The New York Giants secured their spot in Super Bowl XLVI by defeating the San Francisco 49ers in an overtime thriller.  Unfortunately, the game is not being remembered for its amazing defense, offensive struggles, and punting genius, but for the miscues of Kyle Williams, the 49ers 2nd year wide receiver.  In two separate occasions, Williams was unable to secure the ball while receiving a punt, resulting in two Giant scores, the last one ending the game. In describing the reaction to Williams, Sean Jensen notes how he is “a goat, not a hero. And he’s vilified, not celebrated.”   Football fans took to social media sites like Twitter to blame, vilify, demonize, and call for violence against Williams and his family: “@KyleWilliams_10. I hope you, youre wife, kids and family die, you deserve it” “Jim Harbaugh, please give @KyleWilliams_10 the game ball. And make sure it explodes when he gets in his car” (see here for more examples)

While Kyle Williams is not the first player to receive ample criticism for an on-the-field mistake (although the criticism of Billy Cundiff has not taken a similar tone), the racial subtext, evident ion the language and the calls for violence, has been particularly disturbing.  The criticisms from many sports writers and fans alike have not simply been that he made a mistake or that he erred on the field, but rather that the game reflects his failures as a player and a person

  • “This Bonehead was carrying the football like he just stole a loaf of bread from the corner store. The Bonehead had no business being on the field in the first place.”

Evident in these comments and others is the ways that race infuses meaning into the discussion, whereupon the conversation goes from the play to his character, his intelligence, his personality, his demeanor, and his body.  While some have renounced the assaults on Williams, and sought to “blame” other circumstances for the loss, it is important to reflect on the hatred and violence directed at the wide receiver.

The efforts to explain use racialized language, to play on stereotypes, and otherwise demonize Williams has a larger context that reflects the varied ways that the sports world, from commentators to fans, talk about athletes through racially distinct language.  Citing a 1996 study that “examined NFL telecasts,” Andrew Billings notes that, “sportscasters had entirely different focal points for commentary about athletes of different ethnicities.” He further argues “If the player was White, sportscasters placed an increased focus on the cerebral aspects of the player (e.g., cognitive qualities) but, if the player was Black, sportscasters placed their focus on describing the body size, type, and strength of the athletes (e.g., physical qualities).” With Williams, we see similarities, with emphasis on his “intelligence,” “decision-making” and “understanding of the game.”

The vitriolic response following this playoff game is yet another reminder of the contradictory place that Black athletes sits in contemporary America.  Had Williams run either punt back, he would have lauded as a hero, celebrated for his “athleticism” (and likely not for his intelligence and decision-making).  He would have been “the man”, an emerging superstar who vaulted the 49ers back into the Super Bowl.  “America loves their Black entertainers when they behave properly and stay in their place,” writes Todd Boyd.  “When the players realize their value, their significance to the game, and try to capitalize on this, they are held in the highest contempt”.  America also loves it when Black athletes deliver on the field, serving their purpose as athletic commodities.

The demonization directed at Williams reflects the contradictory place of Black athletes within the United States: as desired commodities and social pariahs, as heroes and unwanted villains. Poet Essex Hemphill illustrates the racial paradox that defines American sports culture in his poem “American Hero”: “I scored thirty-two points this game / and they love me for it / Everyone hollering / Is a friend tonight / But there are towns / Certain neighborhoods/ Where I’d be hard pressed / To hear them cheer / If I move on the block” The cheering has historically stopped when Black athletes moved into White neighborhood or challenged the politics of the day; yet evidence by the response to Kyle Williams, the cheering has stopped when he no longer filled his role on the field.  The level of violence, and the anger should give us all pause in terms of our discourse and investment in sports, yet at the same time it should force us to look at the ways in which race continues to shape our sport culture.

David J. Leonard is Associate Professor in the Department of Critical Culture, Gender and Race Studies at Washington State University, Pullman. He is author of After Artest: Race and the War on Hoop (SUNY Press, spring 2012).