Life, economics, politics, psychology, sociology, racism and other isms, law, history, journalism/media…all through the lens of sport.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Bias, race and subjectivity in sports

One of the key reasons for this blog is to deal with the reality of race as it relates to how sports and its stories are covered, simply because it is consistently dismissed or ignored or left untouched out of fear, prejudice and the typical social biases that are just a part of human nature.

Self-serving bias is a social psychological phenomenon that describes how we interpret events and situations to enhance our view of ourselves and detract from others. For example, two people walk into work together, late. One of the employees is the boss' friend, the other is not. In the boss' report, the friend was late "because traffic was bad coming in that morning" (an external locus of control, it wasn't the friend's fault, the problem was out of the friend's control), but the other employee was late "because he's just not the calibre person we see keeping around, should have checked the traffic report and left earlier" (an internal locus of control, questioning the person's sense of responsibility and character).

That's just the way human beings tend to be. When a player on my team gets a penalty, we tend to yell "c'mon ref, that was not a hit from behind, it was only on the side", and when a player on the other team gets a penalty, we yell "c'mon ref, that was boarding, eject him!"
All the facets of society - economics, politics, education, all facets of business, journalism and news, medicine, fashion, sexism and gender issues - are present in and magnified by sport. Why do we somehow expect that race has no place in the assessment of "what's going on?" Of course it does.
Look at what's being written about Ben Roethlisberger lately...
That last story headline absolutely spins my head. While the writer writes "not to make excuses", that's exactly what he's doing. He should have read the previous story - while that guy is suggesting that the fans should be tuned out, he rightly mentions that John Madden saw this behaviour and began documenting it long before the motorcycle accident

It doesn't take a brain surgeon to know that Roethlisberger's behaviour goes back to high school, and in fact it was this attitude that lead to the motorcycle accident, not the other way around.

Facts, historical records and the eyewitness of people over a period of years be dashed! We're re-writing history now to try to give our beloved, Superbowl-winning Big Ben some sympathy, some encouragement to get his life in order and come back to us. Wow. The traffic is really bad in his lane, isn't it?

Ask someone "if OJ did it" and the answer is no deeper than skin color - black folks say "the glove don't fit, you must acquit", while white folks say "he got away with murder." Not a single one of us on either side of the debate "was there" to see with our own eyes what happened, and the evidence is insufficient to determine beyond a reasonable doubt, but you wouldn't know that by the ease with which people state their position on the question.

Yet, even with video evidence, the police in the first Rodney King police brutality trial were acquitted. When it suits us, we say "evidence shmevidence." Did OJ do it? I don't know, I wasn't there. I have my opinions, but at the end of the day, I mention this in this article not to digress into the details of that "trial of the century"; it's just to demonstrate that we're not being honest if we think that sports and race can be separated when an issue touches both.

Michael Vick is this, and Tiger Woods is that... yet, Dany Heatley drank, drove, and killed a human being, and Ben Roethlisberger has a pattern of behaviour that victimizes non-consenting people...

More often than we are comfortable facing, our assessments of these situations have less to do with the nature of the crime, the veracity of the evidence, or anything objective - we defend whom we will, and seek to distance ourselves from whom we will for other subjective reasons, and race is indeed a part of it.

We, as a society, want our rich, celebrity athletes to take responsibility for their actions, regardless what color their skin is. We offer the benefit of the doubt to people with whom we share some affinity, regardless whether - by the facts of the case we can discern - they deserve it or not. Once we've decided, consciously or otherwise, that we like or dislike some person, we'll find a way to justify our view of that person.

For the record, I've never been a Ben Roethlisberger fan, so it's relatively easy for me to throw him under the bus. I wish I could say I'm capable of looking at his situation absolutely free of the taint of my bias, but that would not be honest. When I listen to the views of people like Terry Bradshaw, who knows something about being a legend in the annals of Steelers history, who knows something about being a star quarterback, who knows something about winning Superbowls in the black and yellow, it's very easy for me to see that Roethlisberger really has not endeared himself to the deportment befitting of someone in his lofty position, and that is a failure to take responsibility for his actions.

Having said that, please note that my bias against Roethlisberger has nothing to do with his being white - it has to do with his behaviour, which is (presumed to be) entirely within his control (and if not, he's got enough money to get help with what should be but may yet be beyond his control, in terms of inner demons). Be that as it may, I recognize he's not going to get the benefit of doubt from me because of this bias.

So, sure, I'm not above it either. But, at least, I know it. Some of these other sports journalists are still a part of the problem.

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