Howard Bryant is the author of eight books, including Juicing the Game: Drugs, Power, and the Fight for the Soul of Major League Baseball and The Last Hero: A Life of Henry Aaron. He is a senior writer for ESPN and the editor of The Best American Sports Writing 2017. His latest book, out next week, is The Heritage: Black Athletes, a Divided America, and the Politics of Patriotism.
What is “the Heritage”? How do you define it?
To me, it’s the responsibility the black athlete has accepted or has actually been placed on them since World War II. It’s the responsibility that these athletes feel to be the public faces and political faces of black America.
It’s not a responsibility they’ve always wanted, but it’s one that was created in the mold of the Paul Robesons, the Jackie Robinsons, and then Muhammad Ali and Tommie Smith and John Carlos. I think it’s something that no matter how big your contract is, it’s a responsibility that will always stay with you, not because of your successes, but because of how far African Americans have had to go to gain equality.
We’re certainly seeing a rebirth of political athletes right now. During and immediately after this previous era, when very few athletes spoke out, did you think that the Heritage had died?
Absolutely. I thought that it had died. The backlash immediately following Smith and Carlos [raising their fists on the 1968 Olympic stand] and Curt Flood [taking Major League Baseball to the Supreme Court in opposition to rules preventing free agency] meant that once you get into the early 1970s, it’s OJ Simpson, and then Michael Jordan, and then Tiger Woods. It was a succession of athletes accepting the idea that, after the 1960s, everything is fine; that the players were making more money than they’d ever made before, and that was enough.
There had been a movement about 10 or 12 years worth before Reaganism, where it seemed like the culture was willing to accept redress as part of our identity. Whether it was through affirmative action or increased hiring in police and fire departments, universities, or newspapers, you started to see a movement of recognition that there had been underrepresentation of blacks. And also, somewhat of an activist spirit of the federal government and local governments in recognizing systemic racism. Jim Crow was dead, and I think there was an attitude that everybody’s equal now and there was no reason to be in the street and there was no reason to continue on. And the players had finally started to earn as well.
So, I don’t think there’s any question that there was a cultural argument amongst African Americans whether there was still a need to stay active. I don’t know if we believed that we had to. I think what’s funny about that is that this attitude was growing at a time in the 1980s, when so much was being taken away. There was far more of a conservative crackdown and more emphasis on police power and more emphasis on undoing those victories of the 1960s, and the players still didn’t come around because they were making money. They didn’t feel they had to be involved.