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The Greek chorus, Jimmy the Greek got it wrong but so did his critics.

The Greek Chorus

Jimmy the Greek got it wrong but so did his critics

After Jimmy "The Greek" Snyder spoke his views on pro sports and race before a Washington, D.C. TV camera last January, Dave Anderson of The New York Times called Snyder "crude" and "dumb." Carl T. Rowan, writing in The Washington Post, compared him to Goebbels. A cartoon in The Boston Globe showed a hooded Klansman consoling Snyder with the words, "I certainly didn't find you offensive."

In all, more than 1,200 articles appeared around the country, according to WRC-TV in Washington, the station that interviewed Snyder. Jesse Jackson met with Snyder to receive a highly publicized confession of error. CBS Sports, where Snyder (his real name is Demetrius Synodinus) was pro football's bookie-in-residence, promptly handed him his walking papers.

It was almost an eerie replay of the episode last April when Al Campanis, then an executive with the Los Angeles Dodgers, asserted on "Nightline" that blacks don't have more jobs in management because they aren't qualified for them.

Except for one thing. My first inkling that there was something different about the Jimmy the Greek affair came the following evening when I was listening to a sports call-in show in Boston. The affair had dominated the talk shows that day, and despite Boston's checkered reputation on racial matters callers sided overwhelmingly with CBS. One station found that 80 percent of its listeners agreed that Snyder deserved to go.

Then a man called from Roxbury, the predominately black area that recently tried to secede from the white-controlled city. He called himself Ali and he said, "Jimmy the Greek said nothing but what was true."

"The guy asked him a question. He told the truth and they do not want to hear the truth."

The uproar, of course, began on Martin Luther King's birthday, when a reporter for WRC-TV caught Snyder at lunch in a Washington restaurant. The reporter asked him what he thought of the civil rights record of pro sports. In a rueful tone Snyder replied that whites were holding on to coaching jobs because, with blacks dominating the playing fields, management was the only role left for them. He added that young black athletes work harder than their white counterparts.

Finally--and this caused the most outcry--he said that black athletic prowess dates back to slavery. The slave owner, he said, would "breed his big black to his big black woman so that he would have a big black kid."

It was pretty bad. And Snyder made matters worse by talking about what he termed "the thigh situation," which he said helped to account for black success. With this, even while stating the opposite, Snyder managed to invoke the old racist canard that gifted black athletes don't have to work or think the way white athletes do.

Feeling edgy

Still I'll confess to feeling slightly sorry for this seventy-year-old man self-destructing before the television camera. There seemed to be a lack of malice, an innocence almost, in the way he bared the sentiments of the culture in which he had been raised. CBS, after all, had hired Snyder to play the questionable role of rogue ethnic bookie to begin with. (Brent Musberger always addressed him as "the Greek," or sometimes just "Greek.") So in a sense, they were getting what they bargained for.

Snyder was right, moreover, about the reason blacks aren't getting more jobs in coaching and management. Some commentators compared him to Campanis, but Campanis said that blacks weren't qualified for front office jobs. Snyder gave the real reason: whites want to keep those jobs for themselves. He said this in his typically inelegant fashion, but he was honest.

CBS had good reason to feel edgy about Snyder's comments on this score. The National Basketball Association may be three-quarters black, but the CBS broadcast team consists of Dick Stockton, Billy Cunningham, and Pat O'Brien, all of whom are white.

"If CBS is so concerned about the race problem," Ray Greene, football coach and athletic director of Alabama A&M, told the Associated Press, "why don't they hire more blacks in their upper echelon?" William Raspberry, the Post columnist, made this point as well in one of the more thoughtful of the Greek commentaries.

None of this makes Snyder's statements, taken together, defensible. Only that, perhaps, some measure of forgiveness was in order. But I was totally unprepared for the view expressed by Ali from Roxbury. And he wasn't alone.

Greene of Alabama A&M, for example, said that Snyder "was speaking the truth."

"You can't change history," Greene said. "He was accurate about the breeding process." I heard numerous other comments along this line. Like many whites, I had vaguely supposed the whole subject to be inherently racist. Yet here were blacks treating it as a simple matter of historical inquiry. Perhaps we are more ready to discuss such issues than we give ourselves credit for.

It's not a pleasant subject. In fact, it is one of the most shameful chapters of our national history. But there is just enough historical basis to the breeding notion to see how the street theories of a Jimmy the Greek get started. Frederick Douglass is one former slave who described these practices. In his autobiographical Narrative, Douglass describes a young landowner named Covey, just starting out in life, who could only afford one slave. So he bought a woman named Caroline, "a large able-bodied woman about twenty years old."

"Shocking as is the fact," Douglass wrote, "he bought her, as he said, for a breeder." Then Covey went out and rented a married male slave, "And him he used to fasten up with Caroline every night! The result was that at the end of the year, the miserable woman gave birth to twins." A similar account appears in a series of narratives assembled by Fisk University in Nashville. "They would buy a fine girl and a fine man and just put them together like cattle," one former slave recalled. "They would not stop to marry them. If she was a good breeder, they was proud of her. I was stout and they were saving me for a breeding woman, but by the time I was big enough I was free."

This slave recalled another man in Nashville who "had a regular farm of slaves--he'd just raise them to sell." A former slave, Elige Davidson, told the story from the male side. "Massa he bring some more woman to see me. He wouldn't let me have just one woman. I have about fifteen and I don't know how many chillen."

The economics of slavery encouraged such practices. The federal government banned the African slave trade in 1807, which put a premium on the offspring of existing slaves. Moreover, in the later years, slavery became a losing proposition in states such as Maryland, Virginia, and Kentucky not given to huge plantations. Slave owners there saw breeding as their only option. "The chief pecuniary resource in the border states is the breeding of slaves," wrote the son of a slave holder near Fredericksburg, Virginia.

Virginia alone exported between 6,000 and 15,000 slaves a year in the early decades of the nineteenth century, causing Thomas Dew, a professor at William and Mary College, to proclaim it "a Negro raising state for other states."

Anecdotal evidence

Newspapers of the day reflected these concerns. "She is very prolific in her generating qualities," said an ad for a twenty-year-old woman in the Charleston Mercury, "and affords a rare opportunity for any person who wishes to raise a family of strong and healthy servants."

In fact some southern apologists cited slave breeding as evidence of the owners' husbandry and care. "The breeding woman," wrote one slave owner's son, "he was always careful should never be worked too hard or in any way strained."

That's the kind of anecdotal evidence he would have found had Snyder perused the stacks at his local research library. Scholars disagree, however, regarding how extensive such practices were. James Horton, a history professor at George Washington University, says that they were only "scattered."

"There was nothing like systematic breeding in this country," he says.

Michael Blakey, an anthropologist at Howard University and at the Smithsonian Institute, disagrees. But he makes a crucial distinction. Breeding was common, he says, but slave owners weren't backyard Mendels, scientifically producing efficient field hands. They were simply trying to get more slaves. "It was pure and simple a matter of reproducing large numbers rather than body types," he says. "That kind of breeding couldn't possibly lead to any difference in athletic ability."

This is especially so considering that some of the breeding involved the slave owners themselves. The slave states had decreed that the offspring of such liasons take the legal status of their mothers, not their fathers--"to make a gratification of their wicked desires profitable as well as pleasurable," as Frederick Douglass trenchantly observed. Whatever the breeders felt they were accomplishing, it was surely undone by the legacy of knock-kneed, uncoordinated, and oversexed white slave owners.

Most important of all, the very premise of a black body type is suspect to begin with. "Afro-Americans are one of the most genetically diverse peoples in the world," Blakey says. "The variations within [the black-skinned population] are greater than the difference between [black-and white-skinned people.]" So while breeding of a type did occur, Jimmy the Greek was out in left field in his estimation of its effects.

That said, there are people who are not racists who think there might be a connection of some kind between the experience of slavery and the role of black athletes in sports today. Calvin Hill, the black Yale graduate and former pro football star, for example, told Sports Illustrated back in the seventies, "Think of what the African slaves were forced to endure in this country merely to survive. Well, black athletes are their descendents."

Maybe there's something to it, maybe not. I'm not sure it makes a great deal of difference. Certainly people at the bottom of the social ladder have always seen sports as a way up; and this is especially so for blacks who have seen other alternatives foreclosed. Whatever the role of history, a hundred other things are involved, such as self-discipline and capacity for hard work and whatever effect the experience of slavery may have had is diminishing with each passing year.

I can't pretend to understand all the cross currents of class and race at work on this issue. But Snyder's views on slavery and its legacy are held in one form or another by many Americans, black as well as white. Inadvertently, he gave us a rare opportunity to haul these troublesome notions out of the recesses of the national psyche, separate fact from fiction, and in doing so put them to rest.

Instead, the nation's opinion establishment reveled in its thrashing of Jimmy the Greek. It was a great opportunity to put righteous indignation on display. Perhaps there's cause for comfort that Snyder's views would bring such a severe rebuke. But, the Snyder bashing showed a dark side to the nation's anti-racism as well, an intolerance and a frequent incapacity to discuss the issue of race at all.

"I think it is very important to continue to discuss this," says Blakey, speaking of the commonly perceived connection between physical abilities and race. "The questions are still there."

Rather than deal with these issues, we conducted a mass exorcism. "What we have here," says Sam Smith, editor of the D.C. Gazette, "is a blatant example of how we handle the race problems in this country. We erase them when they arise instead of talking about them and dealing with them." Racial progress consists not only in ending unfair discrimination but also in the ability to discuss our differences--even fictional differences--without becoming unglued.
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Title Annotation:Jimmy Snyder and his views on pro sports and race
Author:Rowe, Jonathan
Publication:Washington Monthly
Date:Apr 1, 1988
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