Column: Racial stereotypes diminish Renfrow-Fitzpatrick duel
NEW ORLEANS (AP) Sure, Hunter Renfrow is smart and hard-working.
He’s also an amazing athlete.
Without a doubt, Minkah Fitzpatrick has some enormous physical skills.
He’s also a thoughtful student of the game.
The key Sugar Bowl matchup – Clemson’s big-play receiver vs. Alabama’s do-everything defensive back – is also an apt reminder of how racially tinged stereotypes diminish players of all shapes, sizes and colors.
Renfrow is white.
Fitzpatrick is black.
More than a few times in the days leading up to the College Football Playoff semifinal, Renfrow’s strengths were summed up by such intangibles as ”brilliant” and ”gritty” and ”humble.”
By contrast, the assessments of Fitzpatrick often centered on his speed, explosiveness and other physical attributes that could be perceived more a matter of good genes than spending a lot of extra time in the film room.
Those sort of lazy generalizations do a disservice to both players.
”Athletes know athletes, regardless of what your color is or what your background is,” Alabama linebacker Rashaan Evans said. ”You know what an athlete is. I’ve played against many great athletes. Black, white, green, yellow, blue. It doesn’t matter.”
Everyone is guilty of it.
Fans, for sure. The media, especially. Even some coaches and players.
Without a doubt, it’s the sort of thinly veiled racism that permeates all parts of our society. In the long run, it could have a more divisive and harmful affect than marching in the streets with Tiki torches.
”I know exactly what you mean,” said Evans, who is African-American. ”Any athlete that’s played the game of football, you know an athlete when you see them. It’s that aura, the way they walk, just something about `em. Hunter Renfrow has consistently produced in each and every game, even in the big games.”
Obviously, physical differences are worth mentioning.
Renfrow is only 5-foot-10 and generously listed at 180 pounds. His is an admittedly inspiring story, the lifelong Clemson fan who walked on for a chance to play and caught the winning touchdown pass against Alabama with one second remaining in last year’s national championship game.
But obviously, he arrived on campus with something more than a burning desire to succeed.
”He’s accentuated his strengths,” coach Dabo Swinney said Saturday. ”He was always quick, always fast. He’s got the fastest shuttle” – a drill that measures agility – ”on the team. His explosiveness is what makes him special.”
Fitzpatrick is a key member of Alabama’s stellar defense, a versatile player who can line up just about anywhere in the secondary.
Cornerback. Safety. Nickel back. Dime back.
He’s fast enough to keep up with all those speedy receivers, and big enough (6-1, 202 pounds) to drop down closer to the line of scrimmage to defend the run.
Dig a little deeper, and you’ll find an introspective 21-year-old who reminds teammates of coach Nick Saban.
”He’s very analytical,” Evans said. ”He’s the type of guy who can look at things, break it down first, and kind of observe what it is for what it is. Coach Saban is the same way. You’ve got some guys who kind of speak first and then think about what it is.”
Fitzpatrick spends countless hours watching film, searching out any little tendency or wrinkle that might give him an advantage on game day.
”He’s a very mature guy for his age,” Evans said. ”He kind of prepares like he’s already in the (NFL). I think that’s the most important thing about his attributes, the fact that he’s not one of those guys who’s all on social media, doing crazy things like that. He’s very mature about his work, his craft, and he takes it very seriously. ”
Then Evans drove the point home.
”It isn’t just athletics,” he said. ”Everybody looks at his talent. Anybody can have talent. But it’s the little things that really count. Those are the type of guys you’ll see in the Hall of Fame one day.”
Still, there’s a tendency – and it extends to all sports – to diminish the accomplishments of the black athlete by implying that they have some of innate physical advantage that can only be overcome by the superior intelligence and effort of the white athlete.
Tennis star Serena Williams, who is black, has long faced that sort of nasty typecasting, most notably in a book written by rival Maria Sharapova.
Not that it’s much of a rivalry, given that Williams has won 19 of their 21 meetings.
But Sharapova, in her laughably titled tome ”Unstoppable: My Life So Far,” perpetuates the racial rubbish that Williams is simply too strong and powerful – wink, wink- for her opponents.
”First of all her physical presence is much stronger and bigger than you realize watching TV,” Sharapova wrote. ”She has thick arms and thick legs and is so intimidating and strong.”
Put those kinds of thoughts aside when Renfrow and Fitzpatrick are going at it Monday night.
Savor the matchup for what it really is.
Two guys who never scrimp on effort.
Two players as bright as anyone on the field.
Two stellar athletes.
There’s no need for stereotypes.
Paul Newberry is a sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at pnewberry(at)ap.org or at www.twitter.com/pnewberry1963 . His work can be found at https://apnews.com/search/paul%20newberry
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