CLARENCE PAGE: At my college we used to say we had three types of students: Black students, white students and athletes. The real world is like that too. Jocks occupy a special place. An entertainment industry called sports a level playing field on which everyone is judged not by the color of their skin but by the content of their scoring average. A fantasy? Sure. But we punish anyone who disturbs it.
Air Force Academy football coach Fisher de Barry found that out the hard way. After a big loss to Texas Christian, he reflected that his football team needed more black players so it could have more speed on the field. He may have meant no harm but his remarks ignited one of the biggest eruptions in sports since commentator Jimmy the Greek Snyder attributed the speed of black football players to the slave breeding practices of plantation days.
JIMMY THE GREEK SNYDER: The slave owner would breed his big black to his big woman so that he could have a big black kid, see?
CLARENCE PAGE: Both men violated a racial etiquette that neither of them seemed to understand until they broke its unwritten rules. They approached sports as a level playing field, a fantasy field to be sure, only to be tripped up on the contours of race.
Football fans accept that black players have dominated the speed positions in football for many years, but genetic theories don't explain why.
While black-Americans are great running backs and Olympic sprinters, the best marathon runners tend to come from Kenya.
A lot of factors determine why certain groups gravitate to certain sports: Culture, money, geography and taste, any of which can change in a generation or less.
Look at baseball. In the days of segregation, black Americans produced a Negro league with historic skills. And after Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier, black baseball players flooded the major leagues but the sports popularity among black folks has dropped in recent decades like a bad pitch.
Today's Major League ball players are three times more likely to be Caribbean or Latin American than black Americans. This year the Houston Astros went to the World Series with lots of Hispanics on the field but not a single black American.
While baseball's popularity decline, young black players and fans embrace basketball and reinvented the game with a fiesta of individual spectacle: Hook shots, finger rolls, kick-and-rolls and artful gravity-defying walk on air slam dunk.
CLARENCE PAGE: But it was black fashion style that became a racial issue this season when the NBA issued a court side dress code. It banned do-rags, baggy pants, jerseys, baseball caps turned sideways and bling, heavy jewelry, the tripped-out look favored by Alan Ivanson and others of the hip hop generation.
ACTOR: I'm not a gangster, I'm not a thug --
CLARENCE PAGE: Racism , some annoyed black players said, a diss to black culture. It certainly was a flap in hip hop culture at a time when the NBA is trying to polish its image.
But there's more to black life than hip hop. One need look no further than the dapper Michael Jordan or Shaquille O'Neal to see that.
Charles Barkley, who used to have a bad boy NBA image himself, came right to the point. If a well dressed white kid and a black kid wearing a do-rag and throw-back jersey came to me in a job interview, he told the Los Angeles Times, I'd hire the white kid.
That's reality. That's the real world: A world of resilient color codes. It's a world in which business casual is valued more than bling. You never get a second chance to make a first impression no matter how great your jump shot.
I'm Clarence Page.