Commentary: No Influential Black Athletes?

A new Forbes list has African-American sports fans scratching their heads.

Posted: 05/04/2012 07:54 AM EDT
Jeremy Lin, Manny Pacquiao, Forbes, Sports News, Tim Tebow

Forbes released another one of its lists recently. Perhaps the most famous Forbes lists deal with wealth, like the richest Americans and richest rappers lists. This latest list goes into “America’s Most Influential Athletes.” What does that “influential” mean in this context?  This is the explanation from Forbes:


Nielsen and E-Poll surveyed over 1,100 adults about dozens of well-known athletes to measure their likeability and whether they’re considered “influential,” an important quality for marketers. The term, among 40 characteristics that respondents could choose from (others: leader, approachable, handsome), can mean slightly different things to different people. As [Stephen Master, vice president of sports for Nielsen] notes, some may see an athlete as influential in his sport, while others see him as crossing over and being influential in society at large. [Tim] Tebow is a perfect example: his clean living and public religious values make him a role model for many, even if they render him polarizing in some quarters.


With that as the context, can you guess whom the public chose as influential? Better yet, can you guess whom the public didn’t choose as influential? The answer: Black people.


Despite the fact that Black athletes make up the majority of the player population in both the NBA and the NFL, there were no Black people on Forbes’ top-10 list. The six NFL players who were chosen — Eli Manning, Drew Brees, Aaron Rodgers, Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, and Tebow — are all white quarterbacks. And the one NBA player included is Jeremy Lin, the Knicks point guard who came off the bench to create a stir in the sports world earlier this year. The only other person of color was Manny Pacquiao, the Filipino boxing sensation.


How are Black athletes getting overlooked here? In a word: leadership. It’s really no surprise that the football players Americans believe to be most influential are all quarterbacks. Sports fans love powerful leaders, and it’s long been the assumption that quarterbacks are the most important leaders on a football team. What’s also long been an assumption is that only white people make the best quarterbacks.


As we told you last year about stereotyping in the NFL: “According to [New York Times columnist William Rhoden], NFL teams, through a variety of unwritten rules and unofficial practices, used to ensure that white players played certain positions and Black players played other positions.” Black players, thought to be more athletic than whites, were directed to play things like cornerback, while whites, thought to be smarter and better leaders, where directed to quarterback. There’s no truth to either of those stereotypes, of course, but that didn’t stop coaches from acting on them.


Keep all this in mind when you look at the Forbes influential athletes list. It’s not that Black athletes can’t be just as influential as white athletes in the eyes of the public. It’s simply that they’re often not given a chance to be.


The opinions expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of BET Networks.


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