Black Athletes: A Community of Struggle

Josh Myers is a member of the Kwame Ture Society (KTS), a student organization founded to further the development, dissemination of knowledge, and the advancement of the Africana studies discipline. Members of KTS will be regularly contributing to The Liberator.

Black Athletes: A Community of Struggle (By Josh Meyers): In the ongoing battle against oppression, race-based capitalism, and white supremacy there seems to get lost in the mix certain groups who are just as much as subject to these perils as the masses. Too often, groups such as black recording artists and athletes are forsaken amidst groups where struggle is more obvious and racism more ominous. However, the totality of liberation will never be achieved until we create a more complete community of struggle. The inclusion of every individual, especially those subject to the unjust world of professional sports, must be sought if we are to achieve uhuru. If we continue to dismiss these members of our community as selfish, immature, self-defeating individuals who are less deserving of our care, we further alienate them from the larger conversation of freedom with which they absolutely belong. The purpose here is not to assert that these athletes are not somewhat complicit in their own subjugation, however, it is to point out that the system under which they are subjugated is much more culpable and larger than them.

In a society where racism and white supremacy still exists, inclusion in a system not controlled by blacks, will only work to further their subjugation. Any institution, including professional sports, that exists through and as a result of white supremacist-controlled systems will, regardless of what individuals participate in the institution, ultimately continue to fulfill its purpose. A purpose that is still undeniably to further create lines of cleavage based upon race. Control of these institutions by individuals who employ methodologies and ideologies that historically and contemporarily seek to control and maintain the status quo are clearly and quite obviously present in the National Basketball Association (NBA), the National Football League (NFL), Major League Baseball (MLB), and the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA), as well as other leagues where non-whites constitute a majority of the athletes or contribute a large percentage of its wealth. However, the extreme methods of control and less aggressive policy are not evident in leagues such as NASCAR and the National Hockey League where whites make up the majority. There is an overwhelmingly large population of individuals who would attribute this to the fact that blacks are more apt to commit crimes, break rules, and “mess up.” A black sports journalist, Jason Whitlock, is known for this stance, and continues to perpetuate his theories that amount to what I would call total black complicity in his weekly articles for Foxsports.com. (He got fired from ESPN.) For many, it is difficult to see the implicit white supremacy endemic in professional sports leagues. Hopefully the rest of this essay will serve to enlighten those who have this difficulty.

We all know that black professional athletes are compensated for their services. The fact that Kobe Bryant, Tiger Woods, Lebron James, and Michael Vick make millions of dollars is well known. However, we fail to realize what they go through in order to enjoy these rewards. In Forty Million Dollar Slaves, William C. Rhoden elaborates on the complex system in which many black athletes are subject. What very few freedoms black athletes have is soon surrendered once they embark upon a professional sports career. Given the successes of some of the aforementioned athletes, few are concerned about their well-being. The illusion is that every black athlete is as well off as the Kobes and Lebrons. However, it does not take much research to ascertain that their levels of income only represent a small percentage of the overall number of black professional athletes, not to mention the athletes who do not even make it to a professional sports league. This is where the disillusionment must end.

In constructing this analysis, we will look at two distinct populations of black athletes. The first of these populations is the scores of aspiring black athletes who failed to reach their ultimate end goal of playing professional sports. We will look at what created that aspiration and how that same dream unnecessarily thwarted any dream of success in any other endeavor, and how it created another source of cheap labor in the post slavery world. The second of these populations is those black athletes who actually reach their goal of playing professional sports. We will explore how they live and how that life creates apathy, materialism, and ignorance of their oppression.

In my childhood and teenage years, there was an attribution of success linked to athletic achievement. Athletes were at the forefront in seemingly every institution of childhood. Our heroes were athletes, many of our family members were athletes, and our culture bred athleticism. Coming from an Africana tradition of movement, we see how athleticism can fall under that umbrella of culture. This culture survived and many scholars assert that black people have this natural ability to succeed athletically. This created the love and sanctity of athletics in the African-American community. Going hand in hand with this was our historical, arguably continual, denial of education. As blacks, notably in the south, were denied education it created an outlet for athletic aspiration. This undeniably trickled down to present day life. So what we saw and still see today is the glorification of athletics. Yet another factor more recently contributed to success in sports and its perception as the pinnacle of achievement. With the integration of professional leagues, there was a blossoming of pockets of wealth in a community historically denied any chances of such gains. It arguably spurred economic growth among African-Americans in the 20th century. With these factors obviously in mind, sports were thrust upon me and my peers during our teenage years as the ultimate goal and key to unlocking wealth. However what was lost in the discussion was the mutual exclusivity of an athletic career and academic success. For a large percentage of individuals, athletic success comes at the cost of academic mediocrity. For us growing up, it was not necessary to perform competitively on the SAT or in our academic coursework in high school. It was only necessary to do well enough to be NCAA-eligible. In college it is not necessary to perform admirably in courses, it is only necessary to maintain a level of NCAA-eligibility. It is especially detrimental to those black athletes who, unlike their white counterparts, do not have inheritances, family businesses, and non-blackness (they are not subject to hardships associated with being black) to fall back on. If their ankle gives out or if they do not run a fast enough 40 yard dash, they are not subject to life in a society built upon race-based capitalism. Thus, there is more importance on academic success in both high school and college for blacks. Unfortunately there is more importance and less emphasis. At HBCUs the problems deepen. The pursuit of athletic glory creates no time for the opportunities for cultural education these institutions have to offer. The athletic course load leaves time for nothing more than class, leading to the tragic devaluation of the HBCU’s purpose. These problems once again get worse as some individuals fail to meet those desired goals, a college scholarship or a chance to play in a professional sports league. In looking at the high school experience, scores of my teammates, who were not good enough for the next level, are suffering. This struggle came about through many factors; however one that is obvious was their pursuit of athletic accomplishment. The pursuit of glory created academic inferiority, which killed any dream of success outside of sports. At this point the only alternative of these individuals is the participation in the lowest and most abject forms of capitalism, low-wage hard labor. Relatively uneducated and tired, their contribution in the fight for liberation can at best minimal, and it was created through their athletic aspirations and failure. The story is sadly the same for those athletes who fail, on the college level, at becoming professionals. The percentage of those who are successful after college in something besides sports in the black community is small, despite those NCAA commercials. It has been my experience that the only skill that they can acquire is coaching, and perpetuating the same degeneration of their brothers and sisters. We have fought the battles to be included on athletic teams, and now we must fight the battle to be included and accepted as equals in a non-racial society. How the larger community looks upon these individuals must change. Bootstrap theories are fueled by these individual’s plights and point to them as victims of the ideologies they perpetuate. However they fail to see the illegitimacies in the system that created their victimization. There must be an acceptance of these individuals as a part of the community of struggle.

The second part of the population to be examined is the actual blacks who make it in professional sports. Contrary to popular belief, everyone playing professional sports is not living the dream; rather they live in constant fear of losing the opportunity to play for an extended period of time. As previously stated, their pursuit of athletic superiority led to academic inferiority, and if not able to continue to participate in athletics, they are often left with few alternatives. Their flight then becomes similar to those athletes who failed at becoming professionals in the first place. Their situation becomes just as dire, and deserving of our attention. Along with the uncertainty that characterizes life as a professional athlete, there is also the enormous amount of time that they are required to contribute to their sport. I would submit that athletes never get “off” work. They are constantly making concessions because of the aforementioned uncertainty of job security. For an athlete to be successful, the only thing they can do is be an athlete. Essentially what this amounts to is a surrender of their freedom. To illustrate this let us look at typical year of an athlete in the NFL. His year starts from July- early September with training camp. During training camp an athlete must stay with the team in a college dorm the entire time and devote 24 hours a day to practice, preparation, team meetings, and other team-related activities. After the rigorous training camp, there is the actual season. The season lasts 17 weeks. If the team does well and makes it to the playoffs it can last an additional 1-5 weeks. For instance, the New York Giants’ season lasted 22 weeks. During the season there is a total of 3-4 days where football is actually not on that player’s mind. This comes during the one bye week. After the season there is a relative ease during February-April. However, players in order to be successful, have to remain focused on how to “get better.” Therefore there is a multitude of athletes who undergo surgeries, additional training, and some who engage in team PR activities such as appearances at charity events during this time. After the draft in April, the OTA season begins. During OTAs (off-season training activities), players have to come in and participate in additional training prior to the start of training camp. This takes place during the summer. This type of rigorous activity takes place in all major professional sports.

The myth that athletes get fairly compensated for these is slightly distorted. Many people, often from the black community, assert that they are grossly overpaid. However, they do not realize that athletes have to literally give themselves up for that salary, and it is only a minute fraction of the worth the entire enterprise. For instance, the value of the Cleveland Cavaliers went from $400M to greater than $800M with the acquisition of Lebron James. However, James’ salary is no more than $20M. Even so, James’ salary is not representative of what many athletes actually make for their services. The theory that they are overpaid may be true relative to what other 23 year old blacks make, but not relative to what they are actually worth to that team. This new age peonage system, known as professional sports, continues to oppress those involved, and without the support of the African-American community.

The next issue that contributes to the subjugation of black athletes is their relative bondage in a free society. It was just pointed out the amount of time that athletes must devote in order to remain athletes. Along with this, their free time is closely monitored. They are not allowed under contract to participate in freedoms that others in society are given. Troy Williamson and Vince Young know this first hand. Williamson, a member of the Minnesota Vikings, was recently denied a portion of his salary for missing time. That sounds innocent enough, right? Well given the reason was that he was attending the funeral services for his grandmother, the penalty was preposterous. The Vikings asserted that because he was not attending the services of an immediate family member (clearly, they don’t understand African family structures) that they acted reasonably. Vince Young, quarterback of the Tennessee Titans, was recently penalized for going home the night before a game. The team policy stated that players were not allowed to leave the team the night before a home game. This is not freedom. How do we allow our people to be subject to this type of oppression? Why are they not included in the struggle?

This takes me to issues surrounding players like Michael Vick and Adam “Pacman” Jones. They are unexplainably never supported by the masses of the people a la Mychael Bell, another oppressed black athlete. The reasons are given that these athletes brought it upon themselves and that their situation is the result of their own actions. Let me be clear, black athletes cannot oppress themselves! In each instance, they are the products of the systems that subjugate them. If you miseducate a man and give him a relatively large amount of money as compensation, can you really blame him when he buys expensive cars, large houses, pit bulls, and blows it in strip clubs? When you create systems that oppress individuals and rob them of the tools to combat that oppression how are they expected to act as “reasonable” people would. The result of their actions is the result of a large system of racism, capitalism, white supremacy, and disregard for their humanity. Pacman Jones and Michael Vick are not exceptions to how athletes live, in fact materialism runs rampant in these circles. There has been contrived a system where athletes can feel included, but still remain in large part the bottom rung of society.

Blackness in professional sports is not tolerated. To further examine this, we must look at how Pacman Jones was treated. Fighting oppressive ideologies on two fronts, he was arrested and later ostracized by his employer. In order to defend himself, and re-enter the only occupation that he is skilled in, he is being forced to shake off every level of blackness. It started with the cutting of his locs. It followed with his “abandonment” of strip clubs, or in effect any gathering of blacks at night i.e. Clubs, bars. It is continuing with his ascription to white values, such as having to appeal to Commissioner Roger Gödel to reclaim his job. This appeal entails projecting an air of “responsibility”, which for Goodell essential means ascribing to whiteness. Secondly, the NBA dress code is a policy that does not tolerate blackness. NBA players, most of whom are black, have been forced to by Commissioner David Stern to abandon what boils down to hip hop fashion. They are mandated in public appearances to wear the symbol of whiteness, which is a suit. Stern asserts that they are trying to clean the image of the league. A translation of that would be cleansing the league of black culture.

Varsity, intercollegiate, and professional sports has long been heralded as successful arenas for blacks. I am not questioning this. I applaud and support black athletes. However, we must attribute a greater importance to institutions under African control that contribute to the liberation of our people. Additionally, it is the system of varsity, professional, and intercollegiate sports of which I am vehemently opposed. By participating in these un-African institutions, our people are encountering an ugly form of oppression that must be included in our overall community of struggle. As we press towards uhuru, the inclusion of these individuals has to be sought.

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