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LiAngelo Ball will bounce back, but many black teens don’t get that chance

They’re rarely allowed to be knuckleheads, going quickly from kids to thugs

LiAngelo Ball left UCLA earlier this week rather than serve out his suspension from the basketball program for allegedly shoplifting during a team trip to China. The 19-year-old is reportedly training for the NBA draft, preparing to launch his own line of the family’s Big Baller Brand shoes and presumably figuring out a world of new possibilities, none of which mirrors the options of other young black men who make foolish choices.

For many of those young men, the fall is farther, the landing harder, the operating space narrower and full of mines. It’s something that’s top of mind for me as the mother of a 15-year-old black son. A 2014 study published by the American Psychological Association found that black boys “are more likely to be mistaken as older, be perceived as guilty and face police violence if accused of a crime.” They’re seen “as responsible for their actions at an age when white boys still benefit from the assumption that children are essentially innocent,” according to Phillip A. Goff, the study’s author, who coincidentally worked at UCLA.

Especially lately, here’s what that means: There’s been this whole collapse of the normal adolescent space in which young people could make stupid mistakes and learn from those mistakes without them being fatal — or without them being sealants on a diminished future.

This collapse means that black teenage boys can’t engage in high jinks. They are rarely goofballs or knuckleheads, high-spirited or rambunctious in the media or popular culture. You see where I’m going with this. Without a doubt, some kids can be idiots, screw-ups or just jerks. But before the eyes of the nation, our sons go almost immediately from kids to thugs. From the Scottsboro Boys to the Central Park Five, it has ever been so. (William H. Bonney killed eight people, by the way, and he still got to be Billy the Kid.)

The story of LiAngelo Ball involves bad decisions and the sense that he knows better or should have, says Brittney Cooper, a professor of women’s and gender studies at Rutgers University and author of the forthcoming Eloquent Rage: A Black Feminist Discovers Her Superpower.

Especially for black folks, it’s the idea that you don’t want to be company over to somebody’s house and act the fool. That history and society will judge you harshly for playing that nut role, and so will your grandmother.

That said, Olympic swimmer Ryan Lochte was 32 when he and a few teammates vandalized a Rio de Janeiro gas station last year and he explained that he’d been “immature.” President Donald Trump called his 39-year-old son “a good boy,” and “an honest kid,” when it was found out he’d met with a Russian lawyer promising incriminating information on Hillary Clinton.

But that boys-will-be-boys category was not afforded to 12-year-old Tamir Rice. He was inexperienced at life but was shot within seconds of Cleveland police pulling up on him while he held a toy gun in a park.

History and society will judge you harshly for playing that nut role, and so will your grandmother.

“Black kids deserve the right to be able to make mistakes and to not have those mistakes devastate their entire lives and their entire future,” Cooper said. “Black parents both have the right to push out that critique of the system and also to say to their children, ‘This is the world you living in and this world is no country for black people.’ That’s a thing we know.”

Bill Johnson, a father of two boys ages 12 and 15, grew up in a military family and has coached basketball and football for 10 years with the Bowie Boys & Girls Club in Maryland. As a coach, he said, he tries to instill “discipline and right-mindedness. My dad gave me the same thing. If you mess up, you’re not going to have choices.”

With the recent heightening of racial tensions, “black males in society are in a dangerous situation. If you’re successful, people are hating on you, and if you’re not, you’re the scum of the earth,” he said. He tries to instruct boys “in the basic fundamentals of life: work hard, do the right thing.” Because with all the perception in the world going against you, you don’t want any unforced errors.

If you get in trouble, if you break the law, the stakes are high, and second chances for black boys are iffy at best.

T.J. Jordan, a basketball coach at the McDonogh School in Baltimore, stresses to his players that when you’re already under a microscope, “you’ve got to make good decisions.” The ability to rebound after a blunder like the one made by LiAngelo Ball likely wouldn’t have been the case for a black kid lacking the wealth and fame of the Ball family, he speculates.

The privilege, especially the racialized privilege, to drop the ball, pick it back up and keep it moving isn’t reflexively accorded to a lot of the kids he’s seen. “When they go home, no one knows what their lives are like. Some have hiccups, and one hiccup can easily end their career,” Jordan said. The gym is their outlet, but a coach is always worried. “Make sure you’re doing the right thing on and off the court,” he urges players.

Because for ordinary young black men in the game of life, one fumble could end it all.

Lonnae O’Neal is a senior writer at The Undefeated. She’s an author, a former columnist, has a rack of kids and she writes bird by bird.