Why we must stop pushing black athletes to use their platforms
The two reasons that it no longer aids our cause
Since joining The Undefeated, a space brimming with explorations of black athletes and race, a question has intruded my thoughts incessantly: Should we black folk abandon our push for black athletes to vocally address racial issues?
I must answer yes. The prodding of athletes to use their platform impairs our cause more than it aids it for two main reasons: It is premised on a decrepit way of thinking that we should let perish, and it forces the uniform of the racial justice advocate onto those who tend to wear it poorly.
I am not claiming that black athletes should just keep quiet and ball, but rather that we should withdraw our blanket call to action. Black athletes can utter whatever they wish and we should wrestle with their positions as warranted. They should not, however, feel compelled to speak because we petitioned them to do so.
As evidence, my mind darts, every time, to Richard Sherman’s dim and troubling Black Lives Matter statements from last September.
The Seattle Seahawks cornerback conducted a splendidly loud and brash on-field interview with TV sports reporter Erin Andrews after the 2014 NFC Championship Game. This moment branded his name onto the edifice of American popular culture and enlarged his personal platform to address the issues of the day. Nearly two years later, Sherman, from that sizable platform, took aim at the Black Lives Matter movement.
Athletes recently have been more willing to metaphorically march down to the town’s public square and protest against perceived racial injustices. Five St. Louis Rams players entered the field before a home game in November 2014 and brandished a “hands up” gesture, showing solidarity with slain teenager Michael Brown. And numerous NBA players wore “I can’t breathe” T-shirts in December 2014 to commiserate with the family of Eric Garner, who died after a New York City police officer put him in a choke hold.
But Sherman’s pontification sounded a warning alarm that should induce black folk to gag the calls nudging black athletes to climb atop their soapboxes.
Before blacks grapple with police brutality, Sherman contended “the issue at hand needs to be addressed internally,” the acidity of each controversial word noticeably corroding his usual armor of self-confidence. Memories of losing his best friend, Marcus Peters, a teenager torn apart by gang bullets, powered Sherman’s utterance. “[I]t was two 35-year-old black men” who murdered Peters, and, Sherman noted, “[w]asn’t no police officer involved, wasn’t anybody else involved, and I didn’t hear anybody shouting ‘black lives matter’ then.”
“We need to solidify ourselves as people and deal with our issues,” he insisted. “I think that as long as we have black-on-black crime, and one black man killing another. If black lives matter, then they should matter all the time.”
Fiery arrows of criticism soared in from all directions toward Sherman, including the unlikely locale of his own locker room. Seahawks defensive end Michael Bennett stated that Sherman “misinterpreted” the point of the Black Lives Matter movement.
Bennett was right.
Violence in black communities — something blacks do discuss internally — is a separate issue from the social ill of police brutality. To say that blacks cannot tend to one malady before curing another suggests we lack the capacity to manage multiple campaigns for racial improvement.
All black athletes hear the never-ending calls to grab the bullhorn and advocate for full racial emancipation. These calls, my Undefeated colleague and retired cornerback Domonique Foxworth reveals, generate “plenty of debates over the issues” privately among athletes.
Some of the loudest appeals come from black athletes who rose to prominence in a zeitgeist long passed. Jim Brown, per his prior comments to ESPN, wants athletes to eschew the easy path to “make a lot of money and be the master’s boy.” They should, he argued on Real Sports With Bryant Gumbel, transform their sports heroism into agents of black progress. Brown has even publicly shamed athletes by name. About golfer Tiger Woods and basketball great Michael Jordan, Brown said, “I know they both know better, OK? And I know they both can do better without hurting themselves.”
Baseball great Joe Morgan graduated from this same old-school thinking. “I don’t criticize a guy if he doesn’t want in that arena,” Morgan once told journalist Shaun Powell. “But one of these days we have to look in the mirror and say, ‘Did I do all that I could do to make this better?’ If Jackie Robinson looked in that mirror, the mirror would smile back at him. Some of these guys who don’t want to get involved, one of these days, it’s going to happen. They’re going to look in that mirror, and that mirror is going to say, ‘Why didn’t you?’ ”
Black athletes in the 1960s became racial representatives by virtue of their public oratory condemning racism. Older athletes — think boxer Joe Louis or Olympic gold medalist Jesse Owens — became racial representatives because of their athletic dominance. They were symbols of black equality on the world stage — testaments to black ability — and thus their bodies functioned as unspoken arguments for better treatment. Sports greats Jim Brown, Bill Russell, Muhammad Ali, and others were an evolution: symbols of athletic dominance joined with beautiful and deafening denunciations of white supremacy.
The era of segregation forged the pressure we still apply on black athletes to talk race. It’s a relic of the days of Jim Crow, when the enemy was as blatant as the injustices that haunted us. When black athletes and few others could draw attention to our plight. Circumstance compelled black athletes to speak back then. For if they pussyfooted, a herculean task would fall at the feet of just a handful of black leaders who had opportunities to articulate black grievances before national audiences.
Brown and his comrades were dependable advocates for various reasons, but the reality that they lived in an America with the obvious foes of segregation and overt discrimination meant the terrain of public commentary was far easier to traverse.
Time vanished that world long ago.
The issues assaulting black life now are decidedly harder to decipher, a veritable Rorschach test. Well-meaning people of diverse backgrounds see something different when staring at the same set of facts.
Take, for example, blacks and upward mobility.
Many applaud America for being the land where the poorest among us can elevate themselves through education, diligence and discipline. America, however, fails to deserve such adulation, especially when pertaining to black folk’s ability to climb the economic ladder.
More than 75 percent of blacks born into the families that are among the nation’s poorest 25 percent remain in the bottom half of the economic scale as adults. Worse yet, 70 percent of black children born into the middle 20 percent of the income spectrum will end up poorer than their parents upon reaching adulthood.
The dream of the exploding bank account is not our lived experience.
That black children, largely because of residential segregation, suffer through substandard education helps to partly explain these distressing statistics. Black children attend schools that poorly prepare them for success in capitalism. Yet, far too many who cannot even define “culture,” wrongly attribute these statistics wholly to supposed cultural black pathologies.
Other social ills, such as mass incarceration, urban violence, implicit bias, and the breakdown of the black family, each represent individual diseases that have afflicted the black status quo, frustrating one’s ability to discern which symptom corresponds to which disease. Land mines litter public discourse, requiring better navigational skills, in other words, a heightened level of understanding that many athletes, like many people, lack.
We have black folk outside of sports with the intellectual aptitude and the rhetorical panache to deliver the public commentary necessary to promote racial progress. If their platform needs to be bigger, then we must enlarge it to empower them to do this necessary work.
Granted, athletes are ready-made spokespeople — millions follow them on social media — and their every comment can dominate headlines as reporters shove microphones in their faces. Yet, if we push athletes to speak because they possess the largest platform, we make proximity to a television camera a virtue while reducing capability for smart commentary to a mere afterthought. That’s like choosing a chef not on skill, but on who’s closest to the kitchen.
Many prematurely launched Sherman into the ranks of all-time great sports activists when he argued whites often hurl “thug” at black athletes because the N-word carries far too heavy of a cultural baggage to throw. And when he indicted former Philadelphia Eagles coach Chip Kelly for having racial biases, Sherman, from some sectors of the black intelligentsia, garnered even more shine. Yet, in maligning the Black Lives Matter movement, in many blacks’ eyes, he dimmed the luster he previously earned.
Basketball star Kobe Bryant, too, suffered this burn.
Black Twitter set him ablaze for seemingly suggesting that blacks, particularly Miami Heat players who donned hoodies in solidarity with Trayvon Martin, defended the slain child solely because he had black skin.
In a New Yorker profile, Bryant said, “So we want to advance as a society and a culture, but, say, if something happens to an African-American, we immediately come to his defense? Yet you want to talk about how far we’ve progressed as a society? Well, we’ve progressed as a society, then don’t jump to somebody’s defense just because they’re African-American.”
Our calls for black athletes to talk snatched the bullhorn, even if temporarily, away from activists who speak authoritatively and powerfully on racial injustice and placed it in the hands of Sherman and Bryant, who offered assessments carrying the stench accompanying all bad arguments. The media gravitated to the remarks of superstar athletes and we sapped our energy debating arguments unworthy of our ears.
Cultures too often bind themselves to previous generations’ antiquated ways of living. A shrewder culture would earnestly debate which rules to preserve and which to discard.
We should urge athletes to develop a nuanced understanding of the issues that our current condition demands. Those pursuing this righteous and serious journey should stand proudly on their platform and shout.
But the general request for athletes to use their platforms?
We must kill it.