John Smallwood: Athletes' actions color people's perceptions of them

Posted: December 14, 2011

FORM AN IMAGE in your mind as you read this.

It was a vicious college basketball brawl.

It probably wasn't unexpected, considering the two schools are within a few miles of each other.

The games between local rivals split the community down cheering lines.

The officials should have seen this coming, as the game was heated from the beginning and featured tons of trash talking.

Tensions were high when the guard who honed his skills and attitude playing on tough inner-city playgrounds took a pass and headed toward the basket. He was grabbed by the shoulder as he went up for a shot.

That type of hard foul, that type of disrespect, could not be tolerated. The guard threw the ball at the offender and followed with a punch.

The rival player responded in kind, and all hell broke loose.

Benches cleared, players began brawling and fans rushed out of the stands to join in.

Eventually, the police stepped in and restored order.

What did you see? Did you imagine a group of hip-hop thugs going at it again?

Did you wonder why can't they keep that ghetto street stuff in the ghetto instead of bringing it with them to colleges that many of them couldn't get into if they didn't play basketball?

What's that?

What do you mean, you weren't envisioning the throw-down at the end of Saturday's "Crosstown Shootout" between the Cincinnati and Xavier?

You mean you aren't talking about wannabe gangstas Yancy Gates, Cheikh Mbodj, Octavius Ellis and Ge'Lawn Guyn, of Cincinnati, or Tu Holloway, Dez Wells, Landen Amos and Mark Lyons, of Xavier?

Larry Brown and Art Heyman?

North Carolina and Duke? Tobacco Road?

Yes, in 1961, UNC's Brown, a talented Jewish guard from Long Island and Duke's Heyman, an equally talented Jewish forward from Long Island, started a vicious brawl that many credit with elevating North Carolina-Duke basketball games from a neighborhood matchup into the greatest rivalry in college basketball.

Look it up. Links are easy to find at both tarheelblue.com and GoDuke.com - both official athletic websites. You can find video of the Brown-Heyman on YouTube.

These days, it is colorful folklore, a celebrated part of the history of the rivalry, but a half-century ago, it was just as nasty as what happened on Saturday.

I don't bring up a 50-year-old brawl to diminish what happened between Cincinnati and Xavier.

There is no excuse for what happened, not the fight and more important, not the street-life explanations too many of these players invoked after the game.

"We got disrespected a little bit before the game, guys calling us out," Holloway reasoned. "We're a tougher team. We're grown men over here. We've got a whole bunch of gangsters in the locker room, not thugs, but tough guys on the court. We went out there and zipped them up at the end of the game. That's our motto: Zip 'em up."

I instantly cringed when I heard those words come out of Holloway's mouth.

I could only imagine the numerous negative stereotypes of young African-American men that his actions and lame words reinforced.

When will these kids learn? When will they understand a large segment in our society revels when they do things considered outside the norm of civilized social behavior?

The rules are different for us.

Unlike the fight between Brown and Heyman, this brawl will not be spun into a tall tale.

Prosecutors in Hamilton County, Ohio, are talking about possibly filing criminal charges.

For a fight during a basketball game? Really.

Fights during sporting events are not unprecedented.

But if the brawl involves black athletes, it automatically jumps up the scale of social outrage.

Nobody ever calls white hockey players "thugs" or "gangstas" or "animals" when they engage in their nightly fights as bloodthirsty - mostly white - fans cheer them on.

Imagine the outrage if fighting in the NBA were considered a "part of the game."

It's easy for me to see how a basketball fight started by two Jewish kids a half-century ago has basically the same dynamics as one started Saturday by two black kids.

I know it does not present any larger social comment. But it's also easy to see how certain people with their own agendas will use it that way. They'll use what happened between Cincinnati and Xavier as something to perpetuate stereotypes they want to believe.

"It's been a hard couple days dealing with it," Gates said in a tearful apology on Monday. "But those were my actions, and I have to deal with what's going on now.

"A lot of people have been calling me a thug and a gangster. My parents didn't raise me like that."

Those are the rules of the game, son. Your mistakes will be magnified because of your skin color.

Some people are looking for reasons to reinforce stereotypes. They revel when we give them to them.


Send email to smallwj@phillynews.com.

For recent columns, go to www.philly.com/Smallwood.

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