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Race, Athletes and Public Perception
Posted: Tuesday, October 21, 2003

Kobe Bryant, Marv Albert, & Latrell Sprewell
Race, Athletes and Public Perception

by Ellen Rosner,

Kobe Bryant, like OJ did, stands at the crossroads of two American myths:

Kobe is a Black man accused of raping a White woman


a beloved sports-figure.

What happens when America's dream meets America's nightmare?

When God Bless America meets Birth of a Nation?

What does race have to do with it?

The media would have us believe - nothing.

When Latrell Sprewell, an African-American professional basketball player, put his hands around the throat of his coach P.J. Carlesimo, he was given the harshest sentence in the history of the NBA. Although an arbitrator reduced his suspension from one year to seven months, Sprewell's fine of 6.4 million dollars was the largest in the history of professional sports. The public and media reaction was swift and almost uniformly condemnatory. As Peter H. King wrote in the Los Angeles Times, "One might think he had stabbed his wife to death."

He was called pathological, a sociopath, America's worst nightmare. When he sued the NBA for lost income, he was compared to Charles Manson!

Sprewell became a symbol first for the perceived "thug" mentality of the NBA (which term was somehow only applied to Black players), then for "violent Black male athletes" and by extension for all Black violence. Lurid headlines read: "Open Season: Patients Now Running the NBA Asylum", "Sprewell Story an Analogy for World Gone Mad", "Gang Chic as a Marketing Tool".

Consider the short, kinky saga of Marv Albert. The Knicks' broadcaster (originator of the ubiquitous "Yess!"), was accused of biting the back of his ex-lover and forcing her to perform oral sex. He was charged with forcible sodomy and assault and battery, and faced, if convicted, life in prison.

Albert denied all accusations. On the second day of the trial a second woman testified, describing two encounters in which Albert bit her and tried to force her to perform oral sex. In one of the encounters Marv was wearing a woman's panties and garter belt. Two days later he pleaded guilty to misdemeanor assault and battery. The felony charge of forcible sodomy was dropped. The judge deferred sentencing for a year and on October 9, 1998 his record was cleared of all charges.

From the time of his charge until the plea bargain, Albert continued to call NBA games for NBC. By December 1999 Marv is broadcasting Knicks games, MSG Sportsdesk nightly, Turner Sports, some basketball games for NBC, the Olympic Games in Australia for NBC, and the Goodwill Games.

A story of fall and redemption to warm the heart.

After Marv Albert, we did not read articles about the predatory nature of the broadcasting industry and its thug mentality.

But Spree, because of the intersection of race and sport, became a symbol for all that is "wrong" with the NBA:

too Black

too violent

too out of control

If a well-known African-American sports-figure had been accused of biting a woman while wearing panties and a garter belt, we'd still be reading about it five years later.

Mike Tyson bites off a piece of an opponent's ear in the ring.


Yes. But stranger than Marv Albert's behavior?

This is not to denigrate what is purely a personal choice - one's manner of dress.

But Tyson is forever branded as an ear-biter. Latrell is still talked about as the man who choked his coach.

When did you ever hear Marv Albert referred to as the ‘cross-dressing, back-biting sportscaster'?

Mickey Mantle drank himself to death and remains a hero. Babe Ruth, throughout his career was a big drinker, a womanizer, irresponsible, and violated team rules. Yet his image is not tarnished, he is known - affectionately - as a "good ol' boy".

What Black athlete could have got away with The Babe's behavior, then or now, and not be pilloried?

Spree makes one mistake, and in spite of five and a half years of sin-free living his reputation is not rehabilitated.

The story of Kobe Bryant - whether he is found guilty or not - is guaranteed to churn out books about Athletes - their sense of entitlement, their violent behavior, their immoral lives. And what will be unspoken, but intended, is African-American athletes.

But the story of Marv Albert did not lead to studies of the pathology of broadcasters who assault women while wearing a garter belt.

All of which is to say that race is always present, whether stated or not. Race is why Sprewell became a symbol of black violence against white authority and why Marv Albert's "Yess" is again heard across the land.

Race is why White Legends - like Mantle, Ruth, Pete Rose - can have their transgressions forgiven, or at least overlooked.

After the Fall

The Black Athlete is never just an athlete - he is a "credit to his race" - like the early Jessie Owens, Jackie Robinson, or OJ.

(Simpson, before he was accused of a horrific crime, was the darling of the public and the media. He did what America demands of a star Black athlete - embraced racial neutrality and sold himself to the highest bidder. He was the first Black athlete to win major corporate endorsements. Before there was Michael Jordan, there was OJ.)


he is an affront to White people and the American way:

Jack Johnson, Muhammad Ali in his prime, Dennis Rodman, Latrell Sprewell

Why is forgiveness not available to the Black sports figure who falls from Grace?

The Black Athlete is not allowed to be multi-dimensional; he is demonized or deified.

(The two most popular Kobe web sites are "Because we're running out of heroes" and

And if the Black athlete falls from grace, he can expect no mercy. No redemption. This is what America does to its Star Athletes who are Black, or should we say to its Blacks who are Star Athletes.

It remains to be seen where Kobe Bean Bryant will fall in this mix.

But when a Black man stands accused of raping a White woman, know that race is not absent.

Kobe might well heed the words of Tupac Shakur in his Anthem to the Black Male Athlete: "Don't get caught up in the mix because the Media is Full of Dirty Tricks."

Ellen Rosner is a free-lance writer living in New Jesey.

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