In 1968, amid the fires of the Black Freedom Struggle, Sports Illustrated’s Jack Olsen wrote the groundbreaking and controversial piece “The Black Athlete—A Shameful Story.” It was an overview of black athletes in revolt. At the time, the best athletes in the country—Jim Brown, Bill Russell, Lew Alcindor (soon-to-be Kareem Abdul-Jabbar) and Muhammad Ali—were a part of this revolt. (There were African-American women athletes who would have been a part of this movement, but they found themselves shut out.) In addition, a group of African-American athletes, led by Tommie Smith, Lee Evans and John Carlos, were threatening to boycott that year’s Olympic Games in Mexico City. Olsen—for better or worse—focused on the shock felt by mainstream white sports fans that such a revolt would even be necessary.
As Olsen wrote, “What is happening today amounts to a revolt by the black athlete against the framework and attitudes of American sport, and that such a thing could occur in his own pet province has astonished the white sports follower. The reason for the astonishment is that the man in the grandstand knows nothing about the Negro athlete whom he professes to understand, appreciate and ennoble as a symbol of the enlightened attitude of the world of sport toward segregation and intolerance. A wall of ignorance and unfounded suppositions is shielding the fan from the realities of the black athlete’s background and his hopes.”
Fast-forward to 2011: in an era of twenty-four-hour sports media, the dynamics described by Olsen are profoundly different but also disturbingly similar. Cable networks and fans lining up for luxury boxes are more distanced than ever from the reality that black athletes travel through to make it to the big leagues. In an era of fantasy sports, fans dream of controlling players instead of becoming them. The players also tend to come from impoverished backgrounds, as they did forty years ago, while becoming much wealthier than their forebears. That has created a canyon between the black player and the white fan and overwhelmingly white press corps. And the latitude of that press corps to be brazenly racist is often jaw-dropping. Witness prominent ESPN national radio host Colin Cowherd’s recent assertion that (white) NFL commissioner Roger Goodell is a “father figure” to African-American football players who never had the paternal structure and discipline that Goodell provides. Somehow he still has a job. This kind of easy ignorance about and antipathy toward African-American athletes has created a new phenomenon: the black athletic boogeyman.
Websites now compete for attention by parading the latest boogeyman—whether it’s Barry Bonds, Rashard Mendenhall or James Harrison—before a largely white fan base. All three of these athletes found controversy, but for profoundly different reasons. Bonds has long been suspected of being a steroid user. Mendenhall argued on Twitter that rejoicing over Osama bin Laden’s death was barbaric. Harrison posed for a magazine with two of his guns and unleashed a stream of invective at Goodell (calling him a “faggot”). Yet despite the vast differences in the legality and morality of these acts, each athlete was pilloried in the press in a similar way: as a symbol of the moral degeneracy of black athletes. It’s twenty-first-century racism, and sports celebrity is used to make it palatable. After all, they’re rich, right?
Today there is no black freedom struggle—no movement—to challenge this state of affairs. That makes athletes hesitant to speak out. But unlike in 1968, when publications like Sports Illustrated dominated public opinion, athletes today have the financial and media power to challenge the way they’re depicted in the press. Social media have also had an empowering effect. Athletes can speak out more easily and thus play a role in how “the black athlete” is perceived. In the words of NBA player Etan Thomas, this “can be seen as a burden or blessing.”
“Athletes have a big responsibility,” NBA guard Deron Williams said to me. “They have a big audience. If they have an opinion and want it heard, there’s no better way to do it. We have the media outlets available to get your voice heard, so you go ahead and speak on it.”
The question is how to use this platform to make change and not just become the whipping boy of the moment. NBA all-star Grant Hill, now pushing 40, told me the following: “I think from where we are now to when my dad first entered the whole realm of professional sports, obviously we were better suited. We have more control of our careers. We have more of a voice. Whether it’s in social media or what have you, the African-American athlete has more wealth and more power. In terms of social consciousness, times are a little different than what Jim Brown, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Muhammad Ali had to go through. Because of those athletes, things are a little different. The main difference is power—the ability to move from team to team and also speak your mind.”
The question is, How can more athletes be encouraged to speak their mind? One who preferred to remain anonymous said to me, “I don’t speak out because all I’ll be doing is giving material to the local sports-radio assholes. Why would I want to make their lives easier?”
We need a movement to defend African-American athletes and their right to speak out, so they will feel they have a base of support. But even more critically, athletes need to realize that they can shape their own image much more successfully than athletes of previous generations could. The perpetual news cycle needs material. We can feed the beast, or the beast will feed on us, and if it does, we’ll be stuck in a cycle where athletic success fuels rather than challenges racism in America. Too many athletes do too much good to have it swallowed up, unreported and forgotten.