‘Playing While White’ examines privilege on and off the field New book says that sports, like America itself, is a place where race matters

Playing While White: Privilege and Power on and off the Field by Washington State University professor David J. Leonard shines a light on whiteness in sports culture and the ways in which white athletes are characterized compared with black athletes. Leonard wrote an adaptation from his book, released in July, for The Undefeated.


Playing While White: Privilege and Power on and off the Field explores the ways that white athletes are profiled as intelligent leaders, hard workers, underdogs and role models.

Exploring a spectrum of athletes from Tom Brady to Johnny Manziel, several teams, including Wisconsin basketball and the St. Louis Cardinals, as well as extreme sports, NASCAR and lacrosse, I look at the ways whiteness is imagined within America’s sporting cultures.

America’s sporting fields are not postracial promised lands; they are not places where race doesn’t matter because the only thing that counts is whether you can score touchdowns or make buckets. Sports is not the “colorblind mecca” that we are routinely promised each and every weekend.

Sports, like America itself, is a place where race matters. While writing about the NBA, USC professor Todd Boyd makes this clear, writing that sports “remains one of the few places in American society where there is a consistent racial discourse.”

It is a place where anti-black racism is ubiquitous, from the press box to the coach’s office, from the stands to the White House. It is also a place where the privileges of whiteness are commonplace.

After my book was published, San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich highlighted the nature of white privilege, or what it means to be #PlayingWhileWhite inside and outside the sporting arena.

“It’s like you’re at the 50-meter mark in a 100-meter dash,” Popovich said during a recent news conference. “You’ve got that kind of a lead, yes, because you were born white. You have advantages that are systemically, culturally, psychologically rare. And they’ve been built up and cemented for hundreds of years.”

The power of whiteness can be seen in the celebration of Brady, Aaron Rodgers, Tim Tebow and countless white athletes as leaders and role models on and off the field. Praised as disciplined, hardworking and humble, while their black peers are consistently depicted as either “ungrateful millionaires” or “natural athletes,” the power of race can be seen in the descriptors afforded different athletes.

To be a white athlete is to be a scrappy and gritty player, whose motor never stops, whose “drive never relents” and whose determination is unmatched. To be a white athlete is to “play the right way,” to be unselfish, to be without ego and to always put winning and team first and foremost. These sorts of racially stratified descriptors are common in the sports media, from coaches and general managers, and from fans alike. As are the consistent attribution of hard work and intelligence to white athletes whose IQs, work ethic and intangibles are the source of constant celebration. To be a white athlete is to be cerebral, a student of the game, a throwback to a different era.

The power of whiteness is equally evident in the trash talk of John Stockton, Larry Bird, Brady and Manziel. Amid widespread nostalgia for greater sportsmanship and respect for the game, whereupon hip-hop and black athletes are blamed for the intrusion of toxic values, the trash-talking of white athletes is either ignored or celebrated as evidence of their passion for the game and competitiveness.

Brady is what #PlayingWhileWhite looks like inside and outside of sports. Despite coming from immense privilege and opportunity, earning a scholarship to the University of Michigan and being drafted into the NFL, Brady has been recast as an underdog, who through hard work, intelligence, dedication and unselfishness has become the league’s greatest quarterback. He’s a winner and a leader. Yet he also is a victim of being underestimated, and of those who “falsely” accused him of cheating. The story of Brady is the story of whiteness, of advantages and systematically produced opportunities.

White privilege is also the celebration of Bill Belichick’s hoodie as African-American youths are seen as criminals and “thugs” for their similar clothing choices. It is “Gronk being Gronk,” while any number of black athletes are denounced as selfish and out of control.

White privilege is the NASCAR CEO endorsing Donald Trump, while its fans historically waved the Confederate flag, all while it threatens consequences to anyone who protests during the national anthem.

White privilege is fights in hockey, among NASCAR pit crews and in baseball being recast as tradition, as fun and as part of the game, while the shoving matches in the NBA prompt national panics.

White privilege is silence about drug use in extreme sports and in those white-dominated collegiate sports amid headlines about NFL and NBA marijuana arrests and a war on drugs waged in black and Latino communities.

To #PlayWhileWhite is to be seen as smart, scrappy, determined and a leader. #PlayingWhileWhite is to win, to be celebrated in victory, redeemed in defeat, lifted up when down and sympathized with by others as a real or imagined victim. It is to be innocent and a repository of excuses for failure. It is being empowered to be silent; it is being seen as a person and not just as an athlete, as a commodity, as someone who dunks or makes spectacular catches. And that privilege is bigger than any contract, any commercial and any award, one that extends beyond the playing field.

What if it wasn’t all a Dream (Team)? Five 1992 Olympic what-if scenarios — 25 years later Dominique Wilkins’ injury, Jordan sticking to his word and Shaq over Laettner. What if?

Want to feel nostalgic? Great. Better yet, want to feel old? Twenty-five years ago today, the 1992 U.S. men’s basketball team won Olympic gold. Canonized as “The Dream Team,” the squad curb-stomped an entire world of competition, and its international impact is eternal.

The Dream Team opened the NBA’s door into China — and the world’s love affair with the game of basketball. Their Olympic tuneups weren’t as much games as they were red carpet ceremonies as they laughed, galloped and, in Toni Kukoc’s case, smothered the life out of opponents, beating them by 44.3 points per game — second only to the 53.2-point margin of the 1956 squad anchored by Bill Russell. The Dream Team’s song is one to which the entire world knows the lyrics — thanks to the documentaries, features and books in the quarter-century since their summer excursion. But even a crew with some of the game’s most iconic names — Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson and Larry Bird — isn’t immune to the “what if” game. It makes for a psychedelic voyage into a parallel universe.

What if Team USA had taken gold in the 1988 Olympics in Seoul, South Korea?

This is, by far, the most important question involving The Dream Team. America winning bronze in the ’88 Games was a watershed moment. The Soviet Union defeated the United States 82-76 in the semifinals (there’s a Russia/America-beating-us-at-our-own-game joke that will not be told right now). Up until 1988, only collegiate players were allowed in Olympic play. That talk soon shifted. “Personally, I would like more of a chance to compete,” Team USA and then-Georgetown head coach John Thompson said. “I’m also an advocate of professionals playing in the Olympics.”

Not everyone was for the change. Bill Wall, executive director of the United States Amateur Basketball Association, touched on philosophical issues: “Do you want to watch the best players beat everyone else?” It turns out the answer was a resounding yes. In Munich, on April 7, 1989, FIBA voted 56-13 to allow pro players to participate.

Many, like Boris Stankovic, FIBA’s secretary general, saw it as Olympic basketball’s “triumphant entry into the 21st century.” Stankovic was a chief proponent of allowing NBA players access, as they were the only professionals barred worldwide. One of its most vocal critics, however, turned out to be the United States Amateur Basketball Association, which took the stance that pro players’ involvement eliminated its opportunity to participate.

So, did America’s bronze medal showing in the ’88 Games lead directly to the introduction of NBA players? Perhaps not 100 percent, but it undeniably aided a process already in motion. Put it this way: If anything defines Big Sean’s Last night I took an L, but tonight I bounce back, it’s Team USA basketball 1988-92. It’s also fair to say that if America had won gold in 1988, the push for NBA stars may never have happened.

NBA players in the Olympics are the norm these days, but in the immediate aftermath of the decision, the desire to play was slightly better than 50-50. Superstars such as Isiah Thomas, Magic Johnson and Karl Malone didn’t hide their excitement. “[I’d] go in a heartbeat and pay my own ticket,” Malone said. But a 1989 poll revealed only 58 percent of NBA players would play if afforded the opportunity. The biggest one to say no? Jordan. Which brings us to the next point …

What if Michael Jordan had stuck to his word and not played in the 1992 Olympics?

Let’s get the elephant out of the room. The Isiah Thomas/Jordan factor was a real issue — a beef with origins in the 1985 All-Star Game, known in hoops circles as the “freeze-out game.” How do we know Jordan didn’t want anything to do with Thomas as a teammate? He said it himself. “That was one of the stipulations put to me [on the team] — that Isiah wasn’t part of the team,” he said in a 2012 Dream Team documentary. The Thomas exclusion remains a thrilling subplot of ’90s basketball because of how the selection committee did whatever it had to do to get Jordan while sacrificing Thomas.

The Detroit Pistons’ floor general wasn’t one of the first 10 players selected. The Olympic selection committee began choosing players shortly after the 1991 playoffs ended. It was in those same playoffs that the Pistons, swept by Jordan and the Chicago Bulls in the Eastern Conference finals, infamously walked off the court before time expired in Game 4. Thomas was seen as the linchpin in one of the most infamous examples of pettiness in sports history. But even with Thomas on the outside looking in, Jordan still wasn’t a lock. Peep the timeline:

April 1989 Jordan says he’s not interested in playing in the Olympics again (he won gold in 1984). The thought of giving up another summer didn’t appeal to him.

May 1991 In one of the more revealing yet often forgotten interviews of his career, the ’91 MVP once again states his hesitation to Pat Riley. The season was long enough, and adding the Olympics would only shorten recovery time. But he doesn’t slam the casket shut either. “The only reason that I would wanna go is,” he says, only semi-joking, “if we feel that we certainly can’t win with the team we put out there.”

“Do you want to watch the best players beat everyone else?” It turns out the answer was a resounding yes.

July 30, 1991 — Agent David Falk denies that both of his clients, Jordan and Patrick Ewing, are undecided about what to do the next summer.

Aug. 1, 1991 — Playing in his first competitive golf tournament at the Western Amateur in Benton Harbor, Michigan, Jordan seemingly deadens any hope of Olympic dreams. “There are a lot of professionals who want to play and, being that there are a lot of professionals that haven’t played — and I’ve played — I don’t mind giving the other guys an opportunity,” he says. “Right now it’s a closed door for me.” For the golf aficionados wondering, he shot an 85 that day.

Aug. 10, 1991 — “I’m working on him,” Magic Johnson says. “I even told him I’d give him a million dollars if he’d do it. But so far he hasn’t changed his mind.”

Aug. 25, 1991 — Few remember the attacks on Jordan’s patriotism because of his reluctance to play in the Olympics. Three weeks after his statement about sitting out, Jordan reconsiders, promising to make the decision in a few days but saying it would be his and his alone. “Not one forced on me by what somebody else says or wants,” he said.

Sept. 4, 1991 — Thomas says if he’s not invited to the ’92 Games later that month he will not blame Jordan. “While I cannot speak for Michael,” Thomas says, “I can say that such a feud does not exist.”

Sept. 24, 1991 — The selection committee releases the names of 10 players invited to form the 1992 Olympic men’s basketball team: Charles Barkley, Larry Bird, Ewing, Johnson, Malone, Chris Mullin, Scottie Pippen, David Robinson, John Stockton and, yes, Jordan. Jack McCloskey resigned from the selection committee over Thomas’ snub, calling the omission “ridiculous.” As for Jordan’s response? “If I had anything to do with the selection, I would’ve selected my mother and my sister. I didn’t have anything to do with it.” Riiiight.

March 18, 1992 — By now, Jordan is openly stating he wants to play. But not until the money ceases looking funny. Jordan’s camp was unhappy about marketing rights — in particular, the official Olympic T-shirt that bore semblances of all team members. He had no issue with USA Basketball, a nonprofit organization, making money. He did, however, have beef with the NBA making coin. It was a subtle but undeniable example of what The New York Times at the time called a “deteriorating relationship with the NBA over the issue.” Jordan was adamant that money wasn’t the motivation for holding out. However, “This is a business,” he says. “This is what happens when you let professional players in.”

March 20, 1992 — Turns out that headache lasts only 48 hours. Jordan’s agent, David Falk, confirms that a compromise will be reached, and Jordan will be in Barcelona, Spain, that summer. USA Basketball had secured the face it so desperately coveted. Without Jordan, Team USA likely still wins gold. But it begs the question, is the NBA the global international force it is now if Jordan stayed stateside in the summer of 1992?

What if Shaquille O’Neal had been chosen over Christian Laettner as the Dream Team’s college player?

Love him or hate him — and many did both — Laettner’s star power was undeniable heading into the Summer Games. His resume at Duke was drunk with achievement: back-to-back national championships in ’91 and ’92, a three-time All-American, Final Four MVP and National Player of the Year in ’92. Combine all that with one of the most iconic plays in college basketball history, and Laettner’s stock was sky-high. Surrounded by elite talent that trumped his, it’s beyond understandable why he barely got much tick in the ’92 Games. That said, if you ever want to win a bar bet, ask who averaged the fewest points on the Dream Team. Chances are most will say Laettner (4.8), who went on to have a solid NBA career, averaging 12.8 points and 6.7 rebounds over 13 seasons. The correct answer, though, is Stockton (2.8), as the future Hall of Famer missed the first four games with a broken leg.

“I’m working on him,” Magic Johnson said. “I even told him I’d give him a million dollars if he’d do it.”

But let’s keep it a buck. This is Shaq we’re talking about. In 1992, the feeling was post-up centers would have difficulties in the trapezoid-shaped lane of the international game. Hindsight is 20/20, but it’s violent to envision what a 20-year-old O’Neal would have done to the likes of Angola or Germany. Seriously, picture this: Johnson leading the break, with Jordan and Pippen on the wings and a young, nimble 20-year-old O’Neal as the trailer:

It’s fun to imagine young O’Neal running fast breaks in Barcelona, because we already know how destructively poetic young O’Neal was running fast breaks in Orlando with Penny Hardaway. O’Neal would later receive his own gold medal at the ’96 Olympics in Atlanta, but the four-time NBA champion didn’t like his ’92 omission. “I was pissed off. I was jealous,” O’Neal said in 2012. “But then I had to come to the realization that I was a more explosive, more powerful player. Laettner was a little bit more fundamentally sound than I was.”

What if Dominique Wilkins never ruptured his Achilles?

The Original ATLien was one of the more entertaining and beloved players in the ’80s and into the ’90s. His 47 points in Game 7 in Boston Garden vs. Larry Bird and the Celtics in 1988 remains one of the all-time great playoff performances (despite being in a loss). He won two dunk contests, in 1985 and 1990. Even Jordan admits Wilkins was robbed in 1988 when he lost in Chicago. “I probably would’ve given it to [Dominique],” Jordan said years later. “But being that it was on my turf, it wasn’t meant to be.”

Wilkins is also one of five non-centers in NBA history to average at least 26 points for a decade — the other four being Jerry West, Jordan, Allen Iverson and LeBron James. In layman’s terms, Wilkins was that deal. The issue with Wilkins’ legacy, however, is what plagues Chris Paul today — his teams never advanced past the second round. But by the start of 1992, there seemed to be momentum building for Wilkins to become the 11th professional player to be added to the Dream Team. Unfortunately, Wilkins ruptured his Achilles tendon against the Philadelphia 76ers in January 1992, ending his season and whatever shot he had at making the Olympic squad. At the time of his injury, he was putting up 28.1 points per night.

How the story played out: Portland’s Clyde Drexler was announced as the final NBA player to make the squad in May 1992. Wilkins eventually played on the second iteration of the Dream Team two years later, a dominant squad in its own right. But we’re all left to wonder how differently Wilkins’ Hall of Fame career might have been remembered. What an acrobatic light show the fast break of Johnson, Jordan and “The Human Highlight Reel” would’ve produced in Barcelona! It’s the second time we missed out on a Magic and Dominique tag team — the Los Angeles Lakers had the chance to select Wilkins No. 1 overall in the 1982 draft, opting instead for James Worthy (a selection that worked out extremely well for the Lakers in the ’80s).

What if Magic Johnson had been unable to play?

For context, only 263 days had passed between Johnson’s announcement that he had HIV (Nov. 7, 1991) and Team USA’s first Olympic game (July 26, 1992). In the immediate aftermath of his announcement, America began to emotionally distance itself from Johnson. Advertisers and marketing agencies ceased using him in their campaigns. How sick was he? Would he wither away in front of our eyes? And should he even be allowed to play basketball? The debate became one of the most polarizing of its day.

“If Magic Johnson is prohibited from participating in the Olympics,” a New York Times response to the editor ran in February 1992, “then the accepted risk factor for all sports should be re-evaluated.”

“Americans have always regarded our Olympic athletes as role models for our boys and girls, which Magic is not,” another stated. “Let him use his energies and money setting up a trust fund of a few million dollars to pay the medical bills of the women he may have infected.”

On Feb. 3, 1992, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) ruled that athletes with HIV were eligible to participate. Later that same week, Johnson not only participated in the NBA All-Star Game in Orlando, Florida, but he also took home MVP honors with 25 points, nine assists and a spine-tingling 3-pointer that has since transcended sports. Johnson, of course, went on to become one of the faces of The Dream Team and a beloved executive, broadcaster and ambassador of the league.

But what if history were different, and the IOC had ruled differently? Not only would that have been tragically inhumane, but athletes with HIV being ruled ineligible means no Magic Johnson. No Magic Johnson means no Larry Bird and no Michael Jordan. No Magic Johnson, Larry Bird and Michael Jordan means no Dream Team. One decision quite literally changed the world.

Who should replace Jerry West on a new NBA logo? The choice is yours