A Dumb FiveThirtyEight Article Underscores How Stereotypes Survive in Sports

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Pop culture has long relied on stereotyping to set up cheap jokes, or to establish an easily understood storytelling narrative. Although some reputable media has transitioned away from the more aggressive characterizations like Long Duk Dong, other stereotyping tropes are not quite as obviously harmful: consider The Nerd vs. The Jock.

Nerds vs. Jocks had its heyday in the 1980s with popular comedies like Weird ScienceBack to School, and Revenge of the Nerds. The ridiculousness of these films premises provides fodder for jokes when viewed through a modern lens: To wit, The Open Man Patreon includes a faux deep-dive into the institutional problems evident in the Adams College Atoms football program from Revenge of the Nerds, and last year I posited Back to School protagonist Thornton Melon was actually a mega-heel reflective of the worst excesses in Reagan’s America.

Of course, I could never hope to match the incisive wit of The Simpsons during its peak, which cleverly lampooned Nerds vs. Jocks in 22 tidy seconds.

The above clip aired 27 years ago. Twenty-seven! And yet somehow, in 2020, we still have major platforms perpetuating the tired Nerd-Jock dynamic. Behold, the snippet a social media edit deemed the best hook from a FiveThirtyEight roundtable on reopening college sports amid the COVID-19 pandemic:

Now, the idea behind the written roundtable is archaic in the age of the podcast. Intent and tone are much easier to convey through an audio conversation than via transcript — plus, something about roundtables tends to provoke people who aren’t inherently funny to try showing how funny they are. The result are jokes like the above going over as well as a fart in a crowded elevator.

None of the preceding nor following is intended to cancel anyone, a concept used primarily to cravenly dismiss valid criticisms. What’s more, lord knows at times in my life, I relied on stereotypes for what I considered humor. I obsessed over South Park in my late teens and early 20s, something I’m not exactly proud of. It was only after I gained more exposure to other people’s experiences that I gained more mature perspectives and a better understanding of the negatives in perpetuating stereotypes.

Among the most impacting experiences came from reporting on college athletes.

In my years covering primarily college football and basketball, I have met some of the most motivated and intellectually curious young men one could hope to encounter. Just this week, the 2020 Lindy’s Sports College Football Preview hit newsstands. I had the privilege of writing a short feature on college football athletes who stepped up to help communities during COVID-19 shutdown, including Cal fullback Zach Angelillo.

I said to Angelillo in the course of our interview that in my own undergrad days, I could not have fathomed tackling societal issues with the fervor and intellect he has. Hell, I don’t come anywhere close to that now in my mid-30s. And he’s not an outlier.

A majority of athletes I’ve interviewed in the past 15 years have been intellectually curious and committed students in ways that match the best-of-the-best a university campus has to offer. I think of former Richmond defensive end Maurice Jackson, who last autumn spoke as excitedly about becoming a youth mentor as he did playing professional football. On the other side of the same defensive line, Kobie Turner produced tracks on an album in the offseason and is working toward two degrees — one in math, one in music — while earning All-Colonial recognition.

Richmond football was also home to another of my all-time favorite stories a decade earlier: National championship-winning wide receiver Kevin Grayson led campus-wide efforts for gay rights.

On the other side of the country at USC, former All-American and Thorpe Award winner Adoree’ Jackson detailed plans to use his education in planning and real estate to restore the infrastructure of his hometown, East St. Louis. Another former Trojan, Buck Allen, was asked about his NFL future outside the locker room at the 2014 Holiday Bowl. His answer had nothing to do with producing the most rushing yards of any USC running back since Reggie Bush, or his pro stock, but rather emphasized his primary goal: become the first person in his family to earn a college degree.

The negative Disinterested Jock stereotype typically applies to football players. Yet, so many I have encountered use the game as an outlet for personal betterment; that’s the real tragedy in a scandal like North Carolina’s, which is a far worse failure by the institution than turning a blind eye to a booster buying an athlete a pair of shoes.

Truly maximizing opportunities through academic reform doesn’t receive nearly enough conversation in the ongoing move to reshape college sports — nor will it, so long as we continue to perpetuate the dumb jock stereotype.