostoff, two columnists for The Chronicle, recently had the opportunity to speak to Jones about the role of race in sports. Below are excerpts from that interview.

The Chronicle: You were here for the “Sports, Race and Power Conference” a few weeks ago at the Mary Lou Williams center with William Rhoden for the New York Times. What was that experience like?

Bomani Jones: It was interesting. I taught a class at Duke, “The Black Athlete in America”, and I used Rhoden’s book in the class. I didn’t use it as a core text, but I used a lot of things from the book. And what I thought was interesting about it is I don’t agree with everything that Rhoden says in that book. I think that it has some interesting ideas, but I certainly don’t agree with all of it. For me, I think, what was most interesting is that Rhoden and I are from two different generations and you can see that reflected in a lot of takes that we have on race. I think people of Rhoden’s generation are a little more likely to have a binary take on certain issues. There is a lot more black and white because in the time that they grew up, it was a lot more black and white, and I mean that figuratively and not literally.

TC: What do you think makes Duke a particularly good place to talk about race, and how do you think that your discussion with Rhoden might have been different at Duke than it might be somewhere else?

BJ: The best part about discussing this at Duke is that Duke has such fantastic resources for facilitating this discussion or any other one. Where I went for undergraduate school did not have nearly the same money and access to facilities or things like that. Those kinds of panels, for me and having been there and knowing what I did in college, it’s amazing to be able to go and have these kinds of discussions and say that you sat in the same room [with William Rhoden]. I think there were about 30 to 40 people there, and you got to hear a columnist from the New York Times read from his text. The best thing about Duke is that Duke has the access to it and [Professor] Sandy Darity who could put something like that together.

TC: At the “Sports, Race and Power Conference”, you spoke a great deal about how race issues affect athletics. Of all of Duke’s teams, the basketball team is certainly the most visible, and it is particularly interesting in the context of a discussion about race because there is a national perception that Duke has a very white program. How much of this characterization do you think is just a created perception, and how much of it is a reality?

BJ: Well the mathematics indicate that it’s the whitest basketball team that you could think of to be that good this year. I think we have, what, three black guys on the team this year? I think in that case, perception equals vision and counting. [As to how that comes about], that’s tricky. I’ve talked on my [radio] show about how this happens and I cannot say that I know that, okay this is what happens, this is what goes on. What I can say about Duke is that I don’t think that there’s any school in the country whose basketball team seems to look as much like the student body as Duke’s does. I don’t even necessarily mean that in a racial context.

I was just reading some story about Brian Zoubek and how Zoubek lightens the mood on the team with his sense of humor and all those sorts of things. I’ve been in a couple of locker rooms around Brian Zoubek, and that’s a goofy dude. I don’t say that with any judgment, he’s just a goofy sort of cat. You go up and down that roster, Duke’s got some guys that are a bit goofy. Not a lot of basketball teams can hold off as their hallmark that they’re goofy, there are very few. I spoke to someone in Duke’s athletics department about this about six or seven months ago and he said something to me that I thought was interesting. He said, “Look, we know that we’ve got the market on goofy white guys cornered.”

TC: Does that mean then, that you think the Duke program goes after white players or that sort of personality because that’s just the type of going that will commit to Duke? Or is all of this more self-selecting process, where a white recruit might just be more likely to be attracted to play for Duke?

I’ll be honest with you, I’m not exactly sure what they’re doing. We have to go through this year-by-year when we talk about it…. But when you start looking at the [recruiting] classes of 2005 and beyond, they just look a little bit different. How does this happen? I’m really not sure, but it’s very difficult that you wind up in a situation that the composition of your team is so decidedly different than the composition of the rest of the teams in the country and there not be something systematic that caused it.

This is something that people need to be very clear on. I’ve talked about this issue and people have told me that they thought I was saying Mike Krzyzewski was a racist which I don’t think for a second if for no other reason than military guys don’t tend to be racist. They are conditioned in a world where you don’t have time to think about those things. A guy in the military doesn’t have time to think ‘Hey man, I don’t know if this black dude is sharp enough to get my back.’ He’s the dude that has your back. I wouldn’t at all say that Krzyzewski is a racist. I think that other people don’t think about how there have been guys that they’ve recruited and it just didn’t work: Brandon Wright, and whatever happened with him winding up going to Carolina and not Duke, Patrick Patterson who, when he committed to Kentucky was asked how he felt about the guys on Duke’s team and he responded, ‘I just wasn’t feeling them.’ And people ask what does that mean?

Let’s not pretend for a second that Krzyzewski is just going after these white guys. What we do know, though, at least what we can glean is that Krzyzewski has a preference for players that come from two parent families. I’m not making any macro-level statement about black people and white people and two people families, that’s not at all what I’m saying. But I do think that is a part of the formula that leads to a team being composed the way Duke’s team is. There’s been this perception that Duke’s team is too white, and that’s not what it is. The problem is that the players haven’t been good enough. Contrary to popular belief, that is not the same thing.

TC: Something that both you and Rhoden talked a little about during the conference was about the way that the public perceives white athletes versus black athletes. Something you pointed out was the way that commentators describe players, how black players are so often praised for being a ‘freak athlete’ or for his ‘athleticism’ whereas when it’s a white player you are more often hear about him being ‘scrappy’ or having ‘high basketball IQ’. You talked a little bit about North Carolina’s Tyler Hansbrough, who before the NBA combined was being classified as a very hard worker but not the best athlete, but then during the combine put up great numbers.

BJ: For me, that was so problematic. I sat there, as I talked about at the conference, and watched Doug Gottlieb say that. During last season, hosting my radio show, I talked a lot about Hansbrough and the way that he was perceived because I felt as though these perceptions were actually selling him short. Because I have news for you, you can work as hard as you want to playing basketball, but if you’re not good, you’re not good.

TC: It seems like you could say that Duke quarterback Thaddeus Lewis represents the counterpoint to that situation with Hansbrough. Watching him this year and keeping an eye on coverage of him on TV, it seems like commentators stress his mobility and ability to run. He’s been a great quarterback, but in many ways he seems to fit stereotypes more of a white quarterback, where he’s back in the pocket and doing the passing. Do you think it’s fair to say that his appearance, namely his race, has a big influence on the way that he is covered as an athlete?

BJ: Yeah, I’ll tell you this: If I’m not mistaken, and I haven’t looked at this in a long time but I’m almost positive that this is the case, if you go look at Rivals.com’s listing of quarterbacks and look how they classified Lewis, they classified Lewis as a dual-threat quarterback. Now that’s ridiculous, he’s not. If you were going to try to bring Lewis in and run the spread option, you were going to be very unhappy. It was funny because when Duke had Lewis and Zack Asack it was like Bizarro World. They had the fast white guy that couldn’t throw, and the big, strong, fairly plodding black guy. It was like, where are you getting this idea that Thad Lewis could run? He’s absolutely not a running quarterback. The only way, looking at how big Lewis is and how he throws the ball and how he plays, the only way you reach the conclusion that Thad Lewis is a mobile quarterback is if you want to believe it.

TC: The conference seemed to do a great job of dismissing this idea that black athletes have innate abilities or athleticism that makes them more “fit” for certain sports. Still, black athletes certainly have had great success in professional leagues in this country and statistically the NBA and NFL have a higher proportion of black males than the U.S. population at large. How do you account for the great amount of achievement that black athletes do have in these leagues?

BJ: That question is somewhat complex and these are things that I’ve kind of wanted to study a bit more scientifically but it’s something I touched on at the conference. I think it’s fascinating to observe, when you look at the NBA and the NFL, look class-wise. If you want to do an eyeball test on class, and you can reasonably do a decent job talking to somebody and listening to a bit of their story and figuring out, for the lack of a better term, what side of the tracks they come from. [For] black athletes, the narrative is much more about up from poverty, coming from poverty and reaching these points. This is the story all the time that we get with basketball players, that you have to remember the backgrounds that these guys come from. Well, very often, that is the case that those are the backgrounds that they do come from. When you see white guys in the league, think about how many of them are sons of former players or coach’s sons. It’s a very common thing. It seems to me, at least from this distance, is that what motivates black players to do the things that you have to do to become a professional athlete are born of the incentive structures, that this is your ticket to get out. With white athletes, it’s very much about access to facilities.

The question I would ask is, how is it that there are so many black players in the NFL but there are still so few black quarterbacks and so often by the time black quarterbacks get to the NFL they are poorly prepared to run a drop-back offense? Well I saw a story about Jimmy Clausen and Matt Barkley before the Notre Dame-USC game and they were going through all these different similarities that they both have. One thing they shared in common was they both worked with the same quarterback guru coming up. It’s like, really? It’s almost like the new violin: If you’ve got money, you take your kids to get lessons and you become cultured and versed at playing quarterback.

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