Black athlete confidential
The Mag surveyed 82 anonymous pro athletes about race issues in sports
If you were told that in the year 2024, a retired athlete would be elected president, who do you think it would be?
Female Olympian: "Magic Johnson, because he was a great public figure during his basketball career and after. He's been an advocate for social and African-American rights and a voice in the public. He's very, very humble and carries himself well. He'd really speak as a voice for the people."
NBA player: "Michael Jordan, because he's been the guy thus far in my generation who has transcended the typical post-career athlete. He's the owner of the team now, and he's the first player to be an NBA owner, so I wouldn't be surprised if he was president one day. Enough people love him -- he's iconic around the world."
|Compiled by: Sam Alipour, Aimee Berg, Anna Katherine Clemmons, Louise Cornetta, Craig Custance, Matthew Ehalt, Theresa Manahan and Matthew Muench|
|Total number of pro athletes surveyed: 82*|
|Sports/leagues covered: 12 (MLB, NBA, NFL, NHL, WNBA, MMA, boxing, five different Olympic sports)|
*On some questions, a few athletes answered "I don't know." Those responses were omitted from the results.
NFL player: "Kevin Johnson has already done a great job in the political world and shown leadership being the mayor of Sacramento. I just feel like he has his head on straight. He'd definitely be the guy that I could see being president of the United States."
NFL player: "Ray Lewis. People buy into what he says. He speaks with so much passion, you buy in and believe whatever he's preaching."
WNBA player: "If I was RG III, I'd play a few years, make my money and get out before I get any more concussions. He's very intelligent, he's already loved, and he's in Washington, D.C. Perfect fit."
MLB player: "Magic Johnson would be great. He was a great athlete with name recognition. He's a successful businessman. He's obviously done a lot for social causes. He's the kind of smart success story that could run for president."
WNBA player: "Magic Johnson maintains the unique combination of being very business-savvy, well-liked by everyone and a brilliant leader."
Male Olympian: "Ray Lewis. I know he got in trouble early in his career, but he turned his life around. The way he has led his football team seems like the way this country needs to be led."
Who are the three most important African-American athletes ever?
Totals (Please note that because this question asked for three responses, the totals add up to more than 100 percent):
1. Jackie Robinson: 74 percent
2. Muhammad Ali: 60.5 percent
3. Michael Jordan: 48.1 percent
4. Magic Johnson: 16 percent
5. Jesse Owens: 14.8 percent
6. Arthur Ashe: 13.6 percent
T7. Wilma Rudolph, Tiger Woods: 7.4 percent
9. Jim Brown: 6.2 percent
10. Tommie Smith: 4.9 percent
Female Olympian: "Jackie Robinson, because in a sport that, at the time, was not played by African-Americans at the major league level, he broke through. At a time when there was segregation and black people were looking for a presence to be known as people, he was a way through athletics. He became a voice for this. He was a voice for America, which was just starting to unite. He was a gateway for African-Americans to get into sports and becoming public figures."
NBA player: "Muhammad Ali stood up for everything he believed in. He was a confident African-American athlete at a time when it was hard to be confident. Imagine if we had a draft today, and a guy like LeBron refused to go to war. Ali persevered through that. Incredible."
NBA player: "I'd say Jackie Robinson, Muhammad Ali and Michael Jordan. I'm sure MJ will be picked a lot, but I always think about how he was such an innovator. He took the barriers that Jackie Robinson, Ali, Arthur Ashe, etc. broke through and added to it. Before, the idea of a black athlete being a superstar on the court and an endorsement superstar seemed impossible."
WNBA player: "Arthur Ashe. I remember my mom always talking about Arthur Ashe and the impact he had on breaking the color barriers in the world of tennis."
WNBA player: "Without Jackie Robinson, there would be no Cam Newton or Magic Johnson."
MLB player: "Magic Johnson. I define important by how many people you've helped. Magic Johnson has helped a lot of people."
Olympic athlete: "Michael Jordan. He's probably the first athlete that people didn't even think about what color his skin was."
MMA fighter: "If I had to pick one, it would be Ali, hands down. He was the most influential athlete in sports history. No one stood for more."
Female Olympian: "Michael Jordan. During the London Olympic games, there was a documentary on the Dream Team. Originally in the interviews, he said he wasn't interested in being on the Dream Team. He thought it was a fake political statement and too much drama. Then he started talking to other players and saw this was more than just being an NBA star playing on the Olympic team. It was representing your nation and being a voice for the American people and competing on the world stage. Then you look at how he created another gateway door opening for African-Americans in sports through sponsorship deals. He really, really allowed sports to evolve in this area."
What is the image of the black athlete?
Very positive: 8.8 percent
Somewhat positive: 42.5 percent
Neither positive nor negative: 25 percent
Somewhat negative: 17.5 percent
Extremely negative: 6.2 percent
Female Olympian: "C. I have to go in the middle. Somewhat positive, because the African-American youth look up to African-American athletes. A lot of African-American athletes in the limelight right now come from nothing to something. They're really trying to be proactive in the community and show through their story that you can make something of yourself if you're determined enough. But I also think there is a negative connotation that all we have is sports because we're not educated, and all we have is natural talent, and all we want is to make the money and not do anything to get there. So I think there is a little bit of back and forth between positive and negative."
NFL player: "Extremely negative. Everybody thinks that we spend all our money on cars, rims, etc., and that we are outspoken and not really hard workers. None of that is true."
WNBA player: "It's sad. I hate talking about it, really. The image is terrible, and to be honest, I think people and the media in general just look at the negative too much. There are a lot of strong, hard-working black athletes who do great things. But that's lost in the news."
Boxer: "Somewhat negative. Look at Floyd Mayweather. He's one of the best boxers ever. But when he was Pretty Boy, he was not a big name. Now that he's Money Mayweather, with a flashy persona, that's what people get behind. With blacks like him, probably most of white America wants to see him lose."
MMA fighter: "It's D, somewhat negative. But over the last decade, it has gotten better. Our image still suffers with some of the preconceived ideas of selfishness, overextravagance, unfaithfulness."
True or false: Black athletes should take a more active role in the black community.
True: 90.2 percent
False: 9.8 percent
NBA player: "True. I feel like we come from those areas, those neighborhoods. We saw how hard it was, and we saw nobody came back to help us out. To go back and to show love, that will give those communities more confidence to do more."
Male Olympian: "True. But just because you're an athlete, it doesn't mean that you're a role model. We need to go back and be able to have this positive image for the younger generation coming up. A lot of these black communities have a lot of positive role models. So we have to go back and be the best that we can be on the field, but also off the field. You can have talent to get you a certain spot, but being involved in your community puts you at a different level."
NFL player: "True, but I wouldn't just say the black community. I try to work with all kids, I don't try to discriminate. You have a lot of kids out there who need help that aren't only African-American kids."
Boxer: "True. If you're in a situation where you've been blessed athletically and financially, you didn't get there by yourself. I think you're obligated to help pick up some who were left behind."
Boxer: "True, true, true. People say, 'give back,' but that's an understatement. If you're in a gym, in a tough part of a city, you'll see the difference on the kids' faces when they talk to a former champ. Imagine, when I was a kid, what if Meldrick Taylor or Mike Tyson was in my gym, telling me, 'You can do this.'"
How does the image of the black athlete compare with reality?
Image is the same as reality: 28.8 percent
Image is better than reality: 25 percent
Image is worse than reality: 46.2 percent
Female Olympian: "C, worse than the reality. I think if a black athlete does something that is particularly negative or shocking, the media grabs onto it right away. If it were an athlete from another race, that may not be the case."
NBA player: "C, worse than reality. White people think we're not smart. Not true. I know a lot of smart black athletes like Andre Iguodala, who's one of the smartest guys I know. People expect us just to be athletes. All throughout college and high school, I was a good athlete, and people looked at me as being a dumb athlete, a dumb jock."
NBA player: "B, image is better than reality. For black athletes, a lot of things are publicized and look really glamorous, and they are. It's amazing the things that we're able to accomplish and be blessed with. But there are also things that aren't so glamorous. Our bodies are put on the line -- look at football guys who get concussions and it affects them down the line. So it's not as good as what everybody thinks it is."
Boxer: "C. Guys like Floyd Mayweather put on a bad-guy, tough-guy act. He's got bravado, all this money, people look at that and decide they can do without the antics. It's imitation Ali, it's out of control, and that gives us a black eye, it stops us from being loved. The average person can't get down with that."
On a scale of 1 to 10 (1 being absolutely not; 10 being absolutely yes), are black athletes expected to be role models for the black community?
Average answer: 8.7
Female Olympian: "10, absolutely yes. It's an unwritten rule and part of your duty. If you make it out of misfortune and hardships, then it's almost an obligation to be a role model to others who have similar situations."
Male Olympian: "Nine. Coming from a black community, there aren't a lot of people who come out of them and are able to go back and show this is what I learned, that I've been where you've been, and this is what it takes to be successful. It is a responsibility to go and show these African-American kids that their dreams can come true through a lot of work and having a team around you who believes in the same thing you want to believe in, and stay away from a lot of the negativity. Because it's out there."
NFL player: "Seven. You have people that look up to you. Now, do I agree with it? No. Don't think that just because I'm on TV, I'm a role model. I've made so many mistakes in my life, a lot of which you don't even know about. Trust me: I'm no role model. Don't look up to me."
WNBA player: "10. It's a responsibility that comes with being a professional athlete. Kids love athletes, and it's our job to give them someone to look up to outside the home."
Boxer: "Eight. It's important. But at the same time, those athletes who are role models have an obligation to use that to make sure kids know their real role models should be moms, dads, teachers, etc."
MMA fighter: "10. The kids in those communities look up to the wrong type of people -- the people who make money now and deal with the consequences later. That was my existence in the inner city. I would be working out, running on the streets, and they had cars, girls, etc. It was hard to do right when you see that other guy living the extravagant lifestyle. For those fortunate enough to have had people help them see through that and get out, it's on us now to be part of the community, to be role models."
Woman Olympian: "10. We do have that obligation. But it's funny, because I bet if you asked star athletes who they most admired and who were their role models growing up, you would get some mentions of Muhammad Ali, Willie Mays, Tommie Smith, Wilma Rudolph. But you'd get more votes for moms and dads and teachers and youth coaches. I want to be a role model for my community, but I also think you got problems if young people are only looking up to athletes. That's not how most of us have achieved what we've achieved."
True or false: Black athletes who make a lot of money are held to a higher standard than other rich athletes.
True: 63.4 percent
False: 36.6 percent
NBA player: "False. I wouldn't say held to a higher standard, but I would say we're under a microscope. It's kind of like we're expected to mess up. People are waiting for it."
NFL player: "Think about two athletes, one white and one black, who both sign a huge contract. Fast forward five years and they both are broke. Who do you think people are more likely to be shocked about? And who do you think people will sort of just accept? Black athletes are expected to buy bling and trick out."
NBA player: "I say true, but I also think you could expand the question. It's not just black athletes; it's successful, rich black people in general. Nobody, including a lot of black people, expects that rappers or athletes will be smart with their money. The cars, the jewels, the houses, all the stuff like that."
WNBA star: "False. Skin color doesn't matter. It's all athletes who are, and should be, held to higher standards. If you got the dough, you gotta show."
Who is the most color-blind: Fans, coaches, owners or the media?
Fans: 37.5 percent
Coaches: 36.3 percent
Owners: 20 percent
Media: 6.2 percent
NBA player: "Coaches. Their jobs are on the line with us. I don't think they care who you are, where you came from, what you look like. They just want you to help them win."
NFL player: "I don't think coaches care about skin color at all. They see one thing: talent."
NBA player: "Fans get a bum rap, because there's always one idiot in any crowd. But I've never felt like skin color mattered with fans. If you win and have your act together off the field, they love you."
WNBA player: "I've been playing sports at a high level for a long time now, and it's been pretty cool to watch the change in fans. I don't think coaches or owners have cared for a long time if you're white, black, whatever, as long as you can play. But fan attitudes and acceptance, just in the last 20 years or so, have changed a lot in that time."
Who is the least color-blind: Fans, coaches, owners or the media?
Media: 52.5 percent
Fans: 31.3 percent
Owners: 9.3 percent
Coaches: 6.9 percent
Female Olympian: "The media puts you in categories. For instance, a lot of mixed athletes are out there. Some you can tell, others you can't. But once the media finds out that they can categorize you, then they play off that and put you in a category. It's no longer about you as a person and your accomplishments. It's you, with your label."
NFL player: "You guys, the media. You're always factoring in race. You're always covering race in your stories. Every time I look up, you're talking about African-American this and that. I mean, look at this survey right here -- there you go again with African-Americans. Where's your Asian-American survey?"
WNBA player: "The media. Whenever a white guy looks like he could be really good, he's the next Larry Bird. Whenever a black guy looks like he's going to be really good, he's the next Michael Jordan. It's subtle, but that stuff matters."
MLB player: "The media, because race is a controversial topic and it's covered a lot. People want to see who agrees with them and who disagrees with them. Ultimately, that gets ratings and sells magazines."
Yes or no: Black coaches are held to a different standard than white coaches during the hiring process.
Yes: 72.5 percent
NFL player: "Yes, I believe that white coaches, for decades, have been given shot after shot, while black coaches had a hard time breaking in, then an even harder time getting second chances. But let me also say that I think the last year or so, with Charlie Strong, Kevin Sumlin, the guy at Stanford (David Shaw), a bunch of pro coaches, has been incredible for black coaches. It lifts your spirits a little."
WNBA player: "Yes. There are opportunities now for black coaches, but I feel like it's more of a one-shot deal for black coaches. How many teams fire a black coach, then hire another black coach?"
MLB player: "I don't think I am saying anything anybody would disagree with here: It's harder to get hired and it's easier to get fired. So that's a yes from me."
WNBA player: "False. I think that's a myth. A lot of black coaches get their fair shake. People make too big of a deal about it."
MMA fighter: "True. So true. Look at Rex Ryan. Imagine if he was black and made all of those predictions and had all of the off-the-field issues. He would have been gone by now, and he'd never get another chance."
True or false: TV announcers use terms like "smart" and "cerebral" to describe white athletes more than black athletes.
True: 54.4 percent
False: 45.6 percent
NFL player: "True. When you hear them talking about black athletes, you hear 'Oh, the guy is fast, he's athletic. He's got all the natural ability.' Most of the linebackers and white quarterbacks, it's 'He's smart.' But they're just as athletic as the black players, and the black players are just as smart. We all made it to the NFL, but it's just the way they describe them that is different."
NFL player: "True. I'm always hearing 'smart' and 'cerebral,' and here's another one: 'high-motor.' I'm always hearing how white players are high-motor. What does that even mean? What, they play hard? Don't black players play hard? Oh, I forgot, we rely on our talent only. Right?"
WNBA player: "True. White athletes are smart and gutsy. Black athletes are just athletic."
Male Olympian: "True. I've seen it and heard it. Or take Andrew Luck and RG III. They say Luck is smart, consistent, knows the playbook. But RG III is a great athlete, fast, strong and can throw far. People that are African-American are assumed to be naturally gifted as opposed to white players who have to work."
NBA player: "True. Put on an NBA game sometime when there is a good white player on the court and just listen to all the code words that get used. If you hear, 'scrappy,' 'tough' or 'hard-nosed,' look up and the white player probably made a steal. I don't even know what hard-nosed means. I mean, my nose seems pretty hard."
When thinking of the image of black athletes from the past, what three words come to mind?
Totals (most named words, by number of mentions):
Pioneers, inspirational: 10 each
Courageous, disciplined, talented: eight each
Female Olympian: "Resilient. We've come so far, and it's because those athletes were resilient enough to fight for their dreams and keep going despite how many times they were hammered down and told they can't. They said, 'No, I can,' and they pushed through."
NBA player: "Disciplined, because, I mean, if you and me walked through the hallway and people are throwing drinks and stuff at us and cussing us out and punching us and doing whatever they can to hurt us, I think me and you would have a problem with that and would react to it. But those guys went through that every game night in and night out."
MLB player: "I'd say strong. Those athletes went through more in one year than we'll ever have to deal with in our whole athletic careers. It's actually hard to get your mind around, some of the hurdles they overcame."
WNBA player: "Perseverance. You hear and read stuff about black athletes these days, and that's just crap you get on Twitter or on the Internet. Our predecessors had to persevere through that stuff in every game, in every stadium."
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