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It’s halftime, America, either we fix our racial problems or we’re doomed

With no sports, we can focus on the hard work of truth telling, battling hatred and division

“We are human beings caught in a network of mutuality, and the loss of the sense of mutuality goes along with the loss of respect for the truth, and for righteousness and for decency toward human beings.” — Martin Luther King Jr.


It’s halftime in America.

The games we rely on for entertainment have been put on hold by a devastating coronavirus.

I’m thankful that there are no NBA playoffs, no Major League Baseball, possibly no college football and who knows about the NFL.

We can focus.

With no games to distract us, we in the United States have been forced to confront the ravages of racism inequality and hypocrisy as never before.

In team sports, intermission is a time to attend to injuries, make adjustments and recharge.

During this forced national intermission, what adjustments we will make, how will we attend to our massive psychic injuries and how will we reenergize?

I raised the issue with Dr. James A. Forbes Jr. He is president of Healing of the Nations Ministries and serves as national minister for the Drum Major Institute. He is also the senior minister emeritus of The Riverside Church in New York City.

During our conversation, Rev. Forbes extended the intermission/halftime metaphor and suggested that we as a nation, we as African Americans, we as interdependent human beings better make some serious halftime adjustments.

The pandemic, the days and nights of protest against police violence and social inequity have forced us to confront fundamental issues of what really matters in life and who matters.

“We do not want the second half to begin without these questions having been given adequate response,” he said. “Because if the game returns to the brutality and the cannibalism associated with the first half, we’re going to go back to normal and it’s going to be the same normal of the triumph of materialism and of the evils of racism, materialism and militarism. We will have gone through this virus and lost hundreds of thousands of people with no ultimate gain.”

I don’t want to go back to normal.

For African Americans and for the poor, the norm has always been abnormal.

Two women pray on June 2 in Louisville, Kentucky, near the intersection where David McAtee was killed. Louisville police say video obtained from security cameras at McAtee’s business and an adjoining business show that McAtee fired a gun as police and National Guard soldiers were enforcing a curfew.

AP Photo/Darron Cummings

Hatred has been normalized. The abuse of power and raw, naked racism are normalized.

We cannot go back to that kind of normal.

“I think the United States of America needs to have a public discussion about which of these abnormalities are we prepared to give up in exchange for a new spirit sensibility, a new set of values, or Dr. King calls it a ‘revolution of values,’ where we care for one another, where there is a mutuality of respect for people,” said Forbes.

I used to ask: How do we recover the lost American soul? The better question is whether the United States has ever had a soul? Can a nation founded on the backs of forced slavery have a soul?

What we’re actually talking about is finding the American soul.

With no games to distract us, we can continue the search during this extended intermission.

What we are experiencing in this time of pandemic, lockdowns and civil unrest is what Forbes describes as despiritualization. The phenomenal triumph of mammon.

“That is the only explanation for the cultivation of the extreme partisanship that we’re going through,“ Forbes said during a phone conversation earlier this week.“ The triumph of those who say they’ll put our nation back together, the spirit of victimization and actually a willingness to develop a culture that’s characterized by cannibalization of people of color and who are vulnerable. That’s why we’ve lost the spirit.”

This loss has been building in the world of sports for years, where protecting the shield is first and foremost. The NFL’s blackballing of Colin Kaepernick has repeatedly been pointed out as a naked example of the league’s hypocrisy.

Even before that, it became glaring in 2014 when NFL executives watched a video of Ray Rice knocking his then-fiancée unconscious in a hotel elevator. Rice was only seriously punished after the video became public.

Penn State’s initial reaction to the sexual abuse scandal within the football organization under Joe Paterno was to protect the university first.

Even now as the nation is gripped by a lethal pandemic, powerful college sports conferences, looking for TV paydays, are apparently planning to bring football players back on campus before “regular students” are allowed on campus.

Let’s take the sports season off.

We can do without the distractions. We can do without the rivalries and partisanship.

Heaven knows we can do without the partisanship.

This is not the time for polarity, even as a metaphor.

I used to ask: How do we recover the lost American soul? The better question is whether the United States has ever had a soul? Can a nation founded on the backs of forced slavery have a soul?

Organized sport is designed to give us a non-lethal way of living out the fragmentation tendency in humanity.

“In an age of despiritualization, our images are the images of powerful rivals,” Forbes said. “Sports offers a less lethal way of living out polarizing aspects of despiritualized humanity.

“We’ve got to recognize that basically we are siblings. The issue of rivalry between black and white, between Asians and Latinx, the rivalry between Republicans and Democrats, the rivals between North Korea, the Soviet Union, China and the United States, all of that is a trivialization and a distortion of reality.”

Had the NBA playoffs been going on, we would be rhapsodizing over star players and great performances. We would be consumed by baseball season and lathered up in anticipation of NFL training camps.

Instead, we are left to look at horrible images: vigilantes taking a black life in Georgia, a police officer taking the life of an African American man in Minneapolis. Day and night, we see images of demonstrations across the country and then a surreal image of President Donald Trump holding a Bible in front of a church after police used tear gas and force to clear out protesters to accommodate the free photo-op.

Forbes argues that a despiritualized culture needs the Holy Spirit to return and coach us back to sanity, to coach us back to the abundant life.

Protesters gather at a memorial for George Floyd where he died outside Cup Foods on East 38th Street and Chicago Avenue on June 1 in Minneapolis. Protests continued following the death of Floyd, who died after being restrained by Minneapolis police officers on May 25.

AP Photo/John Minchillo

“God the Great Spirit, is the only one that can deliver us, but we have distanced ourselves from the spirit,” Forbes said. Apart from changing values, there is no end to the rivalry and the carnage that has become normalized by the way we play the game of life.

Before we ended our conversation, I asked Forbes about various uses of Christianity for self-confirmation.

When Trump went across the street to St. John’s Church and held up a Bible, “He was holding that Bible up to give the impression of his being a God-conscious person so that what he is doing, he was doing for God. And he hopes that his base, evangelicals, would see that and say, ‘See, he’s a religious person, he held up the Bible.’ Everybody I know would say he used the Bible as a way to confirm his rightness and his justness and his significance.

“I can’t condemn Trump for doing that because, to a certain extent, it is a more widespread practice to use religion to get the confirmation you need.”

Forbes added: “Jesus would say to people, ‘Don’t use God to endorse your evil. But Democrats and Republicans do that.”

How do we make the painful, necessary adjustments during these enforced intermissions? With candid conversations, strategic action, but more importantly than any of that, a radical change of heart must come with deep introspection and the sort of painful awakening many are experiencing as we see tyranny unfolding before our eyes.

“Until we can have a radical revolution of values, we are all headed down the street of annihilation,” Forbes said.

It’s halftime in America. We’d better use it wisely.

William C. Rhoden, the former award-winning sports columnist for The New York Times and author of “Forty Million Dollar Slaves,” is a writer-at-large for The Undefeated. Contact him at william.rhoden@espn.com.