I’m fortunate enough to be able to cover sports; they offer a safe haven from life’s hardships. They have their own rules, their own clock, and provide a definitive winner when the contests end. Recent events in Ferguson, Cleveland, and across the nation, however, make it impossible to shield their residual dirt and grime from other parts of my life—of which sports are a major part. The dichotomy of watching a Black man being killed because he is the 'wrong' color and similar-aged Black men being drafted into professional sporting leagues is blindingly ironic.
How can skin both frighten and entertain? It’s a painful paradox that borders on insanity. How can aspects of a culture be so readily incorporated and promoted while its people seem to be held in such disdain—cast aside like wrapping paper that’s outlived its usefulness? Recent events have been a painful wake-up call about race relations in this country, specifically to Black athletes. No success will ever change your appearance.
In the past few months, there’s been a rash of athlete activism unseen in my lifetime. Decades ago, the Black athlete felt more compelled to act. The relatively modest money they made did little to separate them from fans. The athlete identified more with the common man as professional sports organizations were struggling to keep their doors open and find a consistent fan base; many often held second jobs during the offseasons of their respective sports.
The social activism that swept the nation in the Black community washed over athletes too. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Jim Brown, and Bill Russell showed solidarity by defending Muhammad Ali’s decision to give up his title and face prison versus fighting in the Vietnam War. In a time of unrest, their familiarity made their strong message more palatable for the American customer to consume.
The past few decades brought endorsements and larger contracts, making strong political messages costly. When Jordan quipped, “Republicans buy sneakers too," it wasn’t the death knell to athlete's political activism; only an indicator of the shift in priorities.
This is the culture that I grew up in, with athletes more concerned with their bottom line than with making a political statement. And honestly, I was ok with the decision. Athletes are often asked to act in ways that are counter-intuitive to their personal success; they’re asked to play through injury, to take less money, even compelled to speak after an emotional game. I couldn’t begrudge an athlete for wringing out every dollar from the limited time they have such astronomical earning power. Because I had no first-hand recollection of Tommie Smith and John Carlos, I expected athletes to only entertain. Charles Barkley’s proclamation that he wasn’t a role model aligned with what my parents taught me about idolizing complete strangers, regardless of their jump shot.
But as the events of the past few weeks unfolded, and more entertainers/athletes donned the activist role, I realized my soul had been hungry for the sustenance of the athlete advocate. I hadn’t realized how good it would feel to see stars openly discuss issues. Moreover, black athletes are capable of sparking real change through their international platform. Perhaps something will click with the consumers of the product that those that they cheer on Sundays share the same skin tone with those victimized by agents of the government. And perhaps something has clicked with contemporary Black athletes, forcing them to realize that (paraphrasing Kanye) even if they’re in a Benz, they share the quality that made Akai Gurley and countless others targets.
This newfound activism also means that I must prepare myself to hear things from athletes I don’t want to hear. Barkley’s opinion on Ferguson was painful because it came from a black man degrading an entire movement. His opinion was pointed to as “proof” that blacks brought this upon ourselves. But the silver lining of his opinion is that it obliged his co-host Kenny Smith to respond; and showed that the African American community has a diverse population of thought. LeBron James (among others) donned an “I can’t breathe” t-shirt, referencing Eric Garner’s dying words as he was choked by police. While I appreciated a James bringing attention to the movement against police brutality, his comments after the game decrying that Garner’s death wasn’t about race completely missed the point. This is a uniquely Black issue. The steely truth is this: those athletes could’ve easily been in front of those officers’ guns without their talents. That’s a terrifyingly thin line. There comes a time when standing on the sidelines promoting the status quo is its own statement. No longer will I be satiated by half-measures and platitudes. I now know what it is to see the athlete activist first-hand, and my soul will no longer accept much less.
W. Brenden Whitted is a sports radio host for The Sports Shop Radio 620 am, 99.3 FM, and 96.5 FM in addition to his weekly podcast. He is also a co-editor for catcrave.com and has been published at various sites, including VerySmartBrothas.com. You can argue with him about sports at @WBHUAlum on Twitter.