Grey Matters: What Determines Unsportsmanlike Conduct? Actions or Race?

screen-shot-2016-10-15-at-5-46-21-pmThree months ago, Philip and Brooke moved with their ten-year old son, Andre, from their predominantly black neighborhood on the south side of Atlanta to a white suburb on the north side. Andre just started at his new school and is playing on a local football team. Although fictional, this story is inspired by true events based on a recent conversation I had with a friend.

Philip and Brooke jumped up and down on the sidelines, cheering along with the other parents as Andre ran the football about thirty yards for a touchdown. When he got to the end zone, Andre handed the football to the back judge and did the “dab,” throwing one arm out to the side and up slightly while looking like he was sneezing into the elbow of his other arm. Some parents chuckled and pointed, “He’s doing the dab dance!” His teammates cheered and gathered around him.

The coach for the other team ran over to the referee, and Brooke could hear him screaming about “unsportsmanlike conduct.”

Philip was shouting, “That’s my boy!” and high-fiving the other fathers until Brooke touched his arm. They’re been married twelve years and had dated since they met in college, and he knew her well enough. That simple gesture of her grabbing his elbow meant something was wrong.

“I had told him not to do that,” Brooke said.

“What? Score so many touchdowns? I would say he should give the other team a break, but they’re not even bothering to run after him anymore.”

“The dab. It’s too ethnic.” Brooke looked around in the stands. She and Philip were the only African Americans in the group, and she saw the way that one or two of the other parents were looking at them.

“It’s just celebrating a touchdown. What’s the big deal?”

Brooke pointed to the other team’s coach. Even though all the players were lining up for the extra point play, the guy wouldn’t let up with the referee. “Can’t you hear him? He’s yelling unsportsmanlike conduct.”

“He’s just upset because his team is losing so bad.”

“Didn’t you talk to Andre? I thought we agreed that he needed to be tone things down a bit. We’re not on the southside anymore.”

Philip took a deep breath and knew that Brooke would want him to talk to André when they got home, but Philip was proud of his son. And didn’t think that the dance was anything other than celebratory. Besides, sports are a mental game, and if you can get in the other team’s head, it can give you a competitive advantage.

On the ride home, André was beaming. Philip wouldn’t stop talking about what a great job André had done. André had scored three touchdowns, and even though he wasn’t the fastest player, he had a sixth sense about where to run with the ball. “So you want to go to Chili’s for dinner?” Philip asked André. “Shrimp fajitas?”

Philip noticed that Brooke cut him a glare that was sharp enough to cut glass.

“I’ve got dinner in the Crockpot already,” she said. “I made beef stew.”

Philip glanced in the rear view mirror and could see André expression fall at the thought of eating Brooke’s cooking versus going out for fajitas.

“Chili’s! Chili’s!” André started chanting from the back seat.

“I guess we have our decision,” Brooke said, and turned and looked out the passenger window.

Philip knew that he’d pay later, but he wanted to do something special for André before Brooke had a chance to lay into André about the dab.  Philip didn’t like Brooke’s lecture about how André needed to act differently now that they’d moved to a white neighborhood. Sometimes her talk made him wonder why they’d even bothered.

COMMENTARY:  This issue of Grey Matters looks at the issue of the standards by which we judge behaviors. Doing the dab or another celebratory move after scoring a touchdown or point has become a contentious issue in sports, with some coaches criticizing players for “unsportsmanlike” conduct. But Brooke is right in that the application of what constitutes “unsportsmanlike” conduct depends not as much on the dance but on who’s dancing.

Let’s take an example from last year’s NFL season: I grew up in South Carolina so the Carolina Panthers are the pro football team I support. Last year, I watched them go 15-1 in the regular season and win the NFC championship before losing in the Super Bowl. Their success was due in large part to their stellar quarterback, Cam Newton. Although Cam didn’t originate dabbin’ (and its origin is highly debated with a dozen Atlanta rappers claiming credit for it), he was the first football player to do the dance. On November 15, 2015, he did a short dance to celebrate a touchdown against the Tennessee Titans. That same day, from the sidelines, the BACKUP quarterback for the Arizona Cardinals, Drew Stanton, did a “dorky” (as described by CBS Sports) sideline dance after one of his teammates scored the winning touchdown in their game against the Seattle Seahawks.

Stanton is white. Newton is black. And the reaction to their two celebratory dances could not have been more black and white. Stanton’s 10-second dance was called a “celebration of joy” and was mentioned as “the best moment of Sunday football.”  Newton’s 7-second dance was called a “violation of a code of ethics”, and the Charlotte Observer actually received letters to the editor from concerned parents about the vulgarity of the dance and sparked a debate about sportsmanlike conduct. You can watch videos of Stanton’s dance here. Cam’s post touchdown celebration can be viewed here (:10-:17 second mark).

So as we turn to look at André and the dilemma faced by black parents living in a white Atlanta suburb, we see that Brooke does have a point. There’s definitely a double standard, and the question is what should Brooke and Philip do about it.

Maybe it’s because I’m an attorney, and I’m used to spelling things out in contracts, but I think the more you can be specific about what’s allowed and what’s not allowed, the better. We need clear rules, consistently applied. Too much discretion leads to discrimination and allows a double standard. Maybe Philip can talk to the coach and have things made clear to all of the boys about what’s acceptable and what’s not. And why not allow celebrations that originated within the hip hop culture. The dab dance is about as sexual as a sneeze. And it’s something that can be easily learned and enjoyed by everyone. It’s not a taunt to the other team because it’s not directed at them. It’s a simple celebration that anyone can do that takes very little time. I did it a couple times to celebrate finishing this week’s Grey Matters, and it’s fun.

Discretion creates the opportunity for discriminatory treatment. We need clear standards of acceptable conduct, and these standards need to be developed considering different alternatives for expression with input from a diverse group. A black kid living in a white suburb is gonna experience enough discrimination in his lifetime. Sports should be the field where we can work to break down differences and come together as one. Then regardless of the score, we’ll all be winners.