The Responsibility of the Black Athlete

Social activism in sports is an outstanding phenomenon.

The idea of protests being staged and political statements being made within athletics date back half a century, not counting Jesse Owens kicking the Nazi’s asses because America kind of claimed that one as a win for the country. Jackie Robinson can’t be forgotten either, because his mere presence in professional baseball was a form of social disobedience but by in large he was famously non controversial.

The golden age for athletic societal insubordination would obviously be the tumultuous 1960’s. This decade saw political assassinations like non other and claimed the lives of Medgar Evers, John F. Kennedy, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, and Robert Kennedy, not including world leaders like Patrice Lumumba. Naturally, sports has mirrored the make up of the society that it’s tasked to entertain so when there’s unrest in the streets, there’s unrest on the playing fields and courts.

After Ali whopped Liston’s ass in 1965, the United States inducted him into it’s armed forces in 1966.

Coincidence you ask? I wouldn’t doubt it.

Ali, of course, declined due to his view on race relations in America and its parallels with our country’s war with Vietnam. As a result, he was systematically stripped of his passport, his boxing license in every state, and consequently the heavyweight championship title. To show support and solidarity, four of the most legendary athletes gathered for what became known as the “Ali Summit” in 1967. Jim Brown, Bill Russell and Lew Alcindor (now Kareem Abdul Jabbar) held a news conference along with Ali, to discuss the former champs decision and endorse their brother.

A year later at the Olympics in Mexico City, bronze medalist John Carlos and gold medalist Tommie Smith raised their gloved fists from the award ceremony’s podium in support of the black power movement. All of this was happening during an era where blacks were being victimized by police and Jim Crow laws, churches were being bombed, and black leadership was being gunned down in cold blood.

Outside of Jim Crow laws being, let’s say transfigured, not too much has changed for blacks in America and as a result we continue to have displays of unrest and protests in our sports culture. However, one glaring observation has been made painfully obvious to me.

Why is it only the responsibility of the black athlete to speak on matters that effect race relations in the United States overall?

When former NBA team owner Donal Sterling casted his dispersions about black people, who spoke up and ultimately got him kicked out of the league? I’ll tell you who. It was black basketball players who said they wouldn’t play if something wasn’t done by the league.

When Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, and Mike Brown were killed by police officers, who spoke out and wore tee shirts which read ” I Can’t Breathe” and ” Hands Up, Don’t Shoot” ? Black athletes once again.

So how is it that only black athletes have the responsibility to speak up about things that don’t just effect black people, but the country at large ? Don’t white athletes like Tom Brady or Peyton Manning have anything to say ? They’re not even looked to when these incidents happen and although I totally understand why, it still shows how much things haven’t changed.

Peyton Manning and Tom Brady are not where I’m from. Not in exact locale and certainly not culturally. So I can’t expect them to feel the way I feel in reference to how the black community has been methodically marginalized. However, they have friends, coaches, teammates, peers, and even family members who are apart of a race that has been historically mistreated and terrorized by the same country that imported them here some 400 years ago. It’s for this very reason that it should be their moral obligation to sensitize themselves to these incidents and how the black community feels overall. Then, in turn speak out because it has an impact on all of us in some way or another.

Then again, maybe Tom Brady really doesn’t care given his half-assed Donald Trump endorsement this past NFL season. I tend to look funny at anyone who has a “Maker America Great Again” hat anway.

Let’s get back to black for a second.

Over the course of the last month or so, there have been various occurrences of black people being killed by police, and also black people killing the police. Once again, black athletes have placed themselves at the forefront and I salute it. They’re not just making statements through the press, but they’re getting out in the streets and having real conversations with the community and the country on a whole.

Mirroring the strong image of the Ali Summit, the NBA’s LeBron James, Chris Paul, Dwayne Wade, and Carmelo Anthony opened ESPN’s Espy Awards dressed in collective black and addressed the issue of police violence in the USA.

Carmelo has actually taken this cause a much necessary step forward. Two weeks ago, he wrote a heart felt letter expressing that all athletes who have influence should step up and contribute to possible solutions concerning the mistreatment of black people by law enforcement. He also said that simple internet hashtags won’t solve the issues at hand. Furthermore, he intends on keeping the conversation going; literally.

Earlier this week he held a community meeting at the Challenger Boys & Girls Club in Los Angeles. He gathered other athletes and members of law enforcement for a youth-police interactive session geared towards opening up the lines of communication between people of color and the people who police them.

One voice which has notoriously remained quiet for decades has been that of NBA legend Michael Jordan. From his selection to the Bulls in the early 1980’s until his finsl retirement in 2003, he has had a multitude of possible opportunities to speak about many things black.

Rodney King ? Nothing.

How about the L.A riots or the crack epidemic ? Not a fucking word.

Even the endorsement of a community leader turned Mayor who needed help while running for the senate was too much to ask because of a possible conflict with M.J’s business dealings. When Jordan was asked to endorse Charlotte Mayor Harvey Gantt in his 1990 North Carolina senate bid against a well noted bigoted incumbent, Jesse Helms, the Bulls superstar disgracefully said:

“Republicans buy sneakers, too.”

Sure they do Mike.

So now, after remaining almost criminally silent since we’ve known his name, Micheal Jordan insists he can remain silent no longer. In a letter to The Undefeated, Jordan strategically manages to make his first statement about something of worth, worth nothing at all. He goes on to donate money to both sides of the isle and concludes his extremely measured statement with a plea for change in the greatest and most privileged country in the world.

Really ?

Let it also be known that Mr. Jordan doesn’t even acknowledge the suffering caused during the manufacturing of, nor the violence that has happened because of the shoes that bears his name.

All in all, I’m glad that black athletes have continued to help shine a light on the plagues of our community because quite honestly, they don’t have to. They’ve made it out already and garner millions of dollars to play children’s games. So the fact that so many of them feel the need to go back home and help with their time and resources is a beautiful thing. Their forum and spotlight provides them with massive amounts of attention, and to use that light to speak out about community ills keeps a needed conversation going with a broader audience.

However, at this point in time and history should it really be up to just them?



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