Earlier this week, we wrote about how group identification and disidentification — “us” and “them” — gives rise to various motivated attributions of causation, responsibility, and blame. Our analysis focused on college basketball fans in the height of March Madness. The motivated attributions we discussed include the ultimate attribution error, which leads fans to attribute positive behavior by their favorite teams to positive dispositional attributions (e.g., “our players are so talented“; “they have the heart of winners,” “no one works harder than our team“; “that’s just smart basketball“; “gotta love the character of these fellas, they don’t give up even when they’re down“; “it’s great to see people earn something through merit“). However, similar motivations often lead those same fans to make situational attributions of positive behavior by or outcomes for rival teams (e.g., “their guys have been so lucky this season“; “let’s face it, the refs have been on their side from the tip-off“; “it’s easy to do well when you have an easy schedule“; “it’s disgusting how these guys and their coach kiss-up to the media“). Visa versa for negative in-team outcomes and positive out-team outcomes (e.g., “of course we’re losing, the idiot refs are letting those cheaters fowl like crazy“).
As we indicated in the earlier post, those and other attributional tendencies reflecting group membership have been evidenced by social psychologists in countless settings. The classic demonstration was that of Muzafer Sherif in his Robber’s Cave experiment. But outside of social science, the evidence is ubiquitous — from the ballfield to the battlefield, from blood feuds to the war on terror, and from ageism to xenophobia. As other posts on The Situationist have discussed (e.g. Black History is Now; Implicit Bias and Strawmen) group associations also matter considerably when our attributions cause us, often unknowingly, to interpret another’s behavior based on his or her race.
All this brings us to a recent article by Sean Gregory in Time Magazine in which he considers why so many fans are surprised that the Georgetown University men’s basketball team has been able to grasp the “complex, precise” offense used by Princeton University’s men’s basketball team for so many years.
For those who need it, here’s an abridged history: For many years, Georgetown University’s men basketball team has almost exclusively featured African-American players, including superstars like Patrick Ewing, Alonzo Mourning, and Allen Iverson. When the Hoyas played well, as they often did under former head coach John Thompson, they were heralded for their aggressiveness and athleticism, especially on the defensive end. But when they played poorly, as they often did after John Thompson’s 1999 retirement, they were roundly criticized for unsophisticated offensive designs and lack of on-court discipline.
That would all change when John Thompson III, the son of John Thompson, was hired as head coach of the Hoyas in 2004. He had been head coach of Princeton University’s men’s basketball team since 2000. Thompson III brought with him the “Princeton Offense,” which had been developed by former Princeton coach Pete Carril and which emphasizes passing, positioning, pick-setting, and disciplined teamwork. It’s most best-known feature is the “backdoor pass,” where one player moves in towards the basket and then receives a bounce pass from a guard on the perimeter, and “finds himself with no defenders between him and a layup.” In short, the Princeton offense is premised on “playing smart” and having a “high basketball I.Q.”
You see where this is going. When John Thompson III was hired by Georgetown in 2004, he said that he was going to implement the Princeton Offense at Georgetown University. As Sean Gregory writes, Thompson wasn’t too thrilled when others expressed doubts about his plan, but even his own Hoya players knew that the stereotype about the “black athlete” would be activated. Sean Gregory picks up there:
“That whole line of questioning is baffling,” insists Thompson III, 41, whose Hoyas mounted a bracket-saving comeback against North Carolina in the East Regional tourney to send Georgetown to its first Final Four in 22 years . . . .
Thompson, more than anyone else, knows what drives the doubters: a hoops stereotype that says black guys play with their bodies and white guys with their brains. And even if the 2007 Hoyas fail to win the national title on April 2 in Atlanta, Thompson’s team has done more to smash that perception than any other in recent memory. “If you think of the Princeton Offense, you wouldn’t think a team of African-American guys can run it,” notes Georgetown star Jeff Green, whose last-second bank shot against Vanderbilt in the regional semifinals kept the Hoyas on their magical run. Why? he asks himself, mocking the ignorance. “Because we’re not disciplined’ enough.”
After all, the athletic (read: black) guys need to push the ball up the court and run one-on-one plays to showcase their skills. You can’t hold them back by running that 1960s hayseed Princeton junk. Plus, only the smart, 1500-SAT (read: white) kids can learn those sets. The slower (read: very white) players need to milk the clock, move without the ball and throw those tricky backdoor passes to compete. So goes the code.
Fellow Situationist John Darley, along with co-authors Jeff Stone and Zachary W. Perry, has studied racial stereotypes in basketball. In 1997, Darley and co-authors published “White Men Can’t Jump”: Evidence for the Perceptual Confirmation of Racial Stereotypes Following a Basketball Game in Basic and Applied Social Psychology. Here is the abstract from their study:
An experiment was conducted to demonstrate the perceptual confirmation of racial stereotypes about Black and White athletes. In a 2 x 2 design, target race (Black vs. White) and target athleticism (perceived athletic vs. unathletic) were manipulated by providing participants with a photograph of a male basketball player. Participants then listened to a college basketball game and were asked to evaluate the target’s athletic abilities, individual performance, and contribution to his team’ s performance. Multivariate analyses showed only a main effect for target race on the measures of ability and team performance. Whereas the Black targets were rated as exhibiting significantly more athletic ability and having played a better game, White targets were rated as exhibiting significantly more basketball intelligence and hustle. The results suggest that participants relied on a stereotype of Black and White athletes to guide their evaluations of the target’s abilities and performance.
Jeff Stone, Darley’s co-author in the White Men Can’t Jump study, is a social psychologist at the University of Arizona, where he runs the Social Psychology of Sports Lab. In conjunction with the lab in 2004, he and student Ross Parnell studied people’s beliefs about the relationship between age, gender, and performance in sports. They surveyed 1,500 male and female students of varying races/ethnicities and asked them to rate the following characteristics of Black, White, Hispanic, and Asian male and female athletes: (1) athletic ability; (2) intelligence; (3) emotionality; (4) and work ethic. Here is a summary of their findings:
- Black athletes were rated higher in natural athletic ability and work ethic than sports intelligence or emotionality. This pattern did not depend on the race or gender of the perceiver—everyone, including Black perceivers, rated Black athletes this way.
- White athletes were rated higher in sports intelligence and work ethic than natural ability and emotionality. This pattern also did not depend on the race or gender of the perceiver—White perceivers agreed.
- Hispanic athletes were rated lower than Blacks and Whites in natural ability and intelligence, but higher in emotionality and work ethic.
- Hispanic perceivers, however, rated Hispanic athletes higher in intelligence and natural ability compared to White, Black or Asian perceivers. In other words, Hispanics disagreed with how everyone else saw their group on these attributes.
- Asian athletes were rated high in intelligence, but very low in natural ability, emotionality, and work ethic. Again, there was high agreement among the perceiver groups on these ratings.
- Female athletes were rated lower in natural ability than male athletes regardless of their race. Surprisingly, women rated female athletes the same way that men did. This suggests that people generally believe that women are less athletic than men.
As Claude Steele has found through stereotype threat, and as Stone and co-authors have found through their application of stereotype threat to sports, white athletes perform significantly worse than black athletes when performance is said to measure “natural athletic ability,” while black athletes perform significantly worse than white athletes when performance is said to measure “sports intelligence.” Stereotype threat in sports is a subject that one of us is presently researching in the context of the NFL Draft and the Wonderlic Exam.
In sum, the lessons of social psychology and social cognition usefully illuminate the questions in Sean Gregory’s story. An explanation for why many people questioned how well Georgetown players would “grasp” the Princeton Offense is to be found in the largely subconscious knowledge structures and implicit associations in our minds and reproduced and reinforced in our culture and institutions. This is not a sports phenomenon; it’s a human phenomenon expressing itself in the sports context.
The Hoyas’ success has helped to challenge some of the stereotypes and prejudices in the basketball world. Perhaps if more of us understood the situational sources of such attitudes, that same success could also help to challenge the larger network of racialized attitudes and behaviors that harm some groups and help others in the “real world.”