Black Athletes on Black Issues

At the risk of stating the obvious or rehashing ground that many others have covered far more eloquently than I will, I feel compelled to call out a double standard in our attitude towards socially engaged black athletes.  When he calls attention to the plight of black people in this country, LeBron James is told to “shut up and dribble,” never mind that white athletes (and actors and musicians) are lauded for their charitable and humanitarian efforts.  When black NFL players kneel or otherwise use the playing of the national anthem to raise awareness of how black people are treated in our criminal justice system, people cry that a football game is not the time for social causes, never mind that any given week brings massive campaigns for things like breast cancer or pediatric research or childhood obesity.

Not sure if the pushback is the color of the messengers or the predominant color of the people they are fighting for (more on this in a sec), but either way the message is clear: a very large proportion of American sports fans are anywhere from apathetic to hostile when it comes to black athletes raising black issues. 

It is easy to draw a direct line to the minstrel shows of yesteryear, and even further back to the hugely attended battles between Christians and lions for sport in ancient Rome.  We have relegated the black athlete to entertainer, with no regard to his own wellbeing, his opinions, or his advocacy for others.  The implicit message behind “shut up and dribble,” after all, is “because you’re no good for anything but to entertain us with your athletic exploits.”

To return to a question raised above, I actually think more of the pushback is towards the message and not the messenger.  Recall that Tiger Woods, and Michael Jordan before him, was lauded not only for his sporting dominance but for representing a broader image of success and professionalism.  Tiger (and MJ before him) could sell watches and cars and even consulting firms, because we were comfortable seeing this particular type of black athlete as a proxy for success and professionalism.  Importantly and famously, both Tiger and MJ were apolitical, particularly about issues of race.  So we had no problem elevating these two, because though they were black athletes they didn’t use their fame to raise issues that made us uncomfortable.  (If I may offer a slight and tangential counterpoint here, which is that Allen Iverson was also fairly apolitical, and yet never got the same love as Tiger or MJ because his physical appearance and general demeanor didn’t reconcile with peoples’ sense of success and professionalism.  Indeed, AI made some people feel downright uncomfortable.  So, going back to my previous question, I think it’s both.)

Much of America is less comfortable with Colin Kaepernick and with the version of LeBron James that is vocal on race issues in America, because it reminds them that all too many people in this country who look like Kaepernick and James but who don’t throw a football or dunk a basketball for a living are discriminated against simply for the color of their skin.  We are a post-slavery society that wants to be a post-racial society, but that hasn’t yet fully dealt with either the trauma inflicted upon African-Americans as a result of being owned and abused, or the insidious prejudices that a segregated and unjust co-existence have nurtured in the rest of us.  We want James to stick to hoops, and to think that Kaepernick not being signed to a team has anything to do with his protests, because we are unwilling to accept either the continued racism that exists in our nation or our participation in that racism. 

You can disagree with the positions black athletes take on social issues.  But if you disagree with their freedom to use the platform their fame has provided them to speak out on issues, and take umbrage with their audacity to stand (or kneel) in solidarity with people who look like them, shame on you. 

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