In the fall of 2011, I was touring around the country with 1968 Olympian, anti-racist campaigner and protest icon Dr. John Carlos. For the uninitiated, he was the guy on the medal stand along with Tommie Smith, with his jacket open and arm bent, ready to take on the hatred of the world for the greater principle of human rights. Whenever we visited a big-time sports university, we made sure the athletics department was aware of it, just in case they wanted Dr. Carlos to speak to the student-athletes. Some of the smaller programs graciously said yes. The overwhelming majority either did not return our calls or replied with a curt no. After all these years, Dr. Carlos is still radioactive in the eyes of the risk-averse caretakers of college football and basketball. It makes sense, given their dependence not only on unpaid black labor but on the passive compliance of that labor. If your star players choose to raise their fist instead of play in the Tostitos Fiesta Bowl or take the floor for March Madness, the entire multibillion-dollar economic setup of college athletics would implode. There may not be laborers more exploited or in possession of more labor-power, than the disproportionately black revenue-producing college athletes and that makes the entire setup a racial and economic tinderbox.
We realized that it would take actual courage for a big-time NCAA football or basketball coach to ask John Carlos to address their locker room. Of all the places we visited together, only one asked him to speak to their team and that was Chip Kelly at Oregon. I called Dr. Carlos last night to see what he remembered about the experience, and he recalled how Kelly introduced him to the Ducks as a person of principle and resolve and said that any successful team needs to share those kinds of principles if they want to rise above being ordinary. He remembered that Kelly was passionate in having his players know the history of 1968, and the sacrifices made by Dr. Carlos and his generation of black athletes.
I recalled this story yesterday because there was a volcanic thread over social media about Chip Kelly, now the coach of the NFL’s Philadelphia Eagles, making personnel decisions that are being labeled as racist. I gleaned somewhat that this had been started by ESPN First Take’s bombastic co-host Stephen A. Smith, and was discussed after a series of moves by Kelly to clear out, trade or not re-sign a group of popular African-American players in Philly. These moves have also included holding on to white wide receiver Riley Cooper for two seasons after Cooper was caught on camera making a drunken racial tirade at a Kenny Chesney concert.
By evening, having always felt grateful to Kelly for bringing Dr. Carlos in to speak to the team, I tweeted the following: “Hard to hear the ‘Chip Kelly is a racist’ slander when I saw Coach Kelly bring in ‘68 Olympic protester John Carlos to address Ducks in 2011.” And then “After John Carlos spoke, Chip Kelly said that players should emulate his conviction. This is John Carlos. Racists don’t like John Carlos.”
I still stand by that. But what I did not expect—and I cannot believe I was this naïve—was a tidal wave of anti–Stephen A. Smith invective in my timeline aimed at him for even broaching the question. I did not even mention Smith in my tweets because it felt like the topic was beyond him, but he had become the piñata for everyone angry that this discussion was happening. It was over the top and very ugly, as if the act of talking about racism was in fact racist. It felt particularly stunning to read this on the very day that thousands marched in Madison, Wisconsin in the name of Tony Robinson and the players on the Oklahoma football team were walking out of spring practice clad in all black, fed up with the racism of fraternities that worship them on the field and mock them once the uniforms are off.
I don’t entirely agree with Stephen A. Smith at all, but before damning him, let’s examine his exact words, because it contains something worth serious discussion. He said, “We’re sitting here looking at some of the decisions that Chip Kelly has made and I’m like, ‘What’s up with that?’ It looks like you got to be his kind of guy. And I’m like, ‘Riley Cooper is your kind of guy?’ You got brothers walking the streets going, ‘What’s up with Chip?’ It does strike me as a tad bit odd.… Gone: LeSean McCoy, Jeremy Maclin, DeSean Jackson. Staying: Riley Cooper. Really? OK.”
I wish Stephen A. Smith had an internal editor, because some of this is just flat-out wrong. Wide receiver Jeremy Maclin was a free agent and left for a bigger payday that Philly was not going to match. Running back LeSean McCoy was also due a big day and will now be replaced by a new running back who is also black, Frank Gore. [Breaking news: it looks like Frank Gore is changing his mind and signing with the Indianapolis Colts.] Looking at other signings, there is no racial realignment in the Eagles locker room, which Smith implies. But the jettisoning of wide receiver DeSean Jackson last season, and the leaking that he had some form of gang affiliations to justify it, was among the more noxious things as we have seen in the NFL in some time—and dear Lord, that is really saying something. (Whether Kelly was responsible for that leak is a disputed question.) The best part about that episode was that it led to a defense of Jackson by his childhood friend Richard Sherman that stands, in my mind, as one of the most politically important written statements an athlete has made since the days of John Carlos.
Then there is the keeping of Riley Cooper. It is difficult to not compare and contrast the institutional response at Oklahoma University to the frat racial eruption and the response of the Eagles franchise to Cooper. OU immediately severed ties with the frat and school president David Boren pledged immediately that the school will become “an example to the entire country of how to deal with this issue. There must be zero tolerance for racism everywhere in our nation.” The frat is gone, but Cooper has stayed. Chip Kelly, after a series of off-season power moves is the management of the Eagles franchise and the decision to hold onto Cooper, will very understandably continue to be critiqued.
Couple the Jackson and Cooper episodes with the extremely complicated history in Philadelphia at the intersection of sports and racism, and one can see why this is a discussion some in Philly, beyond Stephen A. Smith, want to have. This is a city where the Phillies threatened Jackie Robinson and where the Phillies fans and team showered 1960s All-Star Dick Allen with the kind of racial vitriol that still should bring a sense of shame. This is the city that for decades genuflected in front of a statue of a fake white boxer in Rocky Balboa and shunned their own real-life Rocky, Joe Frazier. This is the city where Donovan McNabb, the best QB in Eagles history, was disrespected in a manner that was both implicitly or explicitly racist. The sins of the past become a part of the present, and Chip Kelly has to be conscious of that history and navigate his role far more effectively. How Stephen A. Smith phrased that question might have been sloppy, but we have to stop treating racism as if it is the “R-word,” something that people are vilified for even raising. I will always be grateful to Chip Kelly for bringing in John Carlos. Coach Kelly wasn’t afraid of discussing racism and its history. We should not be afraid of that discussion either.