Why you should care
Because game equals culture, amplified.
Splash. Did you see that? Not to worry, plenty more rafter-kissing raindrops from Steph Curry and Klay Thompson will soon be on their way. The Splash Brothers shoot from anywhere, launching long-distance threes that mesmerize the trailing gaze of fans until that pandemonium-inducing tickle of the net. When Game 2 of the NBA Finals tips off on Sunday, transformation — both offensive and physical — will be on display.
Basketball is diversifying, and the light-skinned Black athlete is leading the charge.
Since the early to mid-20th century, when men like Jack Johnson and Jackie Robinson busted down doors for their peers, most Black athletes have looked, more or less, like them — medium to dark-skinned, like the majority of African-Americans in those times. The light-skinned Black athlete has always been viewed as an anomaly, often deemed more similar to the “other” by both their Black and Caucasian counterparts. O.J. Simpson and Muhammad Ali are notable exceptions, but the majority of Black pro athletes have not looked like Curry.
Steph [Curry] is light-skinned, so they want to make him out to be soft.
Draymond Green, forward, Golden State Warriors
However, this century, driven partly by an increase of interracial children in America, a significant influx of light-skinned Black athletes has occurred in sports’ senior circuits. Take the Golden State Warriors. In 2002, two of the team’s 13 Black players were what is conventionally considered light-skinned. This season, the team has 14 Black players, six of whom are light-skinned. That 27 percent increase is a notable amplification of the 14 percent increase in interracial marriages that, according to a recent Pew Research Center report, has taken place since 1967, when it became legal for Americans to marry someone of a different race.
As esteemed sports sociologist Harry Edwards tells OZY via email, the increase in light-skinned Black athletes in the NBA fits into a larger conversation about American society. The analysis of race in sports is simply a measuring stick. “When we look at sport,” Edwards writes, “we are to no insignificant degree witnessing the results and evolving fruition of our most noble hopes, our most maleficent connivances and our least controllable happenstances and coincidences.”
Hall of Famer and NBA TV analyst Isiah Thomas agrees, although he notes that outsiders are much more interested in this discussion than the players themselves. “It’s not a topic in basketball circles,” Thomas says. “Sport is the place [where] we all come to experiment with this thing that we all strive for called ‘equality.’” Sport, he continues, “is about your skills and who’s the best person to get the job done.”
Though the rise of light-skinned athletes is most notable in basketball, players in the National Football League are thriving, too. Odell Beckham Jr., Russell Wilson, Dak Prescott and Colin Kaepernick have become four of the most prominent figures in football. Prescott, who led the Dallas Cowboys to a 13-3 record as a rookie quarterback last season, has been praised for his ability to relate to a diverse range of teammates.
Major League Baseball, in contrast, is struggling to rebuild a base of African-American players that, at its peak, in 1986, made up 19 percent of the league. Today, just shy of 8 percent of MLB is African-American, which is why — beginning in 2006, in Compton, California — the organization has opened a series of MLB Urban Youth Academy sites across the U.S. focused on providing a safe, affordable playing space with state-of-the-art training and facilities. Last year, the most African-American players since 1992 — 25 percent of the MLB draft — were chosen. As more Black prospects begin to break into the league, light-skinned stars like Aaron Judge, Giancarlo Stanton and Billy Hamilton — plus Klay Thompson’s brother Trayce — are becoming more common too.
Diversification within the ranks of Black athletes is also notable because it bumps up against a stigma associated with fairer-skinned players — that they are weaker than other Blacks. As ESPN’s Stephen A. Smith recently noted on First Take, some might be referred to as “redbones” or “not black enough” — a nod to the idea, dating back to slavery, that darker Black men and women have had to work harder to gain acceptance from white America.
Perhaps that’s why, in 2015, Kobe Bryant told his Lakers teammate Jordan Clarkson to “stop going to the hole like a light-skinned dude.” The sentiment that “light” equals “soft” is also why, in an April episode of his podcast Dray Day, Warriors forward Draymond Green said that some players around the league resent Curry. “I think most people looked at it like, ‘Ah, man, this was a — in quotes — ‘privileged kid growing up,’” Green said. “Like, ‘How did he become this?’ And, of course, Steph is light-skinned, so they want to make him out to be soft.”
That association is not unique to basketball. Chicago Bears cornerback Prince Amukamara notes that in NFL circles the only time he hears racial dissidence among African-Americans is in competitive banter — more as a point of pride than anything else. “It has nothing to do with on-field talent or toughness,” Amukamara says. “The joke is just that light-skinned guys are pretty boys. So, when Steph Curry started balling, it was like, ‘Oh, Steph’s putting light-skinned guys on the map.’”
Curry and Thompson primarily play finesse roles as outside shooters. Ample comparisons to the ball-handling greatness of Steve Nash and shooting prowess of Kyle Korver have been made. Sometimes, though, a more forceful reminder is necessary to prove that pigeonholing a man’s game — and self — via skin color is a thoughtless exercise. When Blake Griffin entered the NBA, the sheer force of his rim-rattling dunks was enough to prove that pigment is no signifier of badass game. The playing field, Thomas notes, “is the purest form of equality that you can find in America. So, you try to take that and move it to the masses.”
One Blake Griffin dunk at a time.