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The NFL Combine, race and bodies

By February 28, 2012No Comments
As a big fan of the NFL, I cannot quite resist the call of the Combine, the annual celebration of freakish athletic ability and the source of the intimate information sportscasters have about how quickly a linebacker can run 40 meters.  Here’s the kind of debate my husband and I have: is the combine more like a slave auction or a horse market?  Or is it something completely modern and unique in its weirdness?
For those of you who are not NFL devotees, the NFL Scouting Combine brings together the top potential draft prospects from college football and puts them through a kind of mini track and field event.  They run a 40 meter dash, do a broad jump, a vertical leap, a bench press, a shuttle run and a 3 cone drill.  Then there are also various workouts that are specific to positions.  Obviously, the quarterback does a lot of passing and the receivers do a lot of catching.  NFL teams use this information to make decisions about their plans for the draft.  In theory, that’s what happens.

Jack Lambert (linebacker) and Mean Joe
Greene (defensive end)

With the Combine glowing brightly on the HD screen in my local sports bar, drawing the fascinated gaze of the mostly white and mostly male audience at the bar, I was leaning towards the Combine as a slave auction.  It is very much a spectacle of mostly black, male bodies.  In the short window of my Combine viewing, I saw one white athlete doing the drills.  I did see a spoof segment of the various staff from NFL Network attempting to run the 40 yard dash, all of whom were white.  The segment was amusing, but also an interesting way to juxtaposition the freakishness of the black male bodies against the complete inadequacy of the white male bodies.  “Look how funny the white men are trying to attempt any semblance of athleticism!” this segment seemed to say.

The Combine veers towards horse market when, as you’re watching the Combine, a little part of you is waiting for Rob Ryan with his flowing white locks to walk up to one of the athletes and ask to see his teeth.  Which suggests both slave auction and horse market.  It could go either way.

I’m a huge fan of the NFL in the same way that I’m a patriotic American.  I understand that my country is pretty deeply flawed, but as Allen Ginsberg might say, I’m willing to put my queer shoulder to the wheel.  Love is not blind; it sees the flaws and just goes on loving.  My relationship to the NFL is similarly troubled.  I am well aware that many of the men who are paid large amounts of money to entertain me suffer shorter lifespans than their non-athlete counterparts and during those lives are plagued by a host of pain due to personal injuries of both a physical and mental nature.  On the other hand, I think the Rooney Rule is a shining and stellar example of a private organization deciding to be proactive in correcting racial imbalances and experiencing great success.

Watching the Combine leads me to contemplate the complicated relationship between race, bodies and sports.  If you watch footage from the very beginnings of the NFL, you’ll quickly notice that the bodies of early era players were quite different.  They were mostly white bodies, first of all.  But by today’s standards, they were not particularly athletic bodies.  They were not muscle bound.  They were not inhumanly tall.  Many of the athletes looked not much different from a man off the street.  The same could largely be said for the athletes in the NBA and MLB.

My students would tell you that athletes became more, well, athletic, as African-Americans entered the major sports.  Black men, with their superior athletic abilities, upped the ante across the professional leagues.  I believe they’re on the right track in seeing a connection between race and the increasing emphasis on bodies in sports, but not in the way they’re describing it.

Today’s linebacker, Ray Lewis

Let me say this as plainly as possible: black people have no genetic or biological athletic superiority.  This is because, firstly, the idea of a category of folks called “black people” who are biologically or genetically more similar to each other than they are to the category of folks called “white people” is a social fiction.  The majority of people (the last estimates from the beginning of the 20th century were 75% of all black people, and these numbers can only have increased in the meantime with increasing rates of interracial marriage) whom we think of as black have ancestors whom we think of as “white”; so the degree of mixing among people that is constant throughout history makes the existence of any biological category of race fairly difficult to sustain.  Add to this the fact that the differences in skin color which we think of as signifying “race” evolved much later than any differences in athletic ability and that these traits are not concordant.  The gene for darker skin is not inherited along with any genes that might contribute to athletic ability.

What is true is that beginning somewhere in the 20th century, racial ideology shifted to a narrative that saw African-Americans as athletically superior to whites.  In the 19th century, racial scientists believed that black people were so physically infirm and inferior that they would gradually die out completely as a race.  This was, in fact, called the extinction thesis.  And then came Jessie Owens.  Racial ideology shifted to a narrative in which athletic ability was ceded to black people; they could have their basketball, football and Olympic medals.  It made sense that they’d be better at running, since they were, evolutionarily speaking, closer to the animals who had to run for their survival.  In the great Western mind/body split, black people became the bodies and white people became the minds.  And in order to play football, you had to be something of an athletic freak–all body, very little mind.

Sports like football became more about athletic ability and less about athletic intelligence because this explained why black people seemed to be so much better at them than white people.  It wasn’t that Jackie Robinson or Jessie Owens or Jack Johnson were smarter than white people; they just had better bodies.  And that, after all, is beyond our control, so how could white folks be expected to compete?

The Combine is the modern day proof of just that.  White people (and especially white men) can watch the Combine and be assured that the reason they are not playing in the NFL has everything to do with genetic destiny that is beyond their control, and nothing to do with the blocked economic opportunities that funnel black men towards sports as the only means out of the particular social and economic circumstances they find themselves in.

The Combine is not a slave market; the men displaying their bodies will be compensated for their efforts.  To call it a slave market is like calling anyone a Nazi; to do so diminishes the horror of the genocides of American slavery and the Jewish holocaust by comparison.  The evil of slavery is in no way equivalent to the sports spectacle of the Combine.  Nor is it a horse market.  Sure, you can see creepy-ass Rob Ryan in the background, but also, thanks in part to the Rooney Rule, there are African-American coaches like Lovie Smith and Romeo Crennel at the Combine.  And yet, the Combine is very much about flesh.

Today’s defensive end, Ndumakong Suh

The spectres of both the slave auction and the horse market are raised at the Combine by the emphasis on bodies and bodies alone.  I love sports, but I love them in part for the different kinds of intelligence they put on display.  A running back in slow motion can be as beautiful as a ballerina.  But ballerinas are artists, valued for more than just what their bodies can do.  The Combine helps teams to successfully draft good players only in theory; there are too many intangibles beyond mere bodily ability that affect success in the NFL which the Combine does not measure.  Ray Lewis is past his physical prime, but still invaluable as a linebacker because of his football intelligence rather than his vertical leap.  I could probably beat Peyton Manning in a 40 yard dash, but is he still one of the greatest quarterbacks ever?  The highest vertical leap in a player who can’t understand how to work within a scheme is largely useless.  So even the Combine’s predictive ability is questionable.

But let’s face it.  Watching a player break down film isn’t going to get you much in the way of ratings (even though personally, it’s something I’d love to watch).  The Combine tells us something we want to believe about what it means to be an NFL athlete in a way that hearing Ray Lewis explain how to read an offense just doesn’t.  It confirms for us that most NFL players, and perhaps especially the players who are not white, are mostly there for their bodies and not for their minds.  A comforting thing to believe, but not, I think, the truth.

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