According to this logic, the only way in the political and cultural imagination for Black athletes to win is to be perfect. When players of color like Rashford and his teammates make a misstep on the pitch — or show vulnerability off the court, as in the examples of Naomi Osaka or Serena Williams — the racialized responses from many fans and others in their sports reinforce this narrative. Some of the same people who cheer Rashford, Sancho and Saka’s success trafficked in vile and disgusting behavior in the wake of their team’s defeat.
Smith’s comments Monday about Ohtani, the first player to make an All-Star game as a pitcher and position player, demonstrate that in the US this demand for athletes of color to be perfect too often translates to an expectation that they fit a certain mold of what it means to be an American (a priority even more culturally embedded in a sport like baseball). Smith, who is Black, is well known for purposefully provocative sports commentary, but his remarks about Ohtani clearly crossed a line.
So what comes next?
Racism remains a global problem. But it’s also true that sports are a global phenomenon, for better and for worse. A love for sport of all kinds does unite people of different ethnic, racial and cultural traditions in ways that can bridge political, racial and religious divides. At the same time, the internationalization of European football and American baseball reflects the increasingly large monetary gains at stake for major sports leagues attempting to increase their revenue beyond domestic shores by globalizing their brands. The Euro Cup and the World Series have gone from being national and continental events to becoming global attractions.
At its most powerfully resonant, sports are not just a reflection of society as it exists; they anticipate (as Jackie Robinson’s presence in baseball did) what it might become. The NFL’s transition from denouncing players’ peaceful knee taking protest to embracing Black Lives Matter and NASCAR’s evolution toward repudiation of the Confederate flag are two of the most recent examples of efforts to address racism in sport, but this week’s events prove they cannot be the last.