Now that Black athletes have brought multiple sports and leagues to a sudden halt — with unprecedented support from white teammates — in the wake of the horrific police shooting of Jacob Blake, it is time for white fans to acknowledge what has always been plain: There is no way to be a sports fan without having an ardent belief about race in this country.
To be a sports fan in 2020 either means working to understand the grief and rage of Black athletes, athletes who have decided not to play the game they love in order to get your attention, or opting instead to be willfully ignorant. To refuse to hear the message is to choose the side of the status quo, and the systemic racism that pervades our country.
This fight was always going to play out in this way, because when you talk about sports you are talking about race. This is obvious, of course, to anyone who pays even intermittent attention to our most popular games, football and basketball (at both the pro and college levels.) But even in other sports, there are Black stars — Tiger Woods, Serena Williams and Barry Bonds are some of the greatest athletes of all time — and there is, also, the absence of Black athletes and the systemic racism creating and sustaining those voids.
I was shocked into an understanding of the way race and sports intertwine at the end of my freshman year of college, which began 20 years ago this week. Penn State’s spring football game later that spring was briefly delayed when members of the school’s Black Caucus raced to the center of the field prior to kickoff. As the crowd around me booed, I, being a perky cub reporter who’d been following the news reported by my colleagues at the student paper, sought to explain: Black Caucus leaders had been getting death threats, and felt the university’s leadership was lax in its response to those threats. This was a way to get attention. As I told those around me about this controversy that had roiled on our campus — a campus I assumed they cared deeply about, since they were there for the game — I expected looks of shock, maybe sadness. Instead there were mostly angry sneers, louder boos and several uses of the n-word. When the protest had been dispersed, a team of Black men raced onto the field and the crowd roared.
I should have realized then that I would never truly *understand* sports unless I worked to comprehend racism. I’m ashamed to say I was slow to that epiphany, and have been too timid in using it to shape my work. Writing about sports is writing about race. Full stop. And we have not done a good enough job of making that clear, and exploring what it means. Yes, in college I wrote numerous stories of Black players “overcoming” the “adversity” of coming from a “rough neighborhood” or “single-parent home,” but I never pushed to truly understand why those places and people were talked about the way they were, or the forces that made — and kept — them that way.
We didn’t use the word woke so much back then, but I’m guessing I would have considered myself at least aware of, and sympathetic to, the plight of the Black athletes I covered. I was not. I showed this in my first real job, when I covered a high school basketball game between Cumberland Valley, a suburban school, and Harrisburg, the public city high school. Harrisburg was the top-ranked team in our coverage area, but had trouble with Cumberland Valley and I wrote that Harrisburg — made up mostly of Black players — had failed to execute and hadn’t been tough or smart enough. It was bad sports writing, built on cheap stereotypes. It was also racist, and was justifiably called out the next morning by school officials. So I knew the only thing to do was show up at Harrisburg’s practice later that day to try to apologize.
All eyes turned to me when I walked into the gym, but nobody would talk to me for a long while. Finally, the head coach motioned for me to join him. The players were spread through the gym, shooting free throws. He pointed at each one, explained what was going on at home. And I began to understand: For these players to execute even close to the level of other athletes in the area, with their privilege giving them a solid foundation and countless advantages, was a triumph. They’d pushed twice as hard, only to read in the paper the next day that they were undisciplined and unpolished and had gotten by on skill alone.
I felt awful … and still I was only beginning to understand the story in front of me. A few months later I moved to New York and wandered up into the Bronx and settled in on the bleachers at a football practice for DeWitt Clinton High School, where one coach would leave early to retrieve day-old apple pies the nearby McDonald was about to throw out. That way they knew their players would get at least something to eat that night.
Race permeated every story I covered from there on out:
- I moved to Indiana to write about the Hoosiers basketball team in the wake of Mike Davis’ firing. The discussion of his tenure was fraught with racially coded language. His replacement, Kelvin Sampson, brought in hard-nosed players from those “tough neighborhoods” and, initially, won “the right way.” But when he was forced to leave after committing NCAA violations, and those players rebelled at having their trusted coach ripped away, they were quickly branded “thugs” who “didn’t get it.”
- When I’d check public records to see if Indiana athletes got in trouble, I couldn’t help but notice that the Black athletes ended up with citations for not wearing seat belts at a dramatically higher rate than their white peers.
- As I dove into the world of high-stakes recruiting and the AAU-level basketball that fuels it, I found that there were two types of players: The white gym rats who had a feel for the game (and private coaches galore) vs. the “springy” Black players who were “raw” but would undoubtedly get better “with the right coaching.”
Eventually I began to think back to my earlier years, to things I might have missed. I grew up a Philadelphia Eagles fan, marveling at the way Randall Cunningham did things on the field that no other player in the NFL could think of doing. But I also listened to a constant conversation that discounted Cunningham for perceived faults such as: He could not read a defense, he was not a big-game player, he could not run an offense efficiently, he did not have the It Factor. All of these, of course, were code for one thing so many people wanted to say but felt they could not: He’s Black.
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One day earlier this summer I arrived to the basketball courts near my house to find that someone had written, in chalk, the names of Black men and women killed in violent attacks. The names filled the whole lane, and stretched beyond. I walked toward the court, to take a picture, when a Black boy ran over to me yelling, “Please don’t step on those.” It’s chilling now to think of what he was saying then: You cannot play your game. Please instead read these names.
What I also remember about that day — or perhaps it was another one like it this summer, they all run together — is the white kids about 200 yards away on the soccer fields, where adults were putting them through a clinic. Parents dropped them off wearing fresh cleats, clutching a new ball in one hand and $20 water bottle in the other. Over on the court the Black boy and his friends played game after game with whoever happened by. They’d go to the nearby water fountain during breaks, hoping it would work. They had wandered over from “the apartments” — a phrase always said with a disapproving tone by certain of my neighbors who’d also confided that the school “wasn’t what it used to be” — and would be there most of the day.
On its face, in a Maryland neighborhood some kids played soccer and some played basketball. But that wasn’t all that was happening there that day, and you know it. When you talk about sports, you’re talking about race. It is bewildering when sports writers are derided for being “woke.” There is no way to write about these games and the forces shaping them without being jolted from even the deepest slumber.
If you’ve never had to think about it in this way until now — or even until four years ago, when Colin Kaepernick first protested during the national anthem — then you probably have the benefit of being white, the default in this country. Of course that system works for you. And perhaps you’ve shielded yourself from any deeper examination because the Black athletes who’ve provided the memories you’ll cherish forever are getting rich, or at least getting a college scholarship. They’ve been rewarded, you think. We’re good here, we’re even.
Well, no more. Because those Black athletes are demanding now that you actually listen. That you understand they are outliers, the rare few who found a way to win a race that was stacked against them — and that their friends and family members didn’t get “left behind.” They lost a fight that was never meant to be fair in the first place. Black athletes are asking you now to understand that this system is broken. That none of this is coincidence; that those Black kids shooting hoops on their own each summer day will grow up to be seen and treated differently by police than those white kids attending an organized soccer camp. And that it is no longer OK.
Honestly, I hesitated even writing this because I’m still learning and still have blindspots. Also, this is a time for people like me to be listening — to Black athletes, but also to writers of color, like our own Mike D. Sykes and Hemal Jhaveri. Their voices are most important right now. I learn from them everyday, and will continue to do so. But it felt like the right moment to point out my own mistakes and how they’ve shaped me — and helped me understand how we got here.
If at this point you do not want to listen to the Black athletes who’ve paused sports, then you do not actually want to watch sports anymore. So stop. They are not for you. You’ve already taken more from them than they ever owed you, and there’s room now only for those who understand, at least, that it is time to give back.
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