Thursday, September 12, 2013


Since my column written for back in the day is no longer archived there, I am presenting a few of the articles here at A Line A Day.  Many of them were time sensitive so I’ll pass on taking a stroll down memory lane with those.  But a few stand up pretty good in reprint despite the passage of years since they were written.  I have reprinted IMAGINE here because athletes being busted for taking performance enhancing drugs continues to be a plague on sports.  More recently I reprinted THE BLACK ATHLETE in response to the 2013-14 NFL season beginning with a record 9 African American men taking the field as starting quarterback for their respective teams.  I happened to attend a game that featured two of them, with Geno Smith of my beloved New York Jets earning victory over Josh Freeman of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers by the slimmest of margins.  In that post I also included a snippet from an article I wrote about the young Michael Vick long before his legal difficulties and eventual comeback led me to write about him a couple more times.  The article I am reprinting below was written about the Williams sisters back in 2001 during the US Open.  As I predicted might happen, Venus ended up defending her title by defeating her younger sister Serena.  Fast forward twelve years and once again the US Open champion is a Williams, only this time around Serena was the victor and she did not need to go through any family members to earn it.  Serena merely had to get over the fact that at age 31, her talent level is supposed to be in sharp decline.  Instead she has never looked better on the court.  She’s looking pretty good off it as well.  So I decided to reprint this article in her honor, and if a decade down the line she somehow is STILL winning Majors, I’ll reprint it yet again.  Take a bow, Serena.  You too, Venus, even though your prime now appears to be in the rear view mirror.  And shout out to Richard Williams who has been keeping a relatively low profile of late, and has recently become a father again in his 70’s.  Will a third Williams be hoisting up championship tennis trophies some day?  I wouldn't bet against it.

Once upon a time. No, let me be more precise. On June 11, 1978 an event took place that would end up transforming the world of tennis, though not for many years to come. It was on this day that Virginia Ruzici won the French Open women's singles championship. A man who resided in California was watching on television and he found himself amazed not so much by the skill and effort displayed by Virginia during the match, as by the size of the check she received at the end of it. Over twenty thousand dollars for a day's work. Not bad at all. The man vowed that any children his wife gave birth to in the following years would play tennis. Since those children would need to be taught how to play, and he was by no means a wealthy man who could provide them with top notch instructors, he bought some books and videotapes and taught himself the game. Within three years the man's family had grown by two daughters. They were named Venus and Serena.

Their training ground would be the less than pristine glass strewn public courts of Compton. Unlike a sport such as basketball that requires no more than a single ball to be shared by everyone and a rim attached to a backboard, the considerably pricier game of tennis rarely generates its stars from ghetto neighborhoods. American phenoms in expensive sports like golf and tennis tend to be white, and they almost always have the advantage of elite training at top tier institutions. Neither was the case for Venus and Serena. What they did have was a determined father with a master plan. And since their starting point was not the conventional one, it stands to reason that the steps taken along the way were radical as well. Eyebrows of those who thought they knew it all were certainly raised when Richard Williams pulled his daughters from the junior ranks, even though Venus by that point at age 11 had earned national attention for her prowess. He relocated his family to Fort Lauderdale where for the next 3-1/2 years there would be no tournaments or competitive match play for the Williams sisters. Even after the traditional route had become an option, rather than following it, Richard arranged for his daughters to practice, practice and practice some more with academy instructor Rick Macci. Instead of going through the machinations usually employed to churn out professional tennis players, Venus and Serena kept tennis as a focal point, but not as the only thing in their lives. They earned high school diplomas with top marks, developed outside interests such as their love of fashion. But all the while, the eyes of Richard and his daughters remained on the prize. And now, twenty three years after that fateful match won by Virginia Ruzici, the most prevalent questions being asked in tennis circles are the following three. Will Serena Williams once again reign as the US Open women's champion? Or will the 2001 version of this contest be won for the second time in a row by arguably the best female player in the world - a gal named Venus? And lastly, wouldn't it be something if they ended up playing each other for this honor in the Final? It seems there was a method to Richard's madness.

Why then has the extraordinary success of Venus and Serena been routinely accompanied by controversy and flat out resentment? Why are these talented, intelligent, attractive young ladies the least popular players on the tour? Was Venus' sudden withdrawal before a match sufficient cause for Serena to be subjected to a cascade of jeering rather than cheering as she earned a championship at Indian Wells earlier this year? And even if the circumstances of that day were somewhat suspicious, why was it reported that words far more offensive than "boo" were yelled at Serena?

Some would blame the perceived "unladylike" arrogance of the Williams sisters, demonstrated by the fact that they rarely credit losses to superior play by their opponents, and the audacity they showed in turning down lucrative endorsements until the stakes grew sufficiently lofty. Others would cite envy of Venus and Serena, who seem less dedicated than those they routinely annihilate because they play in considerably less tournaments than their top ten peers. There are those who are convinced that the outcome of matches between Venus and Serena are fixed, depending on whose turn it has been determined to be the victor. A few people probably had a problem with the beads once worn in their hair, or the colorful form fitting outfits they don to better exhibit their tall, lean, muscular physiques. Would someone be playing the so called race card in claiming that the brown skin of Venus and Serena is at the root of the troubles they find, or simply stating the obvious? There do happen to be folks on the professional tennis circuit who have predominantly positive comments to make about the Williams sisters. There actually are players who do not form competitive alliances against them, such as was admittedly done by Lindsey Davenport and Martina Hingis during last year's US Open. But even the majority of these people cease to compliment and start expressing disapproval towards the architect of the Williams master plan - Papa Williams.

When Richard Williams encounters racism, such as he said he did at Indian Wells, he is not shy about bringing it up and shouting it down. When he merely suspects that he detects it, such as when Irina Spirlea bumped into Venus during a changeover, he does not hesitate to brand her "a big, tall, white turkey", nor to contend that the incident was motivated by a broader racist attitude on the tour. He did later apologize for insulting Spirlea, but he is never apologetic about exposing racism, nor about exhibiting excessive pride to the point of gloating over his daughters' accomplishments. Richard Williams has been blamed for and accused of many things, but subtlety is not one of them. This is a man who has attended matches sporting signs that read "It couldn't have happened to a nicer family" and "I told you so". This is a man who once went on to the court and performed a celebratory dance on behalf of Venus while her vanquished opponent stormed off. Richard Williams has not chosen to hold his tongue about additional fees he feels his daughters should receive due to the greatly expanded fan base they are wholly responsible for bringing to tennis, much as Tiger Woods has done in golf. Speaking of Tiger, it is natural to compare his feats and impact to that of Venus and Serena. They do after all share the ability to win virtually at will and often with great ease; a plethora of lucrative endorsements; a Jackie Robinson like effect on the formerly lily white sports they have come to dominate; and unique names that match the flair of their playing styles. Yet even Earl Woods, father of Tiger, has been critical about the antics of Richard Williams and how Venus and Serena's behavior reflects poorly on their upbringing.

The more Richard Williams shouts to be given his due, to have the near miracle he has accomplished be properly acknowledged, the more scorn and derision he invites. And some of it inevitably spills over on to his daughters whether they deserve it or not. Instead of the genius who managed to put two of his children simultaneously in the upper echelons of tennis, enabling them to earn fortune and fame, he is cast in the villainous role of detriment to their brilliant and apparently limitless careers. There will probably be no end to the stream of conspiracy theorists and Martinas like Navratilova and Hingis who claim that rather than being held down by race, Richard takes advantage of it in a politically correct climate to get away with what others would be crucified for. And they probably do make some valid points, even while mostly missing the point.

In rebuttal, I believe Richard Williams would say to his detractors, and most likely stated far more boldly than I will put it here - "Do you think you can do a better job molding well rounded, well adjusted, one (make that two) of a kind multi-millionaire athletes out of nothing but a ghetto dream inspired by a memorable moment of television viewing? Let's see you try."

Being who he is, and his relationship with the media being what it is, even with his lower profile Richard Williams still manages to steal headlines away from his daughters from time to time.  For example...

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

A Black Quarterback By Any Other Name Would Be

I have often stated my amazement at the fact that the President of the United States of America has been a black man for just about the entirety of my seven year old daughter's life.  A person's view of the world is shaped by the particulars of their existence.  If a single person could lead two lives, one of them beginning in 1953 and the other starting in 1993, the result would be two different sets of belief systems and attitudes.  Practically two different people.  It may as well be two different planets they resided on rather than merely different decades.  My daughter and her peers will not grow up thinking that becoming the most powerful person in the world is beyond any of them, be they girl or boy, black or white.  I can't honestly say that this is how I felt as a 7 year old.  No matter how you feel about President Obama's policies and the way in which he has presided, the significance of his presence in the oval office cannot be minimized and its impact will spread indefinitely.

Pictured above is not President Barack Obama, but rather, 9 of the 32 quarterbacks who started for NFL teams in week 1 of the 2013 season.  Now if you were born in 2003 you might simply look at this picture and shrug.  If born in 1993 it might give you slight pause.  If you had my ancient birthday however, you'd likely say something like - Well damn, will you look at that!  One cannot deny that there is significance to this event, not if one has been around long enough to remember when the occurrence seemed quite implausible.

At The Big Lead @thebiglead an article was written by Jason Mcintyre provocatively titled "The NFL is Entering the Golden Age of Black Quarterbacks".  The photo above illustrates rather clearly why it was written.  The reasons cited were primarily football reasons rather than social commentary about the evolution of race relations in this country.  Defensive players, particularly linemen and linebackers, are growing increasingly fast and athletic.  In order for quarterbacks to excel, they needed to do the same.  Dumb stereotypes about black men not being able to handle the thinking man's position of QB have fortunately gone by the wayside over the past few decades, as most false beliefs do (see flatness of the earth as an example).  Removal of such ignorance freed football teams to simply go with the best man for the job, and that has increasingly become the more athletic man, and this leads to the choice being the Black Man more so today than ever before.  If the trend continues, and I see no reason why it won't, then the title of Mcintyre's article is fairly accurate.

This title/premise annoyed at least one sports writer - Robert Littal aka  of Black Sports Online.  It led him to post "Why the Phrase 'Black Quarterback' Should Be Eliminated From Media".  In it he urges us to focus on the skill set of the player, not the race.  Neither Mcintyre nor Littal wrote anything that I particularly disagree with.   They are not even necessarily disagreeing with each other, nor with Jason Whitlock aka  who also chimed in on Twitter with an endorsement of the piece at The Big Lead.  In my opinion Mcintyre is merely being candid about the fact that there are more African American quarterbacks today than ever before and giving an explanation for why he thinks this is so, whereas Littal doesn't want a race based label placed on any quarterback even though he chose to place a race based label on his blog.  If you read Littal's posts with any regularity as I do, you'll note that he doesn't write about "Black Sports".  He writes about sports.  He also digresses into non sports areas such as photos of beautiful women and "groupie tales" and other stuff which is not especially racial in nature.  His blog, his right.  I'm in agreement with him that we live in a world with far too many labels.  I extend this opinion to matters far beyond quarterbacks.

Rather than writing a rebuttal or endorsement of either piece, I am reprinting an article that I wrote for in 2001 entitled THE BLACK ATHLETE.  That's right, I said in 2001.  Told you I was no spring chicken.  So much water has passed under the Cliche Bridge since I wrote it and yet I didn't need to change a word to re-express my opinion about the issue of race in sports.  Turns out I agreed with both Mcintyre and Littal long before they ever got around to expressing their views on the matter.  Check it out:

Do African-Americans (and individuals of African heritage in general) tend to excel in athletic competition? If answered in the affirmative, what is the rationale behind this phenomenon? And most important of all, what are the implications of this reasoning?

Considered objectively, African-Americans clearly represent a significantly larger percentage of professional athletes (particularly at the most elite levels) than the portion of the population that they represent. This is beyond debate. On the track, if anyone will be gaining ground on Marion Jones or Maurice Greene any time soon, in all likelihood they will not have blonde hair and blue eyes. Whether in short distance sprints or long distance marathons, the person who crosses the finish line first usually has brown skin. On most teams in the NBA in recent history, if you were searching for a white man you would have been best served starting with the twelfth man on the bench, if there was one to be found at all. Disproportionate numbers of blacks occupy positions in the NFL that require the most speed, agility, and leaping ability. Think about it. If you were choosing sides for a game of pick up basketball and had to decide between the remaining white guy and the remaining black guy, all other characteristics appearing equal, whom would you choose?

Scientists have researched, and some even claim to have found physiological differences that prove members of one race are predisposed to do better at certain tasks than members of other races. If it is taken as factual that a person's heritage makes them more susceptible to a particular disease, then can an equally valid point not be made about one group of people genetically having faster twitch muscles than another?

And so, with both impartial numbers and unbiased science supporting the case, why is the statement that blacks are superior athletes to whites such a controversial one? Why do some people vehemently oppose such a seemingly obvious notion? The answer can be written in black and white. America is a land obsessed with race relations. Racial prejudice is by no means a lost art in the land of the free, home of the brave. So any broad statement that divides us along color lines will be open to great scrutiny. Even if a generality seems benign, it still constitutes a stereotype. Once a stereotype is accepted by those it is being pinned on, the argument for other less pleasant stigmas is strengthened. Is to accept being labeled as naturally faster worth the cost of also being considered inherently lazier, or less intelligent, or more criminal minded? Of course not. This is a clear cut case of the negatives far outweighing the positives. Sometimes evidence is best left ignored. 

Besides, the latest wave of European imports and special American finds is slowly but surely bringing a semblance of racial balance to the NBA. If any race can be said to be tailor made to dominate Major League Baseball, that honor belongs not to blacks, but to Hispanics. Perhaps the next white heavyweight champion of the world is not lurking around a corner in nearby proximity (I was proven wrong here.  See Brothers Klitschko). But a Brit did recently manage to win and hold the belt for awhile, which is just about as fantastical as the plots of Rocky I through V.

It's just plain sense that those who were initially excluded from competing at the highest levels of sports would end up excelling when finally given the opportunity. As for dominating or at least achieving fair representation in coaching and front office positions, this is probably still a long time away. One barrier at a time. Changing institutionalized perceptions is a slow process, and Jackie Robinsons come around only every so often. So as tennis goes the way of the Williams sisters; Tiger Woods elevates himself farther and farther above his tennis brethren; and African-Americans continue to smash pigskin myths by demonstrating an aptitude for "thinking" positions like quarterback; those who long for a paler shade of sports are left to take solace for now that not too many folks of brown, yellow, or red complexion have taken much interest in ice hockey yet. 

If you've read this far, you rock!!!  As bonus for those of you not suffering from short attention spans I will cut and paste below some thoughts I wrote about an exceptional athlete/quarterback/black quarterback/ball/er/phenom/whatever you wish to call him, during the 04-05 football season.  The sky appeared to be the limit for this young man who was basically the personification of what I wrote in 2001.  At the time I wrote about him he had led his team the Atlanta Falcons to the playoffs early in his career, and it seemed there would be no stopping him any time soon.  There have been quite a few twists and turns in his story since then, but this makes the potential I saw in him and for the change he would bring about in the NFL no less valid.  Check it out:

With all due respect to Tom Brady and his two impressive Super Bowl rings, or to Ben Roethlisberger and his impressive winning streak, the man to whom most eyes would be glued is MICHAEL VICK. Why is that? Well, he just happens to be the most athletically gifted highlight reel making player the NFL has ever seen. He plays the most analyzed and admired position on the field, and does so in an unconventional manner never before witnessed. Yesterday the NFL belonged to the likes of Dan Marino and John Elway, and today belongs to Peyton Manning and his two consecutive league MVP awards. However, if you take Peyton out of his domed home stadium and place him outdoors to face wintry elements, his prowess can be tamed by an elite defense. On any given Sunday a scheme can be concocted to thwart veteran pigskin slingers such as Brett Favre or emerging hot shots like Drew Brees. But just how does one prepare to face a player as talented and unpredictable as Michael Vick? He is two superstars merged into one, both a quarterback with a canon for an arm and a running back with lightning fast legs. Michael Vick may be providing a glimpse at tomorrow in the NFL. Football purists who believe the prototype of a quarterback is a white guy who stays in the pocket and throws perfect spirals right before getting hit in the chest by a charging linebacker probably do not fully appreciate Michael's gifts. Those who can take or leave aging aesthetic values and prefer to focus on the bottom line understand that Vick may beat you with his arm, or he may beat you with his feet, but the important thing is that he will beat you.

The NFL is known as being a copycat league. If a particular game plan proves to be very successful for one team, it’s a brief matter of time before half the league has adopted it. Offensive and defensive fads come and go, and for each one, numerous variations are devised. If Michael Vick proceeds to lead the Atlanta Falcons to Super Bowl victory, talent scouts throughout the NFL will go in search of running backs with strong arms, or quarterbacks with fast feet. The hybrid QB will be much sought after while the conventional quarterback will become an endangered species. Professional football as we currently know it may be transformed into an entirely different game, sort of like how the NBA went from a league of spot up jump shooters to one of acrobatic dunkers, or how sluggers in baseball could once lead the league in homeruns with 30 in a season, but now hit that many by the All Star break.