Stereotyping

Michael Wilbon and Tony Kornheiser like to shout at one another on ESPN’s “Pardon the Interruption.” At one point in a recent show, Wilbon paused and glared at the camera and said in short, clipped tones: This is not a story and news programs should not be talking about it — or words to that effect. He was talking about the fact that L.S.U. cornerback Mo Claiborne reportedly scored 4 on the Wonderlic test (when the average football player usually gets 20). The Wonderlic is an IQ test they give to prospective NFL players to see if they are smart enough to run into one another at high speeds (I would think a low score is preferable). There is considerable discussion about whether or not prospects knowing who was buried in Grant’s tomb or whether 6 or 16 is the larger number is relevant information for someone who plans to spend his life running into another man twice his size. Probably not. There is good evidence, in fact, that the test is totally irrelevant. Yet the NFL requires it.

In any event, Claiborne apparently did not score very high and Wilbon was outraged that this should be mentioned on sports programs (like his own, I presume). He called it “stereotyping,” and wanted it to stop immediately, if not sooner! But let’s consider this a moment. How is it stereotyping to report that an athlete scored low in a test that is of doubtful relevance? To  begin with, most of the stories I read were quite sympathetic about the young man’s low scores and made excuses for his “learning disability” that has been known for some time. But even if the stories weren’t sympathetic, how does reporting this man’s score constitute “stereotyping”?

It is generally known that football players at the Division I level have a very low graduation rate and tend to take what others refer to as “cake” courses with majors in such things as “General Education.” Some of these players are black, others are white. But Wilbon’s outrage seems based on his assumption that people are stereotyping the black athlete. If anything, they are stereotyping the football player. But I would argue that it isn’t stereotyping anyway: it’s simply a generalization that happens to be based on fairly sound evidence that football players, by and large, are not stellar scholars (to put it as kindly as possible). In fact, athletes in Division I programs generally are not stellar scholars — including those in other sports such as basketball and hockey.

Indeed, I have argued elsewhere that Division I sports is a sham and should be cleaned up by simply paying the athletes in “revenue” sports a living wage — as semi-professional athletes. The athletes should not be required to attend classes. If they want to get an education they can pay for it out of their earnings. This would have the added benefit of blackening some of the college budgets that are operating in the red these days. In any event, I dare say there will be rather few athletes who choose to go this route! Most will play in the hope that they get drafted into the big leagues.

The notion that the people involved in athletics at the highest levels in Division I are student/athletes is at best dishonest and at worst a bald-faced lie — for the most part. Clearly there are exceptions. There is the occasional Rhodes Scholar or pre-med student. But these are the exceptions and they usually draw a great deal of attention precisely because they are so rare. The evidence is compelling that a great many of these athletes fail to make the pros and fall by the wayside during their four years (one year for many basketball players). Very few graduate with high academic honors.

In any event, those who point out that Mo Claiborne got low scores on a silly test are not stereotyping. They are generalizing, which is not the same. A generalization is based on factual evidence, whereas a stereotype is a manufactured image involving exaggeration, even caricature, of a type of person who is then singled out for ridicule — like the “typical” college student who spends all of his time partying or the penny-pinching Scotsman. Shylock is a stereotype, as are Ole and Lena. Such creatures may exist, but they are certainly not typical. Claiborne is not a stereotype. But he is a football player and as a rule football players (black and white) are not destined to score high on written tests that probe their general knowledge (20 is a low average when compared with other professionals who take the same test). But it matters not as the man will almost certainly be a high draft pick — even with a low Wonderlic score.