John Kuhn: (white) working man’s hero?
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Yesterday, it finally happened. I was listening to 1250-AM WSSP’s “The Big Show” when the topic of Packers running back John Kuhn and his sudden popularity came up. Callers gave the usual reasons for why Kuhn has rapidly become a favorite among the Packers faithful: his recent productiveness, his bruising running style, his easy-to-chant name. But the focal point of the discussion was an attribute that’s been glaringly omitted from Kuhn’s quick ascent to media darling status.
He’s a white guy.
And here I thought I was the only one who found it strange that race has been mostly left out of the Kuhn conversation. To me, it seems self-evident that when a white player who’s made valuable but limited contributions to a predominantly black team is singled out for qualities that many of his teammates also share—a back-breaking work ethic, a self-effacing manner, a humble background—the color of his skin must play some kind of role, especially considering the tenor of Kuhn’s media coverage. The Journal Sentinel has called him “a working man’s hero.” FOXSports dubbed him “a blue collar icon.” Madison’s Channel 3000 said Kuhn is loved because he “keeps working hard.”
It all sounds a little too much like the old sportswriting trope about “scrappy” white athletes getting an “A” for “effort” and “heart,” and “flashy” black athletes being praised for “natural” ability. Take this passage from a recent Green Bay Press-Gazette story about how Kuhn has become a “cult hero”:
Green Bay is built for cult heroes.
The tiny northern Wisconsin city with a storied NFL franchise. No competition from another professional team. No billionaire owner demanding any number of things from the taxpayers.
A place where guys like William Henderson, Gilbert Brown and LeRoy Butler become modern era legends.
“When you talk about Packer people, that’s what it’s all about,” said running backs coach Edgar Bennett, who wore a Packers jersey for five years and won a Super Bowl. “Hard workers. People that have passion for the game.”
Sure, there are plenty of black players that have become “modern-era legends” in Green Bay, including Henderson, Brown, Butler, and Bennett. The difference between those guys and Kuhn is that they were fixtures in the starting line-ups of championship teams and recognized as team leaders. They were considered extraordinary chiefly because of their play on the field. Kuhn doesn't have that kind of résumé—he is riding a wave of adulation after gaining 327 yards on 102 carries in the past five seasons. His most extraordinary career achievement so far is joining Aaron Rodgers as the most prominent white people in the Packers’ backfield.
Let’s be clear here: I’m not saying Kuhn’s whiteness is the only reason why he’s popular, or even the main reason. I’m also not arguing that white people who yell “Kuhhhn!” are racist—after all, I’m one of those white people—or that it’s wrong that he’s getting all of this attention. I’m only saying that race deserves to at least be mentioned when talking about Kuhn’s popularity. Maybe it plays only a minimal role. But pretending that race has no role in why certain people like certain players just seems dishonest.
It’s an uncomfortable thought at first glance, but white people aren’t alone in feeling an affinity for sports stars that look like them. Injury-prone NBA player Yao Ming was one of the league’s biggest stars in the early ’00s, in part, because he had such a big Chinese following. Mexican-born basketball player Eduardo Najera is considered a journeyman in the U.S., but he’s a beloved figure in his home country. No wonder Larry Bird once said that the NBA needed more white superstars—he knew what many of the league’s fans wanted, regardless of whether they’d ever admit it.
For the past week I’ve been talking to friends about why Kuhn is so popular among Packers fans, and opinion is split on whether his race is factor. I think it is, though I’m not sure how much. What I do know is that I felt a lot less comfortable about bringing this topic up in a public forum than I did among friends, since our national conversation on race tends to boil down to a never-ending series of accusations and denials. We’ve become accustomed to affixing knee-jerk moral judgments on racial attitudes, which puts people on the defensive and prevents the discussion from moving forward. Perhaps this is why the media is avoiding the issue.
All I’m asking for is a little honesty, because if we can’t be open about what we like in sports, what hope do we have for discussing things that really matter?