Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Your eyes can deceive you. Don't trust them.

ESPN the Magazine has always been somewhat of a joke. The writing usually fails to match the quality of Sports Illustrated. Many features are lazily written and the prose is often too loose. I'm surprised a company can do so well, and produce such good content in other mediums — television and the Web — and fail to match that quality in its print edition.

I have noted that ESPN prides itself on something the competition does not offer. Nearly every issue, or every other issue, has a shirtless man. It doesn't appeal to me, but I imagine it entices a fair share of women to check out the magazine. Portrait shots. Competition shots. Workout shots. Grab a random issue of ESPN the Magazine and you'll likely find at least one muscular man without a shirt. The current issue might be the exception. It doesn't have a shirtless male in the entire issue, except for the hairy dude in the Stride ad. However, the previous issue does, with topless skateboarder Ryan Sheckler gracing the cover.

Still, I receive a subscription to the magazine as a perk of signing up for the Insider program. I tend to thumb through the magazine pretty quickly, and rarely read stories I wouldn't otherwise be interested in.

One story in the Aug. 11 issue caught my eye:

"¡Vivia Sanchez! - Mark Sanchez didn't know how important his roots were to Mexican-Americans - or himself - until he became USC's starting QB." by Senior Writer Jorge ArangurĂ© Jr.

I'm not a USC fan. I'm not even a college football fan. It shouldn't matter. You need to sometimes take a chance on an article. I'm pretty fascinated by the increasing diversity of sports. I figured the article might shine a light on one of the most watched Hispanics in any game, at any level.

Mark Sanchez is the starting quarterback for the Trojans. He was born in Long Beach, Calif. and raised in a white neighborhood in Orange County. The article is standard. Details about his family and upbringing are included. We learn about Sanchez's father's determination to push his kids, the recruitment process of the highly-touted player out of Mission Viejo High School and how Sanchez is embracing his heritage.

Heritage is important. Latino. Hispanic. Mexican. No matter the word, many professional athletes in football can not claim the background. This makes Sanchez special. Diversity, from people who merit competing, exemplifies fair access. The more colors in the rainbow, the more we know everyone had the opportunity.

The article mentions that NFL quarterbacks Jeff Garcia, J.P. Losman and Tony Romo have Mexican roots. Garcia's mother was of Irish decent and his father of Mexican descent. Losman's mom is Mexican and his father is Caucasian. Romo is a third generation Mexican through his father. His mother is of Polish-German decent.

Yet, according to the author, Mexican-Americans do not embrace these players with the same passion that they do Sanchez. In a sidebar titled "One up on the pros" and written by the author of the feature, we learn why Sanchez is "the most beloved passer among Mexican-Americans."
  • He loves LA
  • His name — and face — is familiar
  • He gets a ton of hype
  • He's embraced his heritage
I don't mind that Sanchez is from LA. I don't care that he gets a lot of hype as long as its deserved. I think it's great that Sanchez is growing into a role model. These three characteristics are fine.

The second bullet is what makes me mad — it's almost as if reading the three letter note crystallized the underlying theme of the article. Once again: "His name — and face — is familiar." Sanchez is a 6-foot-3-inches tall college junior at one of top universities. His brown skin shmmers and his long, curly black shines. On game day, he can be seen wearing a mouthpiece with the three colors of the Mexican flag. He is Mexican and looks the part. The sidebar reads: "The formerly red-haired Garcia is half-Irish. The name Losman doesn't exactly scream 'Hey, I'm Hispanic.' And Romo is a name that could easily be mistaken for Italian."

This is the portion of the six-page spread that most surprised me. I was mad. I was surprised that the magazine embraced racially prejudiced feelings. I struggled with these questions:
  • Do Mexicans feel that skin color is more important, even when compared to others with Latino roots? Is Sanchez more Mexican than Garcia, Romo and Losman? Should this matter? Even if the players are more successful, do they merit less love than the kid who looks like them — the Mexican fans?
  • Should ESPN question this prejudice?
I'm bothered by this because it tells me that Mexicans will put their strongest support behind someone who most looks like them. This tells me that skin color is most important. This isn't even comparing Apples to Oranges. It's comparing a Granny Smith to a Red Delicious. We're talking one apple with one color skin and one with lighter tone.

It got me thinking about how a minority may get behind a countryman:
  • What about socio-economic background? Did the player have the same struggles as the fans?
  • Does the person relish their heritage and embrace it? Is the player fluent in a tongue other than English?
  • Is the player a trailblazer? Is the player the first to be successful, like Tiger Woods in golf, Danica Patrick in racing or Yao Ming in basketball?
The sidebar kept staring me in the face. The graphic and text screamed: Garcia, Romo and Losman are too light-skinned. They look white. They are white. They're mostly white.

They're not Mexican enough.

What else am I think?

Sanchez, at least from what I learned reading the article, did not have to struggle like many other Hispanics do in this country. He grew up in a good neighborhood. He had a father who expected him to be successful. Spanish is not his first language. He has embraced his culture. He wears the Mexican flag mouthpiece, speaks to high school kids in Mexican East LA and seems to be a role model. His background, more or less, does not seem all that different than the three NFL players with whom he is compared.

There's something to be said and honored when a person is the trailblazer. Sanchez is not the first. There have been others. While Losman certainly hasn't turned out to be a player who matched expectations, Romo and Garcia went from undrafted players to a combined five Pro Bowls. They're hard-workers and winners. They're good role models whose names don't appear in police logs.

Maybe Romo isn't embraced because he's been linked to two beautiful, American blondes in Jessica Simpson and Carrie Underwood. Maybe Garcia isn't revered because of the rumors that he's gay. Maybe his half-Puerto Rican, half-Italian wife isn't Hispanic enough.

I'm bothered when a magazine tells me that one person is more something than another person when it comes to race. I'm surprised ESPN didn't take the time to say Barack Obama isn't black enough.

I'm white and I'm a fan of sports. It doesn't sway me negatively that professional sports has a minority majority. My favorite players aren't white. Tim Duncan. Tony Romo. Roberto Clemente. I revere these players for one reason or another, be it success, favorite team affiliation or work off the field. I used to compare my horrible streetball skills to Doug Christie — another biracial athlete.

Sure, I root for a white guy to succeed from time to time. But I don't do it maliciously. I don't holler for Mike Miller because he's from Nebraska and boo Jason Williams because he quote, unquote acts black.

When does support for a player based on ethnicity cross the line? When is that support offensive to other players who don't garner the same support?

Remember this: as long as you support a player more for his face than his success, you separate him from the rest. He becomes different and the people you would call racist are more likely to see him in this way.

Sanchez: the Mexican, not the football player.

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