The subtitle of this excellent new book by sportswriter Howard Bryan pretty much says what it is all about: Black athletes, a divided America, and the politics of patriotism. I am not a huge fan of American professional sports (as regular readers know, cricket is my thing) but this book is not about sports but the politics of sports, especially as it relates to the role that black athletes have played in advancing social justice. The book provides a much needed historical context for the recent movement started by Colin Kaepernick to kneel during the playing of the national anthem to protest police brutality and social injustice. Bryant writes with anger and passion about the way that so many major black athletes have shirked the responsibility that they were entrusted with by their predecessors to use their celebrity power improve the conditions of the black community and fight police brutality and injustice.
Bryant makes the point that while the progress of black thinkers such as doctors, lawyers, scientists, and intellectuals were hindered by segregation, the only people who became financially successful were black musicians and athletes. And of these only the latter were able to gain admission to white institutions such as universities and professional leagues. They were among the first to be able to afford to live in upscale white neighborhoods. White America has always only valued the black body and purposefully undermined the value of the black mind, and it is this attitude that lies behind the ‘shut up and dribble’ and ‘shut up and play’ rhetoric aimed at any black athlete who dares to voice an opinion on anything other than sports. In this context, what became known informally in the black community as the Heritage was shorthand for the responsibility that those who had made it to speak up for those who were left behind and break down barriers.
Bryant identifies the great Paul Robeson as the founder of the Heritage. Some may not realize that before he became famous as a singer and actor, Robeson was a star athlete, an all-American college football player who played in the NFL in 1921 before the league barred black players from 1933 to 1946. Robeson, famous worldwide for his singing and acting, had had his passport revoked in 1950 for his outspoken criticisms of racism in the US, his praise for the lack of prejudice he faced in Soviet Union, and his support for anti-capitalist economic systems which of course made him a target for the rightwing nationalists, not unlike today. The key event occurred in June 1956 when Robeson was hauled up before the House Un-American Activities Committee and, to the anger of the committee, refused to be cowed by them.
HUAC had also invited Jackie Robinson to give testimony and he did the committee a favor by distancing himself from the views of Robeson, leading to him being labeled an Uncle Tom and an ‘Oreo’ (i.e., black on the outside and white on the inside). But Robinson, despite that one blemish that he later regretted, did much for the Heritage and was one of the few who spoke out in support of black athletes taking political stands. He later in his life became the successor to Robeson in taking up the mantle of the Heritage and refused to stand for the national anthem. Others who came along and continued the Heritage were Curt Flood, Muhammad Ali, John Carlos, and Tommie Smith.
So what happened to the Heritage? Bryant says that three people were key to almost extinguishing it. They were O. J. Simpson, Michael Jordan, and Tiger Woods. These three athletes achieved enormous wealth and success and yet they refused to take a stand on any of the pressing issues, choosing instead to act as if they were raceless in order to not offend their sponsors and the owners of their teams. The attitude of these three spread to other athletes and they became ‘greenwashed’ by money, so that during earlier displays of police brutality towards minorities and even after the video of the brutal beating of Rodney King, prominent players like Magic Johnson. Kobe Bryant, LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Barry Bonds, Shaquille O’Neal, and Charles Barkley did not speak out, even though people like Barkley had cultivated a bad boy image as someone who spoke his mind. One of the early people who did protest was Allen Iverson.
Bryant writes that the events of 9/11 and the surge of hyper-patriotism that followed was exploited by the national security state to co-opt the professional sports leagues by adding the singing of the national anthem, military salutes, flyovers, recognition of troops, etc. during games. Disrupting these displays in any way became portrayed as unpatriotic and athletes were reluctant to speak out. Bryant says that this blending of the military, patriotism, and professional sports was a deliberate strategy by the military and the owners of the teams.
It took the events of Ferguson and Colin Kaepernick’s kneeling protest to resurrect the Heritage. I did not know until Bryant’s book that Kaepernick has done a lot more than just kneel and has been active in promoting the cause of exposing police brutality in many ways. Kaepernick wore a T-shirt of Malcolm X and Fidel Castro to a post-game press conference two days after Castro died. Thanks to Kaepernick’s activism, people like LeBron James and others have made some gestures of protest about police brutality. Bryant calls them the ‘peacemakers’, not in an entirely complimentary way but as signifying that they want to keep the peace between owners and players. The players have not joined in solidarity with Kaepernick even though the NFL owners are clearly punishing him for his actions, although they are willing to let back into football truly odious people like Michael Vick and Ray Lewis. Why? Because those players fit the accepted mold of the angry black athlete, just a mass of muscle and no brain. But Kaepernick is a thinking black athlete who is outspoken, like Robeson and Ali and Carlos before him, and thus must be taught a lesson. It has been 500 days since Kaepernick last played and it is clear that the NFL owners are colluding to punish him, to send a lesson to other players.
As long as the almost exclusively white owners control the leagues, the power of players is limited. The truly radical step would be for the players to form a new league where they control the show. This is most feasible with basketball since about 80% of the players are black and setting up a league would not require as much capital costs as in football. I would love to see that happen. That would really shake up the sports owners-military-police complex that currently exists.
Bryant said that few white players joined in the protest, some notable exceptions being Chris Long of the New England Patriots and three NBA coaches Steve Kerr, Gregg Popovich, and Stan van Gundy. But women athletes, though in a much weaker financial position than the men, have been better and members of the WNBA, black and white, were more willing to speak out. The entire Minnesota Lynx team wore “Black Lives Matter” T-shirts during warm ups. White soccer player Megan Rapinoe also knelt in solidarity with Kaepernick and back in 2003 Toni Smith-Thompson turned her back to the basketball court during the playing of the national anthem, for which she was also vilified and punished.
This book is must-read for anyone who wants to understand the current context of politics and sports. This book provides some good stories and in later posts I will excerpt some of them. I was glad to see Bryant give Robeson his due. He was a truly remarkable and courageous individual who deserves to have stadiums and performance centers named after him but instead one rarely hears his name mentioned.