Few were surprised when Alabama running back Derrick Henry hoisted the Heisman Trophy last weekend, becoming the 70th player in NCAA history to win college football’s most treasured award. The 6-3, 242-pounder rumbled for 1,986 years this year, a single-season SEC record, and tied the conference rushing touchdown record with 23.
Christian McCaffrey, the elusive running back from Stanford, enjoyed an equally sensational season, breaking Barry Sanders’ NCAA single-season record for all-purpose yards.
There were a few critics leading up to the Heisman announcement who voiced concerns that McCaffrey would be snubbed because he is a white running back. Michael Wilbon of ESPN’s Pardon The Interruption told his co-host Tony Kornheiser he would cast his ballot for McCaffrey if he could vote, but believed the sophomore’s chances would be hampered because he is white.
“Stereotypes become deeply held convictions for a great many people,” said Wilbon. “ In 1956, when Jim Brown was the best running back in the land, the voters saw fit not to award it to him and give it to Paul Hornung who was on a 2-9 Notre Dame team. Two and nine. So these things change over time. And to me, Tony, in this order in sports, boxing and then basketball and then football, these are the places where African Americans men, acceptable in some parts in no other place in conventional American life, are accepted above all else in those things, Boxing, basketball and now football. And quarterback until more recently. Now you get to a place Tony where this kid is an outsider looking in.”
Contrarian sports commentator Jason Whitlock wrote last week on Fox Sports' J.School that McCaffrey should win easily next year because of his race.
“If he duplicates this season next year, McCaffrey will win the Heisman in a landslide and part of the reason he’ll win in a runaway is because he’s a white running back,” wrote Whitlock. “You follow? What hurt him this year might very well help him next year. He’ll benefit from preseason hype and part of that hype is that he’ll be the (white) Tiger Woods of running backs. We, the media, love the racial underdog narrative. And there’s a long tradition of America loving Great White Hopes. The kid could be the Larry Bird of football.”
This isn’t the first time this year a sports commentator expressed concerned over white athletes being underappreciated over racial stereotypes. Last month, Hall of Fame wide receiver and ESPN analyst Cris Carter said white wide receivers don’t get the respect their black counterparts at the same position garner. In reality, though, these arguments don’t function in the realities of the meritorious structure in which the sports world lives today. Simply put: there is no racial bias against white athletes.
Let’s take McCaffrey for example. No one would have protested had he won the Heisman Saturday evening. Statistically, he was a lock. However, numbers are not the only measures of merit. Henry got the Heisman nod primarily because he achieved his stats in what is considered the best conference in the college football and on the NCAA’s most heralded team in Alabama.
Had McCaffrey racked up the same numbers at Alabama instead of Stanford, he likely would have won.
I hate the, “It’s not race, it’s class” argument, but it fits in this scenario. Henry won because he excelled at a higher class of football than McCaffrey. It’s that simple. The Pac-10 is no joke, but it’s not the SEC.
Here is another consideration: In America, white people have never had to deal with the reality of having to be “twice as good” as their black counterparts in any profession. It certainly doesn’t hold true in sports. Most major sports leagues did not integrate until the middle of the 20th century, so it doesn’t make much sense to claim that white athletes are being snubbed when, for most of sports history, they have been favored.
So, to argue that, somehow, McCaffrey was the victim of reverse racism is a slap in the face of black people whose skin color barred them from being recognized for their talents at all.
Steve McNair finished third in Heisman voting in 1994, even after Sports Illustrated wrote a cover story arguing that voters should “Hand Him The Heisman.” Did McNair finish third because he was a black quarterback or was it because he had a great year at unknown Alcorn State, an HBCU that didn’t play on national television?
I’d argue it’s because he played at Alcorn State. Charlie Ward, a black quarterback, won Florida State’s first Heisman a year earlier in 1993, during a decade when black QBs were not en vogue. Race did not stop McNair from winning the Heisman; it was his conference.
The stage on which an athlete performs is as crucial as his or her performance. The best singer in the world can walk through New York City’s subway system, hat in hand, asking strangers for coins and barely be noticed. But, if that same singer performs at Carnegie Hall, he or she will earn mainstream acclaim.
That’s just how it works. Is it fair? No. It’s just how many people view merit.
While I believe Whitlock, Carter, Wilbon and others who claim white athletes do not get the same respect as black one make sincere arguments, they also unwitting assume that black athletes do not work as hard for the fame they earn , simply because they are black. Black athletes’ Intelligence, emotional IQ and the ability to sustain near-impeccable performances at the very highest of levels of sports are missing from these arguments that white players are somehow being snubbed.
The sports world is not perfect, but it is certainly the ultimate meritocracy when it comes to earning respect for individual performance. Cam Newton may become the first black quarterback to win the NFL MVP outright (McNair shared the 2003 MVP with Peyton Manning). If he wins, it will be because voters believe he is the best quarterback of what is now the team in the league with a perfect record. Race won’t have anything to do with it.
In 2015, any athlete who performs at the highest level on the biggest stage will earn MVP-like favor. Perhaps, that athlete will earn enough respect and be considered the very best in their sport.
Even if he or she is white.