Gabby Douglas is the women's gymnastics all-around gold medalist. She is the first African-American and woman of color to ever hold such a distinction.
Her win is emblematic of a more racially progressive America—one in which a black athlete has reached the pinnacle of a traditionally “white” sport. The media sideshow that has ensued after her victory represents the double standard still firmly in place in regard to athletes of color.
The rest of the London 2012 Olympics should have been a victory lap for Douglas, as she basked in the limelight with her team and individual gold medals around her neck. Instead, she has faced criticism over her hair not being done up enough for her Olympic performance. It is hard to imagine a Caucasian-American facing similar criticism.
This is representative of race relations in American sports.
Americans have no problem with a black woman having USA written across her chest—if she can capture a gold medal for the nation—but they will still view her differently or hold her to a different standard than her white counterparts.
This phenomenon can be seen throughout the entirety of the American sports landscape.
In college football, Robert Griffin III and Andrew Luck had two of the greatest seasons a college quarterback has ever had. Griffin edged out Luck for the Heisman, and Luck edged out RGIII to be the No. 1 pick in the NFL draft.
Luck is often compared to John Elway. He is a mobile passer (running for 453 yards in 2010), with a great arm and a high football IQ.
Griffin is also a highly mobile passer, with a great completion percentage (72 percent in 2011) and is a very smart player (he left Baylor with a 3.67 GPA), yet Griffin is never compared to Elway.
RGIII is most often compared to mobile, yet generally inaccurate, Eagles quarterback Michael Vick. RGIII possesses better accuracy than Vick, arguably a better arm and definitely a higher football IQ.
In terms of on-field play, the two have very little overlap besides speed. The comparison of the two players has as much to do with their football acumen as it does the fact that they are both black.
RGIII and Michael Vick are destined to be mentioned in the same sentence because America sees two black quarterbacks, and consciously or unconsciously, lumps them together.
Race relations in sports have progressed, but black athletes still face an ingrained bias in the American press and from the American public.
The NBA has the highest percentage of black players of any of the four major American sports leagues. Tellingly, a word often synonymous with NBA players is "lazy."
This is not to say that NBA players always hustle during every possession of every regular-season game—they clearly do not. MLB players just as often seem to listlessly drift toward first if they believe they are about to be thrown out, yet the lazy label seems suspiciously lacking.
It is abundantly clear that long-standing racist stereotypes have in some way infiltrated the prism by which we view sports.
This country has made great strides toward racial equality in sports.
Illustrating this, the University of Alabama—an institution that had long clung to segregation—won last year's BCS football championship with an integrated roster.
Yet stories like Gabby Douglas’ show that we still have a long way to go.