The Black Athlete
From the moment an athlete steps into the professional realm, there becomes a dream for youth to follow. A dream representative of grand celebration - championship cameras flashing - but empty of a sense of self. Champions pass through time glorified for who they are but also for who they are not. Far too often, this is the imagination of a winner searching for soul stressing compliance. For the Black athlete, the question "What have you done for the black community lately?" is ubiquitous. Social responsibility and cultural awareness walk in lockstep with cumbersome pressures of reaching superstar status. While white athletes search for internships in preparation for corporate opportunities away from sports, the majority of elite black athletes are contemplating the necessities of ascending to the professional ranks as soon as possible. A life in sports has not been about athleticism for the Black athlete but about navigating an easy path to gain...and sustaining the solitude of the American dream beyond the simplistic measure of fanatical yet tolerant adulation.
Juwan Howard Miami Heat forward and last member of the Fab Five still in the NBA: "During the 60's athletes sacrificed during the era. They made a lot of sacrifices for my colleagues and I but more importantly, a lot of the black youth that are growing up in the community today...including my kids. I want to continue to be a positive role model and to be a good example for not only black youth but all youth." Media glare strangles comfort from lives once imagined to be innately prosperous under the guise of a true Utopian hue. LeBron James having regular season and playoff success is never enough even when he's apologetic (albeit months late) for a poorly-handled "decision" to leave Cleveland. Rashard Mendenhall and Chris Douglas Roberts are excoriated for commenting on Twitter after news broke navy seals killed Bin Laden. One hundred forty characters of misinterpretation became two more stained names in the guilty first court of public opinion. Why do we allow ourselves to be upset when athletes have a say in the human experience? This phenomena has been expedited by editors and publishers pandering to fans of sport envious of making millions to play a game. The sentiment is exacerbated by the small percentage of athletes (of any color) getting in trouble or feeling above the law entitlement. With black athletes it seems the few define the lot and in a society searching for superheroes, how does this help us all? Do we want athletes to speak or simply shut up and play? The narrative must be changed or children will miss the real point of an athlete’s ascension from talented tot to Hall of Fame icon. Therein lies the story, but the dominant perspective is not of the hard work needed for an athlete to turn pro. Donovan McNabb is a quarterback who could have played for one team his entire career with his success in Philadelphia. To this day he receives unjust criticism even from his own race. An eloquent and intense Fab Five documentary is stripped of nuance and substance to become Grant Hill vs. Jalen Rose. Cam Newton's tarnished Heisman trophy winning name is twisting in a let's wait and see if he fails wind. Purchased laptops becomes his crime as if his hands stole the hardware.
Newton in one year became of the best college football players the sport has ever seen, and despite yet unproven allegations, won like the best of them ... two championships on two levels. The stigma following Black quarterbacks made no exception to Newton leading up to the NFL draft. “Can't read defenses". "Can he stay in the pocket?", "Is he a leader?" Newton was careful speaking in public pre-draft because he knew anything deviating from the usual script would follow him to his grave. And yet more athletes on the contrary are trying to speak their piece... "Athletes have a big responsibility," Deron Williams explains to me after an '08 Utah - Sixers game in Philly. "They (athletes) 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 election of Barack Obama was a proud moment for black athletes, evident in locker rooms across the land: “We have a situation where we have an African-American President and we feel like we can do more for our country.” Carlos Boozer tells me with the aforementioned Williams at his side. He continues: “We feel like we can speak up. The truth is a lot of young people look up to us. Whether we want to be in those shoes or not...we're in them. We aren't talking about anything negative in this conversation. It's all positive and that is the way we can help our youth out. We are part of that youth ourselves." Have we truly progressed (outside of the racial slur obvious) past the opinion written here? The Black Athlete—a Shameful Story by Jack Olsen, published July 1, 1968: “To be sure, there are a few fair-minded men who are willing to suggest that perhaps the Negro has done something for sports in return. Says George McCarty, athletic director of the University of Texas at El Paso, "In general, the nigger athlete is a little hungrier, and we have been blessed with having some real outstanding ones. We think they've done a lot for us, and we think we've done a lot for them." Who resides on the athletic pantheon? In a NFL sense, why is this space reserved simply for Montana, Marino and Elway? Shouldn't kids of all races know the names of Moon, Cunningham and Steve McNair merely for the position to truly evolve? Also, more Black historical baseball players than Barry Bonds exist. The legacies of Oscar Charleston, Buck Leonard, Satchel Paige and Josh Gibson paved the way for Jackie Robinson to integrate Major League Baseball. Moving forward, for the Black athlete to truly add to the human experience of American fabric, a narrative can no longer be about the obstruction of racism, but more about millionaire activism. Charles Barkley, eloquent in my recorder after a Philly Urban Youth Racing School event explains: "A lot of these young Black kids have never experienced racism. They are just using it as a crutch. At some point you have to draw a line in the sand and say I'm going to be a good person. I'm going to get a job, get my education, live my life, be a good husband and father. We owe a great deal of gratitude to older black people...and white people. They did some lifting also...they did some marching and things like that. For the older people who went through the Civil Rights Movement...we're not respecting them." What about kids of misfortune? "You can only use that excuse for so long. I didn't grow up with a father so at some point you have to grow up and be a man. If you go through your whole life looking for an excuse why you're not successful, at some point you look in the mirror and say I'm not successful because of me." What are the responsibilities of Black athletes and how have those responsibilities changed over the years? Bill Rhoden, New York Times columnist and author of the best selling 40 Million Dollar Slaves explains to me in’08 during a Game 4 of Miami vs. Philadelphia 1st round playoff series: "The responsibility has changed but I still think it's what you make as any citizen...not just the Black athlete...being Black journalists, Black lawyers. I think if you understand the situations in our communities...young Black people who need jobs, education...who need a break...it's your job to use your position to make that happen. Athletes tend to be very visible so we expect more from them because they are so far out there in the public. The general responsibility is the same but the dates have changed. We have to use whatever influence we have as adults to get the kids a break…" You don't hear the question asked of Peyton Manning - what have you done for the white community? "There's a gap between wealth. There's a gap between opportunity. There's a gap between African-Americans economically and everyone else economically. It's gonna take a long time before any of us can pass down our buckets and say that consciousness is no longer needed. Not just racial consciousness but how can we make the country better as well." What is it going to take for athletes to no longer be stuck on the "entry level"? To become the owners of franchises, the publishers of media outlets, the ones on the top floor who make the decisions for younger generations? "That is what has changed. It's no longer about being a head coach or a quarterback. Now it's about ownership. That's the new thing. We're not making enough money yet to own or be in a position of power. That's the next step." Why is Cam Newton receiving so much scrutiny despite leading two different teams to championships on different levels, and also having a direct NFL lineage? "Because of racism not giving credit where credit is due. Making you [blacks] work three times as hard and holding us to a higher standard. That has not changed. He's gonna have to just be great." Grant Hill chimes in during an April phone interview: "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." Again, it's not simply about athleticism. Athletes should be able to exercise freedom of speech regardless of who they are playing for. We should want to know what makes them tick; what was behind their rise to the pros so the next era learns the right way. Instead, Black athletes have essentially become reasons papers are sold, writers feed their families, and hatred festering. As the generation of Kobe Bryant and Donovan McNabb move into the last stage of their superb careers, who will become the next Black athlete whipping boy?