Before playing the Stanford team in the Final Four, UConn women's coach, Geno Auriemma, said people underestimated Stanford because they think white players are soft. More pointedly, he pointed out that his players, who are predominantly African-American, should be given the same respect for their discipline for which Stanford's team was praised. The coach was simply exposing stereotypes that have been around for a long time.
Black athletes are usually given credit for their "natural athleticism," while whites are credited for their "hard work," "discipline" and "knowledge of the game"; as if Black athletes are naturally given the gift of great athleticism, and white people become great athletes through hard work, discipline and intelligence.
Every Black athlete who is successful has worked very hard and is knowledgeable of their sport. Every white athlete who is successful has natural athletic ability.
The problem with stereotypes in sports is that they often lead to general stereotypes. If you say "white men can't jump," why not "Black men can't read defenses"? And if Black men can't read defenses, maybe they can't read books either?
Sports stereotypes have a real effect in the real world. Most employers are not concerned with employees' natural athletic abilities, so stereotypes of African-Americans being athletically superior for the most part do not help Blacks in the real world. However, the stereotypes of whites being hard working, disciplined and smart are helpful to them in finding employment.
One of the most prevalent stereotypes in sports is that of the Black quarterback. Both Rush Limbaugh and former sports commentator, Jimmy the Greek, have caught flack for their philosophies on African-American quarterbacks. Jimmy's explanation of how blacks were bred for physical skill but whites were bred for intelligence was blatant racism, but there have been many more subtle ways at insinuating the same point.
Former NFL M.V.P. Steve McNair played for a small Black college because every major college recruited him to play defensive back rather than quarterback, his natural position. Many African-Americans are discouraged from playing quarterback and asked to play other positions in high school, college and the professional ranks. How many other black M.V.P.-caliber quarterbacks were forced to play other positions because coaches didn't feel Blacks made good quarterbacks?
Biological factors do not compel people from certain races to excel in certain sports. Cultural factors do. China produces a lot of good ping-pong players because ping-pong is part of Chinese culture. Kenya produces a lot of marathon winners because long distance running is part of their culture. Jamaica produces sprinters because track and field has become a strong part of their culture and national identity. Baseball has become a big part of Latin American culture and subsequently several of baseball's top players come from Latin America. Basketball is a big part of African-American culture, so a good deal of players in the NBA are African-American.
Sports stereotypes are made to be broken. Athletic basketball players are popping up all over the world from all different backgrounds, from Argentina to Turkey, from Kenya to China. Boxing, once a sport dominated by African-Americans, is now being dominated by boxers of other ethnicities from all around the world. Russians are dominating the heavyweight division, and a Philipino, Manny Pacqiao, will fight an Englishman, Ricky Hatton, for the title of best fighter, pound for pound (at least while Floyd Mayerweather is retired).
While no Black quarterback has won a Superbowl since Doug Williams proved Jimmy the Greek wrong in 1988, two of the last three Superbowl winning coaches have been African-American. This goes even further to disprove Jimmy the Greek's theory, given that African-Americans have excelled at coach, the most cerebral position of all.
Despite all the stereotypes of Black athlete not being intelligent or caring about their education, an African American, Myron Rolle, has become the first major U.S. athlete to win the Rhodes Scholarship since Bill Bradley. He bypassed a career in the NFL to get an education from Oxford University, one of the world's most prestigious schools.
When stereotypes begin to insinuate that certain races have certain characteristics, whether they be positive or negative, they fall into the same racist generalizations that are at the root of racism and race-based discrimination.