The NFL, like the NBA, is overwhelmingly black, while the fan base is predominantly white.
The NFL, like the NBA, is overwhelmingly black, while the fan base is predominantly white Reuters

While watching an NBA game at a watering hole in Manhattan the a few weeks ago, a middle-aged white male patron took exception to a missed dunk by one of the black players in the game.

The man in the bar (who did not appear to be inebriated) shouted: “F_ckin’ n__ger!”

As there were no black people in the vicinity, his racialist outburst did not elicit any comments whatsoever (just another dissatisfied sports fan in the chaotic maelstrom that is New York City).

Moreover, the man who spewed the epithet was clearly a passionate basketball fan. Just by hearing his running commentary during the rest of the game, it was apparent he knew a lot about hoops and loved it dearly.

I wondered, though, how can this man hate black people, when most of the players in the NBA that he loves so much are themselves black?

This incident epitomizes one of the most bizarre and perplexing scenarios of modern American sports -- a predominantly white fan base cheering games that are largely dominated by blacks.

I have known many white sports fans that love and admire black athletes like Michael Jordan, Willie Mays, and Lawrence Taylor, etc. – while simultaneously holding very prejudiced views against “ordinary” black people.

It’s a conflict they don’t even seem to notice, much less brood over.

Of course, this phenomenon is not limited to athletes, but to other forms of entertainment as well.

In Spike Lee’s early film, “Do The Right Thing,” this subject was briefly explored during a confrontation between the black pizza delivery man, Mookie, and his racialist Italian-American employer, Pino.

Mookie pointed out that Pino's favorites celebrities were basketball player Magic Johnson, movie star Eddie Murphy and musician Prince – in stark contrast to Pino’s overt hostility to the African-Americans he encountered on a daily basis.

In defense of himself, Pino replied (and I am paraphrasing here): “Magic, Eddie and Prince.. are not n__gers. They’re not black… they’re more than black… It’s different.”

Quite a meaningless explanation.

Similarly, in an episode of the classic sitcom “All in the Family,” the bigoted working-class white Queens resident Archie Bunker is speaking to his hippie son-in-law, Mike Stivic, about the entertainer Sammy Davis Jr. whom they are excited to meet.

Archie makes a clear distinction between Davis and his black neighbors, the Jeffersons -- suggesting that Davis’ wealth and enormous celebrity make him “better” than ordinary black people, and thus, ”worthy” of Archie’s admiration and respect.

I think that Archie’s strange and conflicted view remains fairly strong among many white American even today, although it may not be expressed as explicitly.

According to reports, while blacks account for only 13 percent of the U.S. population, they represent about 76 percent of the players in the NBA, and 66 percent of the NFL.

Major League Baseball in an exception -- according to data, only about 8.5 percent of players in the league are African-Americans, although another 27 percent are Latinos -- many of whom could also be considered black (Ice hockey, of course, remains overwhelmingly white, and since I am not too familiar with the sport, I will have to exclude it.)

Sports has always attracted the most disadvantaged segments of society, since they had few other options to succeed. In the early 20th century, a great many boxers were Italian and Jewish – it wasn’t really until the 1950s that black prizefighters started to dominate the sport.

Given baseball’s restriction on black players prior to 1947, many ballplayers still came from poor and/or immigrant backgrounds.

Now, blacks and Hispanics represent the lion’s share of NFL, NBA and MLB rosters – but the ticket-buyers and TV audience remain mostly white.

I recall attending a baseball game at Fenway Park in Boston the late 1980s. One of the people I was with remarked: “There’s more black people playing this game than watching it here.” Scanning across the field, I determined he was right.

Sports remains a passion for the majority of Americans, especially young men. While racism and prejudice has definitely decreased over the past 40 years or so, it has not been eliminated. There remain pockets of deep hostility towards blacks and other minorities, even in “diverse” and “cosmopolitan” New York City.

Indeed, this Sunday’s Super Bowl game pitting the New York Giants against the New England Patriots will attract millions of rabid fans across the country to their TV sets, making it the biggest event of the year.

However, if you check the rosters of each club, you will find very few white faces (except, of course, the high-profile starting quarterbacks Eli Manning and Tom Brady and a handful of others).

Naturally, it is understandable that fans will identify more with a star athlete who is from the same ethnic group or race as themselves. This is why Joe DiMaggio remains such an icon for Italian-Americans -- when he came up with the Yankees in 1936, Italians still faced great prejudice from the wider society. DiMaggio became a symbol of success, class and dignity to millions of his fellow paesan (as well as many others).

Similarly, Jews celebrated the home run slugger Hank Greenberg in the 1930s and 1940s.

And, of course, blacks across the land swooned over heavyweight boxing champ Joe Louis in the 1930s and baseball star Jackie Robinson in the 1940s and 1950s.

In recent years, basketball center Yao Ming and baseball speedster Ichiro Suzuki gave Asian-Americans a brand new type of hero and role model.

As for 2012, I still see signs that white fans will embrace a white star more than a black player – but if there are no white players good enough to cheer for, they will (almost by default) cheer on the blacks who happen to play for their favorite team. But there is definitely something missing from this relationship between white fan and black athlete.

Indeed, I have heard many white fans complain that there are “too many” minorities playing the sports that they love watching. Even while they celebrate the accomplishments of Ryan Howard, Ray Lewis and Kevin Durant, etc., I get the feeling that if these players were white they would be even more beloved by the white fan base.

This applies to black fans as well --- I have similarly heard some African-American sports fans lament that some black athletes are underrated while some white players are excessively lauded by local (white) fans and media. Perhaps there is no better example of this “reverse” phenomenon than Larry Bird, who played for the Boston Celtics.

Bird, a big, dumb, goofy-looking white redneck from nowhere Indiana came into the NBA and dominated a sport that was increasingly occupied by blacks. Bird couldn’t run, he couldn’t jump, and he looked awkward and unsightly – but he turned out to be one of the greatest players the league has ever seen.

Consequently, Bird was vilified by many black fans and even some black players in the NBA like Isaiah Thomas -- and concurrently championed by millions of white fans around the country. If Bird were black, would he have been so embraced by Boston’s white fan base? Perhaps you should ask Bill Russell for his thoughts on the subject.