Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Either Your Slinging Crack Rock or You Got a Wicked Jumpshot: Sports, Politics, and Economic Opportunity in the 21st Century's Racial Reality


Forty years ago this month, the 1968 Olympic Games was defined by the political statement of two Black athletes. With Black fist raised high, and an ode to the Black Power movement displayed, Tommie Smith and John Carlos made one of the most profound political statements ever seen at an international sporting event.

The beauty and the significance of the statement was the weight and poignancy of its symbolism. Smith wore a black scarf around his neck to symbolize Black pride, and Carlos wore beads around his in recognition of the Blacks who lost their life on the Middle Passage. Both wore black socks but no shoes, to symbolize the pervasive poverty numerous Blacks faced. Each had on a black glove on the raised fists, emboldening the Black Power cry.

Smith and Carlos' act was not a "rebel without a cause" moment, but an attempt to raise awareness about the condition of those who materially have the least and work mightily to obtain more. They represented not just the Texas and Harlem neighborhoods their came from, but struggle of those in the African Diaspora. Class, race, and human rights all came together in sports.


Would Terrell Owens put up a fist for "Black Power" after he scores his next touchdown? Would Lebron James lead a voter registration drive in his home-state of Ohio? Is Floyd Mayweather going to comment on the need to restructure America's health care system?

When the Celtics visited the White House for their NBA Championship visit, did Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett talk to President Bush about his tax plan? Will Candice Parker and Lisa Leslie come out and endorse Cynthia Mckinney and Rosa Clemente for President?

And if they did, would Nike, Reebok, Adidas, and all their other sponsors take away their endorsement deals?

When Jim Brown criticized Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant, and today's Black athletes a few days ago, he touched on an important issue---the role of the Black athlete in contemporary society, and their responsibility to themselves and the Black community.

Certainly it isn't a new discussion. But given the times, it seems all the more pertinent to think about.

The Black athlete in today's society is perhaps the most notable figure in the Black community. They are certainly among the wealthiest; and among young Blacks, perhaps the most influential. While it may not be a position they asked for, it is one they occupy none the less---no matter who thinks they shouldn't be, and no matter how much the athletes may say they don't want to be.

The question becomes what does their social position and privilege mean in today's society. Should we expect them to be more than athletes? Do they have a greater responsibility?

For the Black community, sports have always been about more than achievement. In fact one of sports main functions in Black life during the first half of the 20th century was disproving the idea of Blacks being biologically inferior. Contest on the field, in the ring, and on the court were challenges to White supremacy (biologically and ideologically). This is why the fights of Jack Johnson and Joe Louis, the races of Jesse Owens, and the success of Jackie Roberson are monumental events in American history. It is where not only did we see sports, but racial struggle played out.

For the Black community, sports was political. The 68' Olympics Black Power moment defines this.

But it was also economical.

Sports opened financial and entrepreneurial opportunities for Blacks. Successful athletes were able to open businesses in Black communities, and some members in those communities sought to use sports to create business enterprises (i.e. the Negro Leagues).

Many athletes felt a duty came with this success: a commitment to advocate for Black rights, a responsibility to stand against injustice and the violation of human rights, a mandate to use financial success and social recognition as a tool for community building.

You didn't just play a sport. You were compelled to have a moral stance, a social consciousness, and a political awareness. The lives and work of Black leaders like Paul Robeson, Jim Brown, Bill Russell, and Muhammad Ali are a testament to this.

Russell, Brown,Ali, Jabbar

Sports, race, politics, economics, morality, community---they were not separate, it all went together.

There is no question Black athletes like Serena Williams, Lebron James, or Carmelo Anthony know about the struggle of many Blacks in urban cities today. Being raised and growing up in areas like Compton, CA, Akron, OH, and Baltimore, MD make that reality unmistakable. Living in cities marked by racial segregation; plagued by the economic troubles of unemployment, gentrification, and de-industrialization; and haunted by racial inequalities embed this reality in them. They and many other Black athletes have lived the other side of the Civil Rights Movement's success: the continuance of racial segregation, unequal access to resources, and inequality in living conditions. The issues that Smith and Carlos attempted to raise are still issue today.

Many of these athletes have a Black consciousness, constructed by living through the success, hardship, pride, and complexity of race in America. And many of them understand the economic situation of those who have the least.

It is being young, Black, and successful in America, and the burden and challenges it brings that they struggle with. It is not financial obligation or charity that is difficult for them, it is the accountability of political advocacy and the fight for justice that is the burden.

"Do You," "Give Back," "Stand Up," or "Say Something," these are the choices and pressures our Black athletes face today. A pressure added to the fact that many have to grow up and mature in front of the whole world; making their missteps, mistakes, and learning experiences subject to the scrutiny of the public.

This all combines to create a tremendous tension over what is their role---to be role models for the Black community; to dedicate themselves to giving back to those who have less; and to use their global name recognition, ample resources, and media access to advocate for social justice and human rights issues; in short, to become more than sports heroes---to become role models, and community-orientated, politically involved leaders.

Lebron and Kobe

There's no doubt your parents, your teacher, or someone in the community should be young people's role models; these are the people they should look up to.

The problem is how many young Black kids grow up without parents, without teachers who care, and with adults who certainly are not role models.

The fact that so many Blacks have chosen to use sports as a healthy, legal way to provide for themselves and their families should be commended. But doesn't it show that their lives and their stories, the perseverance, dedication, and determination used to reach their level of achievement, their accomplishments, doesn't those things deserve to be so much more than example of how to succeed in a sport?

This is the point we should take from Jim Brown's comments. These young Black women and men lives are bigger than sports; it means more than money. Their lives are so much more meaningful than those things.

In life we all live together, not separate. We affect each other, and we can affect anything. Jim Brown's comments attempt to explain this. Tommie Smith's and John Carlos' statement reminds of this.

This is why we must ask Black athletes to do more---because our life is more than sports.

And until we develop ways to keep more parents involved in young people's lives; until we economically, spiritually, and emotionally empower those Black communities in the deepest struggle; and most importantly, until make sure that the parents, teachers, mentors, guidance counselors, educators, sanitation workers, rappers, nurses, case worker and everyone else who deserve to be role models are seen as such, we have to ask for our Black athletes to lead the way.


The Carmelo Anthony Youth Development Center

(And I am sure there are more. Please feel free to mention them in the comments section)


Paul Robeson

Roberto Clemente

Dr. Harry Edwards

Common Bond for Uncommon Men: Roberto Clemente and Martin Luther King Jr-David Zirin

Forty Million Dollar Slaves: The Rise, Fall, and Redemption of the Black Athlete-William C. Rhoden

Darwin's Athletes: How Sports Has Damaged Black America and Preserved the Myth of Race-John Hoberman

Michael Partis






Vee (Scratch) said...

"Many athletes felt a duty came with this success: a commitment to advocate for Black rights, a responsibility to stand against injustice and the violation of human rights, a mandate to use financial success and social recognition as a tool for community building."

Many yes, but what percentage? Because for every Muhammad Ali there were many that did not share his views, particularly Joe Lewis, Jack Johnson, George Foreman, etc.
Brown, Russell, Ali and Robeson while being a testament to the spirit of social consciousness were a huge minority in their respective sport.


I really don't agree with your closing statement that we have to ask black athletes to lead the way.

One, many extremely popular sports stars are very young and more often than not they're not athleteic scholars. At the height of his popularity would you ask Mike Tyson to develop a program to lead and teach economic empowerment?

Two, as far as role models are concerned many have serious checkered past involving violent domestic abuse or some run-in with the law. Popular athletes with class like David Robinson, Arthur Ashe and Grant Hill are far and few between. No matter what the NBA does to clean up their images many people remember the blemishes to relatively good guys like Jason Kidd. Do we brush aside some of their misguided decision and violent behavorial issues and expect them to lead political reforms for social justice?

BTW, William C. Rhoden's book is a truly great read. Either way, I'm really interested in reading your response.

Michael Partis said...

1st, indeed those Black athletes with a social consciousness like Brown, Russell, Ali, and Robeson are a minority in the greater pool of Black athletes---even at their time. But I think it is very important to highlight them. For one because popular media has developed this conventional wisdom that Black athletes are all in the apolitical mold of Jordan, Foreman, etc. To note that a number of Black athletes, and most importantly extremely successful, Hall-Of-Fame/All-Time greats/sports Icons were socially aware and activist is vital. We know all about the "I'm just an athlete" crowd, the brothers and sisters that were in political struggle should be noted. Hell Paul Robeson might be one of the greatest AMERICANS of all time (forget athletes), that story needs to be highlighted.

For me it is not so much about percentages and "more or less" arguments. I mentioned them to illuminate a side of the story that needs more telling. That was my attempt in highlighting Brown, Russell, Ali, Robeson, Clemente, et all.

2nd, you are right in that many of today's Black athlete's are in no position in terms of development and maturity to lead a political agenda. However, those are skills that are cultivated; those are skills that are developed. These athletes are not deaf, blind, and dumb. They certainly can be politicized---same as any citizen can. To what level and what complexity can they develop in terms of sophistication on the issues, well that is another story. But we do not know their power unless it is tapped---by them and by us as well.

And to that point to you are right, I probably should have included a piece about how the community has a responsibility to hold them to that standard---to demand that they be for more than themselves. More then for use, they owe that to themselves.

Now their checked past, violent run-ins, etc is a complicated matter. Part it is a matter of poor choices and bad decisions which they must take accountability for. Part of it is growing up in front of the world. What person who is a professional and went to college etc, does not have a story of drinking too much, making a fool of themselves, being embarrassed, making a regretful decision...we all have; and if someone says they haven't or don't know anybody who has I would seriously challenge that LOL. The point is we do it and our friends know. Young athletes do it and its on Sportscenter. Their margin for error is extremely small; part of that comes with the territory, part of it is that's a hell of a situation to put someone in.

In addition we have to consider where they are coming from (as I mention in the article), certainly the complicated situation of poor urban neighborhoods develop complex behaviors and world-views. These young people are trying to navigate where they're from, and the new terrain. I can only imagine the difficulty of that tightrope.

I think the answer to all of this is we must shed our rigid understandings of people's behavior and broaden our perspective on how this whole thing works.

Thanks for reading and commenting. I really, truly appreciate it. Look for to your comments back. Peace

Vee (Scratch) said...

The highlighted brothers need to be mentioned often, you're absolutely right about Robeson. He was FAR MORE than an athlete and that's NOT HYPE nor a nostalgic exaggeration.

Did you read about Curtis Flood? Talk about a freaking political pioneer who really changed the landscape of ALL major sports in America.

I definitely think accountability goes both ways. Placing the pressure of leadership on anyone is a difficult burden to bear, especially for those in the public spotlight who's sole purpose is to entertain.

I hear you brother. We're just in a different time and age. I HOPE AND PRAY that the current sports athletes do their homework and understand the legends they idolize outside their performances on court.

And hey, although he's often viewed as "corny" or whatever, many young upcoming professional athletes need to learn game from Tiki Barber, David Robinson, and the rest of them that are often label "sell-outs", soft, not real, etc.

Oh, here's an article that you may enjoy.
Bender helping hurricane victims recover, rebuild.


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