Each year, universities in the United States spend millions of dollars and college football coaches invest countless hours in an effort to lure top players to their schools. The recruiting process culminates with “National Signing Day,” on which high school seniors are officially able to sign National Letters of Intent that bind them to attend a particular university. As National Signing Day 2017 approaches this Wednesday (Feb. 1), millions of people will visit recruiting websites, such as rivals.com and scout.com, to follow who signs with which school. College football fans will alternately experience joy when a top prospect commits to their favorite team and devastation when a recruit goes elsewhere (this is often how I’ve felt as a fan, at least).
One popular outlet for fans to express their joy (or vent their frustration) are the message boards attached to recruiting websites. Initial research on the demographics of college sport message board users suggests an online community that is primarily composed of middle-aged white men with relatively high levels of education and income. In contrast, more than 80% of the Rivals top 250 high school football prospects are black. So, what happens when a group of mostly older white men gathers in a virtual community to discuss the decisions and actions of predominantly young, black men being recruited to play college football? Well, my colleagues Bianca González-Sobrino, Matthew Hughey, and I examined this question in a study that will appear in the Sociology of Sport Journal.
Based on a review of 3,800 posts from college sport message boards that we systematically collected and examined in the study, we found that fans seldom mentioned race overtly. Rather, message board commenters used forms of “color-blind” racial rhetoric that invoked racial meanings without the explicit mention of race. Message board users tended to rely on several common racial assumptions, expressing beliefs in the natural superiority of black physicality, doubts about black intellectual ability, and expectations about whites possessing skill, technique, and mental capacity. For instance, 66 comments in our sample expressed concerns about or insulted a player’s intelligence; of these comments, 64 were directed toward black players compared to two toward white players. Notably, message board users frequently voiced doubt about the ability of black players to qualify academically for entrance to a university. In contrast, 15 comments in the sample offered praise of a player’s intelligence or character, nine of which were directed toward white players compared to six toward black players.
In general, we found it somewhat surprising that relatively few comments on college sport message boards mentioned race overtly, since racism is often rampant on the Internet. While harsh, Jim Crow-style racism has declined in public settings during the past few decades, many people are still comfortable making racially deprecating remarks in private areas with others of the same race. Similarly, the anonymity offered by the Internet allows people to be comfortable writing racist comments they wouldn’t ordinarily make in public settings. Even in the context of sport, researchers have found that overt racism is common on English soccer message boards.
So why do message boards devoted to college sport teams remain relatively free of overt racism? One factor may be that a unique sense of community exists on college sport message boards, which leads users to temper their discussion similarly to how they do when speaking in public settings. In our observations, many message board users perceived themselves as “representatives” of their universities, and it was not uncommon for them to express fear that negative comments would reflect badly on the university and, in turn, harm a team’s recruiting efforts. Therefore, if a user were to write comments that others perceived to be racist, it could jeopardize their status in the message board community.
Ultimately, the persistence of common racial assumptions on sport message board sites—including beliefs in the natural superiority of black physicality and athleticism, doubts about black intellectual ability, and expectations about whites possessing skill, technique, and mental capacity—show that our society is anything but “post-racial.” In other words, we may have witnessed a declining tendency for people to speak openly about race in public, but we have seen little change in dominant ideas about race. While it may be tempting to think of comments on sport message boards as being trivial, such discussion (and the ideas it reinforces among privileged groups) can work to reproduce white superiority and rationalize racial inequality in subtle, yet important ways. During an era in which we are seeing a rise in white nationalist groups, online sites serve as important fields in which the very meanings of race are contested and reproduced.
Adam Love is an assistant professor in the Department of Kinesiology, Recreation, and Sport Studies at the University of Tennessee. His research investigates racial and gender ideology on the Internet and in sports media. To read more of his research about college sport message boards, click here and here. You can find him on Twitter @AdamWLove