Ordinarily, I dedicate this space to women in sports, but today, as a black woman who happens to work in sports, I feel an obligation to share this space with my black men. As I reflect on the recent acts of violence in America and my world of sports, it is obvious to me that there is a deep connection between this country’s history of racism and its treatment of its black male athletes. I see that connection and want to share it…
The history of America’s brutality against the black man is well documented*. From the time he was brought to this country as labor, white supremacy has worked to force the black male body into submission. As a slave, the black man was beaten, castrated, ripped from his family and shackled. In America’s time of reconstruction and its Nadir he was terrorized by lynch mobs, endured sharecropping and saw rights stripped away. He moved from that into Jim Crow where dogs, batons, the Klan and “Whites Only” signs worked his black body and mind, reminding him that he was not a true citizen of the Union. The country put away Jim Crow and ushered in the war on drugs to further subjugate the black man, inflicting physical harm, laying waste to his family, and using his labor. The purpose of such insidious behavior was to strip the black man of his power and use his body as a means to gain profit in a capitalist, white dominant society. The violence that we witness today inflicted on the black man at the hands of police is an extension of the purpose and methods of white supremacy. We watch as state sanctioned policing rips the black man from his place on this earth for merely celebrating life, walking down the street, selling cigarettes; existing. This country continues to take our black fathers, husbands, sons, and brothers. Last week we watched as two police officers murdered a black man while lying on top of him. Mere minutes before, Mr. Alton Sterling had been selling CDs. We also watched as Mr. Philando Castile was gunned down in front of his family for having a broken taillight and attempting to comply. These open acts of aggression are designed to strike fear, maintain a status quo and remind the black man that he will never enjoy the full rights of white men.
And much of America’s non-black population says they agree with the violence against the black man. They agree that he is less than and that he should be dominated. The deafening silence from them in the face of these public atrocities contrasted with their roaring cries when a gorilla, dog or lion is killed is proof of how the majority of America views the black man.
That is until you take a look at our sports arenas and stadiums…
For decades, America has shown a deep disdain for the black man except when he throws, runs and jumps as an athlete. Americans champion and cheer for the black man while he is on the football field and basketball court. They wear his jerseys and shoes and scream his name from the bleachers. They even managed to champion the black man who has proven that he can play tennis and golf. Granted, it took time for the sports world to integrate, but now that it has, America is generally comfortable with seeing the strong black athlete excel.
But why? Why is this white supremacist state comfortable with a strong black man bouncing a ball, but not with one residing in the Office of the Presidency or one walking down the street with sagging pants? Does the spirit of competition trump racism and allow people to ignore skin color if you can catch a football? While people do love to be entertained, not one ounce of my being thinks that shear entertainment alone makes America comfortable embracing its black male athletes.
America feels safe embracing and uplifting black male athletes because they exist in a system that is a mere extension of white supremacist America. America is championing the black male athlete who is largely under the direction of white coaches, owners and managers. While sports have created black male heroes, millionaires and billionaires, those men exist and were cultivated in a world dictated and controlled by white men who have substantially more money and power. The system of white rule is continued and the same holds true in the college arena.
Black men make up the highest percentage of Division I football and basketball players, but 78.9% of leadership roles at FBS schools are held by white men and only 18.1% of executives at the managing director/director level in the NCAA are people of color. These leaders operate the system that sees black men rake in billions of dollars with their talents to have white men reap the benefits.League**Percent of Black Athletes in the LeaguePercent of People of Color in Front OfficesPercent of Black Head CoachesPercent of Teams with Black Majority OwnersNFL68.7%28%15.6%0%NBA74.4%35.4%30%3.3%
So the cheering that America does for the high-paid black male athlete and unpaid black student-athlete isn’t about celebrating unchecked black male strength and talent. It isn’t about basking in the beauty that is the black male body and mind. It’s about America allowing the black man to serve the dual purpose of entertainer and cash cow while simultaneously reinforcing that the black man is still under the rule of what is white. Don’t believe me? Look at what happens when the black male athlete steps beyond the boundaries that America has placed him in; America’s racism resurfaces.
When Kevin Durant announced that his foreseeable future would be spent in Golden State, America got abnormally angry. For taking his future in his own hands and deciding that financially and professionally Oakland was the best place for him, he was called weak, a traitor and had his jersey burned and shot at. People literally lynched his jersey. He instantly became a villain for exercising his contractual rights and choosing himself over a fan base and ownership. The same thing happened when Lebron James became the master of his fate and took his talents to South Beach. He pissed off white America and they reminded him that he never really had their respect as a man; that they truly believed that they owned the direction of his life. America showed its true colors.
American anger is also unreasonable and racist when a black man gets a robust contract. There is a limit to what one black man should be paid and average Americans think they have an accurate gauge on what that limit should be. They weigh a black man’s sacrifice of body, talent and time against their views of his value. Indeed, white supremacy tries to limit what the black male athlete says. The majority of black male professional athletes don’t engage in public political, racial conversations for fear that their financial backing might be pulled. When they do, they’re told to shut up and know their places. Remember when police officers threatened insubordination when the St. Louis Rams merely wanted the world to know that their lives matter.*** The reaction to black athletes exercising their humanity is racist and dramatic.
America works hard to keep the black college player in check too. The cheers turn to jeers when black players harnessed their power and protested the taking of black lives at the University of Missouri. Fully grown, white elected officials took time out of their legislative schedules to craft bills that would silence black men who dared fight for their humanity. We hear vicious commentary when black men verbalize their frustration at being unpaid commodities of the NCAA and member schools. They are called ungrateful and unreasonable for being tired of being used.
See, America doesn’t love the black male athlete any more than it loves the black man working grueling hours at a factory. To America, he’s the same as the black man on the corner and the one operating in the emergency room; just another body to be kept in check, to profit from and kept from rising. When the athlete gets out of line, America is quick to remind him that it’s time to fall back in the proverbial lines of white supremacy.
So is the black man destined to remain in a dismal state where even athletic heroes get no genuine respect?
I say, no. Despite the level of brutality that this country inflicts on the black man he has and will continue to show himself resilient. Despite the killings and degradation, the black man is in a position to do wonderful things in this world. He has made his way to the head of families, classrooms, boardrooms and practices. The black male athlete continues to grow his stake in the business of sports, dictating his brand, salary and terms of play. He has created foundations, scholarships and businesses that inspire and uplift boys who look like him. Despite the pressure not to, he finds ways to use his voice to advance causes that impact his people. And it’s paying off. For every black man that the police publicly assassinate, multiple black men get college degrees and prove the black man is greater than his value in sports. The black man rises in spite of.
I applaud each and every effort the black man takes to declare his humanity and manhood in the face of a system that wants to deny it. To every one of you I say keep rising, my brothers. Keep fighting for your humanity, dignity and paper. Refuse to be denied because there are black women, girls and boys who are proudly watching you and need you. We are rooting for you to let your greatness, strength and courage show in a country that wants nothing but the opposite for you. Rise on my negus, rise on.
*The brutality against black women is also well documented, but this article focuses on the black man.
**The source of data is found at: http://www.tidesport.org/reports.html
***This is one small example of America’s reaction to a politicized, social conscious black male athlete. Look at the careers of Muhammad Ali, Tommie Smith and John Carlos, for example.