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To Play, Protest Or Both? Book Traces 'The Heritage' Of Black Athlete Activists

May 5, 2018
Originally published on May 16, 2018 3:15 pm

For African-American athletes, sports will never be just a game, says sports writer Howard Bryant. "This is a question of black body versus black brain," he says. "In the United States, the black body has always been what's been compensated — whether you can sing, whether you can dance, whether you can ... work manually. That's what we care about. That's the currency."

Bryant, a senior writer for ESPN.com and ESPN The Magazine, traces the legacy of black athlete activists in his new book, The Heritage: Black Athletes, a Divided America, and the Politics of Patriotism. He says there were "40 years of dormancy" when black athletes by and large didn't use their platforms to advocate for social change. Now, with NFL players taking a knee during the national anthem, athletes are once again asserting their voices.

This coincides with a particular moment in post-9/11 America, he explains. Newer sports fans may not realize it's a relatively recent phenomenon that arenas and stadiums celebrate the U.S. armed forces and law enforcement with military flags, flyovers and first responders throwing out ceremonial pitches. This display of patriotism, Bryant says, "is colliding with the sudden revival of the African-American player ... protesting police brutality."


Interview Highlights

On why some fans think athletes should keep their politics off the field

You cannot separate 9/11 from what's happening with the black athlete today because the white athletes and anybody else who tried to challenge what was taking place after the towers fell — they felt the wrath. It's not necessarily a racial issue only. This is a question of patriotism — of weaponizing patriotism, of weaponizing jingoism, and of weaponizing the flag and of being able to speak.

On the athletes having first-hand experience with the issues

We see famous people speaking out of their depth all the time. And then you hear people say: Shut up and play, or shut up and act, or we don't want to hear from you. But on this subject, this is an area where ballplayers actually have direct knowledge and direct experience ... We should be listening to LeBron James, who comes from a tough neighborhood in Akron. We should be listening to Carmelo Anthony, who's from West Baltimore, where Freddie Gray was killed.

On athletes who choose not to use their platforms to advocate for social change

O.J. [Simpson] was the first athlete who really opened the door to endorsements and to the big money. And then with free agency in the '70s, ballplayers were ... on their way to becoming super-rich, as they are today. And then by the time you get to the '80s, you've got Michael Jordan, who really was the guy who identified the player with commerce. And he was the guy who became 'a brand,' as they say today.

And you did not hear elite athletes talk about anything important. They did not get involved in social issues. You didn't see players get involved with Rodney King when we actually saw videotape of what took place. And it's not just Michael Jordan. Magic Johnson and Patrick Ewing and the rest of them — they did not get involved at all. And I think that the sports fan got really comfortable with that, and that's why today [when athletes are protesting, it] is so jarring.

On whether sports can ever be 'just a game' for black athletes

I don't see any mechanism for that happening, especially when you look at colleges. You see how much push back you get to compensating athletes. But at the same time, you don't see a great deal of interest in educating athletes. ...

What has been difficult in doing a lot of research for this book is you recognize that college was supposed to be the place ... where that began to go away. But yet, more and more and more of these athletes — whether it's the one-and-done rule, or whether they're working at Home Depot because they blow out their knee — they're not being educated. So when black body is secondary to black brain, then maybe things will change.

Sarah Handel and Ed McNulty produced and edited this story for broadcast. Sarah Handel adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Sports could never be just a game for many African-American athletes. It's an area in which they can succeed and win wealth and prominence but also be subject to expectations about the roles they should play off the field.

Howard Bryant, with whom we talk about sports every other week, has an important new book that traces what he calls, the heritage, black athletes have received from figures that include Paul Robeson, Jackie Robinson and Muhammad Ali to assert themselves not just as athletes, but citizens. He's named his book "The Heritage." Howard joins us from the studios of New England Public Radio. Thanks so much for being with us.

HOWARD BRYANT: Hey, Scott.

SIMON: Howard, what about those who say, you know, just shut up and dribble, or swing and pass, or hit and run?

BRYANT: Well, those people are disappointed, and I think that they have been comfortable for a long time. One of the things that's very interesting about this moment that we're in is you've got this collision of patriotism images - the military flags and flyovers. And that is colliding with the sudden revival of the African-American player, usually, protesting police brutality.

SIMON: And as you point out, for many African-American players, questions of police brutality aren't remote and ethereal. This is something that they've known about many of the places they've grown up.

BRYANT: Well, that's why this is interesting to me. I think that we see famous people speaking out of their depth all the time. And then you hear people say, shut up and play, or shut up and act or, we don't want to hear from you.

But on this subject, this is an area where ballplayers actually have direct knowledge and direct experience. We should be listening to the athletes on this issue. We should be listening to LeBron James, who comes from a tough neighborhood in Akron. We should be listening to Carmelo Anthony, who's from West Baltimore, where Freddie Gray was killed.

SIMON: You direct some of your most stringent criticism at O.J. Simpson, Tiger Woods and Michael Jordan. Phrase you use, which I admire, is green-washed. Now let's put O.J. Simpson, for obvious reasons, in a separate category. How do you think Michael Jordan hasn't measured up to the heritage?

BRYANT: Well, I think it's a tough place, and I think that for the last 40 years, you had a transition from the Jackie Robinson, Muhammad Ali, Tommie Smith, John Carlos. And then, when you got into the 1970s, obviously O.J. was the first athlete who really opened the door to endorsements and to the big money. And then with free agency in the '70s, ballplayers were making - they were on their way to becoming super rich, as they are today. And then by the time you get to the '80s, you've got Michael Jordan, who really was the guy who identified the player with commerce. And he was the guy who became a brand, as they say today.

And you did not hear elite athletes talk about anything important. They did not get involved in social issues. You didn't see players get involved with Rodney King when we actually saw videotape of what took place. And it's not just Michael Jordan. Magic Johnson and Patrick Ewing and the rest of them - they did not get involved at all. And I think that the sports fan got really comfortable with that, and that's why today is so jarring.

SIMON: Yeah. There are white entertainers - I'm thinking of the Dixie Chicks and Susan Sarandon and others - who feel that they've essentially been told to shut up and sing or act, aren't there?

BRYANT: No question. And the Dixie Chicks were one of the first examples of what we're talking about. You cannot separate 9/11 from what's happening with the black athlete today because the white athletes and anybody else who tried to challenge what was taking place after the towers fell, they felt the wrath. It's not necessarily a racial issue only. This is a question of patriotism - of weaponizing patriotism, of weaponizing jingoism, and of weaponizing the flag and of being able to speak.

One of the people, who I really admired in the book, Bill Astore, was a lieutenant colonel in the Air Force. And he continued to ask the question, who is the patriot? Can we not speak? I don't like to be called a dissenter simply because I disagree with war because I don't feel that we're talking about peace, or because as a veteran, it sort of offends me that there's an American flag the size of the 50-yard line on the field. And we're profiting from war, and we're selling war when I'm supposed to be watching the Red Sox.

SIMON: Games got patriotized, if you please.

BRYANT: Absolutely. And then, of course, even more so when you have the president of the United States stepping in and telling players to shut up and play as well and using choice words for that.

SIMON: Is the day ahead when sports can be games for African-American athletes?

BRYANT: I'm pessimistic about it because I don't see that happening. I don't see any mechanism for that happening, especially when you look at colleges. You see how much pushback you get to compensating athletes. But at the same time, you don't see a great deal of interest in educating athletes.

This is a question of black body versus black brain. And in the United States, the black body has always been what's been compensated - whether you can sing, whether you can dance, whether you can - you know, you can - when you work manually. That's what we care about. That's the currency.

And what has been difficult in doing a lot of research for this book is you recognize that college was supposed to be the place - this college experience was supposed to be the place where that began to go away. But yet, more and more and more of these athletes, whether it's the one-and-done rule, or whether they're working at Home Depot because they blow out their knee, they're not being educated. So when black body is secondary to black brain, then maybe things will change.

SIMON: Howard Bryant - his book, "The Heritage: Black Athletes, Divided America And The Politics Of Patriotism." Thanks so much for being with us, Howard.

BRYANT: My pleasure, Scott.

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