Saturday, December 17, 2011

Tim Tebow and the Politics of Whiteness

When some of my favorite left wing sports commentators go after Tim Tebow, I find it hard not take it personally. Not because I share any of Tebow’s religious convictions or political beliefs- I have as much in common with him on that score as I do with Newt Gingrich-- but because I was once, on a much lower level, a white athlete who had a lot of the same skill set, physical traits and limitations as Tebow does, and had to prove myself constantly in mostly black ball games and leagues

From the late sixties through the mid 70’s, when I wasn’t writing, teaching or trying to make the revolution, I was playing basketball in schoolyards and gyms in Harlem, the Upper West Side and the Bronx, and playing on multiracial football teams in Riverside and Central Park. As a white guy playing in mostly black games during the height of the Black Power movement, I was always under careful scrutiny. Not everyone appreciated my presence, and I was being tested on two levels- first, was I fast, enough strong enough and athletic enough to compete in the games and second, did I try to boss people around and act like a “coach on the field,” something white players did with numbing regularity and which pissed people I played with off to an incredible degree

Pretty much, I passed muster on both counts. I was not the most skilled player in the world, but I was very strong, very tough, decently fast and a pretty good leaper ( at 6’0 I could grab the rim from a standing position). Though I was never a superstar, the guys I played with concluded I was a valuable teammate because I backed down from no one, could run the court in top competition,, and deferred to players who were more skilled and knowledgeable than me But the main thing that won me acceptance was that I kept my mouth shut and let people who knew the game better than me direct the action. If I was going to be a white player in mostly or all black games, it was going to be my “game” that earned respect, not my mouth, and it was defense and rebounding that were going to be my meal tickets

Now what does this have to do with Tim Tebow? Well, from the first time I saw him in college, I felt he was a player who earned respect through strength and toughness rather than some mythical “cerebral” quality that racist announcers liked to attribute to white athletes. He wasn’t talkative, he wasn’t arrogant, he got the ball to his teammates when he could, and ran people over when he couldn’t. He was white, yes, and he probably got undue attention because of his whiteness, but he never tried to steal the limelight from his teammates, many of whom were gifted athletes, and who had ample opportunity to shine in the offense he ran

Best of all, he didn’t confirm racial stereotypes. He was strong, tough, athletic, dominating the game because defensive players couldn’t tackle him. And he had clearly won the respect of his black teammates. I liked that. That’s what I played for and it thought it was kind of cool to see a white player gain respect through some of the same strategies I used

Now fast forward to the last two months. As result of the victories he has won since become the Denver Bronco’s starting quarterback, Tim Tebow has become perhaps the most talked about figure in American sports. To much of the country, Tebow has become a folk hero, a symbol of triumph over adversity; to some of my friends, he has become a symbol of white privilege and preferential opportunities given to white quarterbacks.

I refuse to buy into either of these narratives. To me, Tebow is still the tough white kid earning respect in a mostly black game by sacrificing his body for the good of the team and finding ways of enhancing the talents of his team mates.

He plays the way I played, the way my son Eric played, the way my daughter Sara played, and the way I would teach any ball player to play

That he is made into some kind of hero for achievements that might gain little attention were he black, is not his fault. It’s not what he asked for, not what he wants.

Even to the privileged, race can be a double edged sword, causing one’s achievements to be so exaggerated that they end up being minimized

Eminem’s ironic comments on his own career apply well to Tebow’s peculiar odyssey

#look at my sales, let's do the math, if I was black, I would've sold half, I
Ain't have to graduate from Lincoln high school to know that”

Let the man play. Over time, the miracles will cease and he will just be another good quarterback in a tough league. And when the attention dies down, his ”whiteness” will cease to be a source of either excitement or rage and he can go back to being what he always wanted to be – a hard nosed player respect by his teammates.

Mark Naison
December 17, 2011

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