As the audience sat in a panel session about race and media representations in sport at the annual North American Society for Sport History (NASSH) conference (Glenwood Springs, Colorado, 2014), the Power Point images grabbed us. There she was, Briana Scurry, goalkeeper for the United States Women’s Soccer team—black, muscular, and menacing, as she posed behind a goalkeeper’s net. Was this a standard goalkeeper’s photo, as some in the audience suggested, or was there something else that told a story of race in America? “Her sexuality is rendered sterile,” presenter Eileen Narcotta-Welp noted, “while her raced, caged body is seen as animalistic.” Narcotta-Welp’s profound point about the media’s desire to cage Scurry in, in conjunction with the other presentations that session, elicited an intriguing conversation about sports and media. At its heart, the discussion focused on questions of racial optics of sport. Why would a photographer and a magazine feel the need to render Scurry as a powerless animal? What did their choice, or our reading of the photo, say about a broader conversation about race in America? Does the media representation of racial minorities in sport point to a larger issue about race and gender in America?
Together, the papers in this forum remind us that the optics of sports, specifically studying the lone minority and how the media perceives their athletic participation, is a valuable tool to understanding a broader context of the role of race in sports and social movements in America.
In my more recently produced paper about Larry Doby’s rookie season (1947–48), I argue that the lone black athletic figure symbolized larger debates about democracy in post–World War II America. The press did not try to escape the question of race; rather, writers used the presence of the racial pioneer to propel narratives about integration. While, at first, a number of white writers questioned if Doby belonged, black writers never wavered and argued that true integration would require sincere opportunities to fail or succeed. [End Page 361] Doby’s initial struggles, and eventual success, were a metaphor about American merit that both white and black writers ultimately celebrated.
For Adam J. Criblez, the media’s desire to promote a “Great White Hope” in 1970s professional basketball reflects white America’s anxieties with post–civil rights America. Criblez argues, “The rise in participation by African Americans in professional basketball, coupled with increased black militancy and social activism, was brought into even more stark relief by the expansion of television as a medium for disseminating the game. This combination created a highly visible, potentially volatile situation in an already turbulent time.” The crowning of the next “Great White Hope” by the white sporting press, whether the player was Doug Collins, Dave Cowens, Pete Maravich, or Bill Walton, symbolized white Americans’ desire to push back against supposed black gains after the civil rights movement. These white ballers were a reflection of, and a reminder of, white grit and determination—key characteristics of white success on and off the court. But as Criblez demonstrates, the weight of being a racial savior was too much to bear for many of these players. In less than a decade, for example, the once-shining star of Maravich faded from the limelight. The media, however, simply moved on to the next white player.
But something changes when the sporting space is majority white. Narcotta-Welp notes that, as America moved into the twenty-first century, the lone black figure—in this case, Briana Scurry on the women’s soccer team—symbolized white America’s hope for a postracial and postfeminist nation. Reading Scurry as a text to study the white suburban sporting space, Narcotta-Welp asserts, “Exploring narratives that construct Scurry provides critical space to reveal counternarratives that expand the meaning of this team and this sporting moment in sport history.” Instead of exploring the economics of soccer and why few black women play the sport, the media chose to normalize Scurry. “The dislocation of Scurry’s race,” she notes, “decontexualizes and depoliticizes her from racial politics, producing an image of U.S. women’s soccer that is overwhelmingly...