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Linguistic Anthropology: Examining Language-Based Racism in American Sports

Sports, and sports watching, are integral parts of American society and are deeply ingrained in American culture. Sports are important ways for people to bond and form strong communal connections with each other, regardless of background. Because of this, athletes are some of the highest-paid celebrities and are idolized by millions. However, sports can just as easily be used to divide as they can be to unite. Aside from harmless team rivalries, sports can often dredge up the most prejudiced parts of people’s minds. The idolatry of athletes often leads to materialization and commodification, with some people using racist beliefs to dehumanize athletes and treat them as products rather than people. As an industry with a high proportion of minorities, sports have suffered many incidents of blatantly racist language used against athletes. However, what is more important to examine are the ways that underlying biases and beliefs shape the language used by sports executives, commentators, and social media users alike. These instances of microaggressions, often stemming from internalized racism, are much harder to detect and thus, often more insidious. In this sense, language is used, both in person and on anonymous social media websites, to verbally belittle and directly attack black athletes, to deny instances of racism while simultaneously perpetuating racist beliefs through coded words and phrases, and to dehumanize black athletes through praise, characterizing them as more athletic while white people are depicted as more intelligent.

Overt Examples of Racism

San Jose Sharks player, Joel Ward
Image Source:
Jeanine Leech/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Before understanding the ways in which language is used to subtly demean and discriminate against individuals, it is crucial to understand how egregious examples of racism have permeated their way into sports. If people feel comfortable spouting outwardly racist language both in public and online, then it is no surprise that subtle and coded language is extremely common in sports talk. One way that racist language is used in sports is by the fans who both attend the events in person and who comment on them online. Sporting events, as well as social media, allow for a great deal of anonymity, which makes people less afraid of repercussions and more likely to voice their underlying racist beliefs. One example of social media being used to belittle an athlete happened on April 25th, 2012, when African-American Washington Capitals right wing Joel Ward scored an overtime goal to eliminate the Boston Bruins from the NHL playoffs. Immediately after this happened, thousands of Bruins fans began berating Ward on Twitter, spewing racial epithets at him simply because he had eliminated their team from the playoffs. The use of these racial slurs shows the the fans are unable to separate sports from race even though Ward’s race did not contribute to him scoring this goal. Instead of being genuinely frustrated that their team got eliminated, Bruins fans used racially-charged language to attack Ward directly, and thus revealed their underlying racial prejudices. Racist beliefs are often hidden from view, because people know the implications and consequences of making racist comments, like ostracization from society and public ridicule. However, with emotions running high, there is often less control over language, especially when people feel comfortable in their anonymity. These social media attacks are seen frequently when it comes to sports, as sports teams have a higher percentage of minority employees than other industries and are also on public display, which opens the door to an immense amount of criticism from genuine racists as well as people who just want to cause chaos online. One tactic that people use to stir up trouble is simply being bigoted in some way, as they find humor in offending others whether they genuinely have these racist beliefs or not. This was demonstrated a month ago when African-American New York Rangers prospect K’Andre Miller was harrassed with racial slurs in the chat of a Zoom call. Using discriminatory language, including the racial slurs used to berate Miller, is a frequent tenet of online ‘trolling’ culture, and some dismiss this as racist language being used to provoke a reaction rather than to promote genuine racist intentions. However, it is important to analyze if there is even a difference between using genuinely motivated racist language and using racist language for the sake of offending someone, as it remains true that even if the language is not used to perpetuate racist beliefs of the individuals, the language is used to promote and facilitate further racism.

Sports Racism in Relation to Society

Former Oklahoma City Thunder player Russell Westbrook
Image Source: June Frantz Hunt (AP Photo)

Many people desire sports to be a safe haven away from politics and race issues. However, race is an unignorable facet of society and the desire to sweep racist beliefs under the rug and keep sports free of politics is a mindset that perpetuates racism in and of itself. In Kenneth L. Shropshire’s In Black and White: Race and Sports in America, he shares a quote from black Atlanta Braves outfielder David Justice:

There are a lot of good guys on the team, but there are a few who I know use the ‘N’ word when I’m not around… How many white players do you see get abused in the paper? We see it happen all the time with black players. No matter what you do, you’re still a n*****. Baseball is just an extension of life (Shropshire 149).

Justice’s assertion of baseball being an extension of life directly refutes the notion that sports and race issues are completely separate. This assertion is reinforced even further with in-person racist incidents, as the anonymity of social media is lessened when one is in the same venue as the players. One incident of this is when Baltimore Orioles outfielder Adam Jones alleged that fans at Fenway Park called him racial slurs and pelted him with peanuts. Many other black baseball players shared similar experiences and showed support for Jones, and the Boston Red Sox banned the fans who were harassing Jones. However, the fact that a person felt comfortable at all using this racist language in such a public area speaks to how indoctrinated racism is in American culture, especially in a spectator sport. This does not even include the fact that many people, including former pitcher Curt Schilling, inherently doubted Jones’ claims, thus demonstrating their inherent belief that racism is not as big an issue as black people make it out to be and discounting Jones’ experience despite their limited perspectives on the issue. In fact, Schilling voiced his opinion using racially-charged language, saying “when people like him lie” (Tayler). The use of the words “people like him” are a form of out-group derogation, a way for Schilling not just to rationalize dismissing Jones’ claims but a way for him to overgeneralize African-Americans as liars. This mentality was shown again when Oklahoma City Thunder player Russell Westbrook threatened a fan during a game for supposedly saying that Westbrook should “get down on his knees like he is used to” (Woodyard). Westbrook took deep offense to this comment and lashed out at the fan. However, not only did the original fan feel comfortable speaking this way in a public setting, but many tweets in response to the reporting of the incident placed the blame solely on Westbrook for lashing out, including phrases like “no class”, “bad role model”, “no control”, and “anger issues”. These phrases have racist connotations to them, because calling someone classless or claiming an individual has anger issues is a way of delegitimizing concerns and trying to lessen the impact, just like Schilling did before. Kyle Korver, a white player on the Utah Jazz, the team at whose arena Westbrook was berated, came out with an article sharing his perspective on the incident. He says, “But in private? Well… they sort of wish that everyone would stop making everything ‘about race’ all the time. It’s the kind of racism that can seem almost invisible — which is one of the main reasons why it’s allowed to persist” (Korver). This demonstrates the pervasiveness of not just blatantly racist language in incidents but institutionalized and internalized racism, and helps demonstrate the importance of combatting it.

Subtle Examples of Racism

Baltimore Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson at the NFL Combine
Image Source: Brian Spurlock, USA Today Sports

The main issue with attacking and eliminating racist language, especially in regards to sports, is that much of the racist rhetoric shown by sports fans and media members is not outright, explicitly racist comments. Instead, a great deal of the rhetoric hinges on racially-based assumptions but avoids being framed as blatantly racist. In fact, some comments are framed as compliments but end up implying negative things about other members of a group. As H. Samy Alim discusses in his book Articulate While Black, the idea of black exceptionalism is the comparison of black individuals to an idealistic image of what white people want black people to act like. Alim writes about President Obama, “Because he’s not like ‘those other Blacks,’ he must be the exception to the rule that frames all Black people as lazy, dumb, and/or criminal” (Alim 33). In this sense, expectations, comparisons, and assumptions form the backbone of subtle racial microaggressions and casual bias in sports fanaticism. One incident of a comment with racist connotations or a possible racist interpretation that was not explicitly racist was when Fox News anchor Laura Ingraham told LeBron James to stop bringing up his political opinions and to “shut up and dribble”. This was immediately criticized as a coded comment with racist undertones and was taken to both delegitimize James’ comments as well as black athletes in general. African-Americans, especially athletes, are ignored in society as their opinions are assumed to be less valid and less intelligent. This assumption of a lack of intelligence was seen when African-American quarterback Lamar Jackson was set to be drafted into the NFL. Many sports media members suggested he become a running back: a position that is considered far more athletic but far less cerebral than quarterback. Despite not directly stating that Jackson should switch to running back because he is African-American, the implication was that the internalized beliefs of the media members led them to believe that Jackson was unintelligent because he was African-American and thus was not suitable to become a quarterback in the NFL. Ironically, Jackson decided to stay as a quarterback, was drafted, and won the 2019 NFL Most Valuable Player award. People’s tendency to ignore racism in society is a way of perpetuating racist beliefs. When black people bring up the issues they face in society, white people, who usually have a more limited perspective, will often attempt to discount the problems either out of a lack of desire to solve the problems or because of subconscious racist beliefs. As Jimmy Sanderson writes in his study on the language used to discuss racism in sports forums, “The presence of such commentary essentially silences dialogue and ultimately diverts attention away from current sports practices that reinforce such racial imbalances” (Sanderson 315). Not only do many forum users not acknowledge ways that incidents could be racist, but they often deem the person who made the claim racist themselves, implying that those who acknowledge instances of racism are simply searching for ways to be offended. This study shows the tendency that people have to pretend the issues of African-Americans do not exist, turn the accusations of racism back on the accusers, and perpetuate racist stereotypes. Lastly, the idea of black athletic superiority, while usually phrased in complimentary ways, is used to continue the myth of a general lack of black intelligence. In 1998, a commentator named Jimmy Snyder said, “the black is the better athlete and he practices to be the better athlete and he’s bred to be the better athlete because this goes all the way to the Civil War” (Shapiro). This statement, although in some ways praising the perseverance and abilities of black athletes, is also another version of black exceptionalism as well as an oversimplification of African-American athletes’ abilities as attributable simply to genetics. Snyder’s use of almost animalistic language by referencing breeding a way of dehumanizing black athletes. In doing this, Snyder is othering black athletes and separating them from himself in a racist and domineering way.

Cultural Significance in Anthropology

Racism is a prevailing problem in every industry and sports are no exception. With athletes on display and their every movement watched and scrutinized, it is no surprise that racism appears. However, with the uptick in the use of social media and the anonymity that inherently comes with it, the ability to share racist epithets online with essentially no consequences has never been easier. Bigoted and targeted language is used to harass, degrade, and dehumanize people in the limelight, especially African-American athletes. It is nigh impossible to totally eradicate all racist beliefs, especially in a profession where there is a great deal of diversity with millions of fans watching, but understanding privilege better, as well as one’s own place in society and how people interpret statements in different manners is crucial to eliminating much of the underground, subtle racism that seeps into online sports media discussions. In summary, the prevalence of racism in sports is seen through various ways, from egregiously and identifiably racist outbursts, to subtle racial microaggressions and coded language, to praise with dehumanizing qualities and colonialist overtones. Analyzing the language of these statements is important, especially with the burgeoning accessibility of anonymous social media, to both acknowledge these racist incidents and find ways to eliminate them.


@E_Woodyard (Eric Woodyard) et al. “Russell Westbrook says the fan and his wife told him to “to get down on your knees like you’re used to…Twitter, 12 Mar. 2019,

Alim, H. Samy, and Smitherman, Geneva. Articulate While Black: Barack Obama, Language, and Race in the U. S., Oxford University Press USA – OSO, 2012. ProQuest Ebook Central,

Korver, Kyle. “Privileged.” The Players’ Tribune, 9 Apr. 2019,

Sanderson, Jimmy. “Weighing in on the Coaching Decision: Discussing Sports and Race Online.” Journal of Language and Social Psychology, vol. 29, no. 3, Sept. 2010, pp. 301–320, doi:10.1177/0261927X10368834.

Shapiro, Leonard. “’JIMMY THE GREEK’ SAYS BLACKS ARE ‘BRED’ FOR SPORTS.” The Washington Post, WP Company, 16 Jan. 1988,

Shropshire, Kenneth L. In Black and White: Race and Sports in America. New York University Press, 1996,

Tayler, Jon. “Please Stop Asking Schilling for His Race Takes.” Sports Illustrated, 17 May 2017,

One thought on “Linguistic Anthropology: Examining Language-Based Racism in American Sports

  1. very enlightening article! I like how you included overt examples, then more subtle examples. It really puts into perspective how (unfortunately) racism is deeply rooted into sports, and how sometimes racism may be overlooked by those who are not enlightened with social issues and stereotypes.

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