“Magic [Johnson] made white people feel comfortable. With themselves.” —Kareem Abdul-Jabbar
There is a specific moment in my sportswriting career that haunts me with the slow-burning intensity of a friend’s betrayal: I was interviewing a black professional athlete for a profile over which he and his handlers had fairly tight control. At some point during what had been a casual, fluffy and pedestrian back-and-forth, I asked him his thoughts about Ferguson, Mo., and police brutality in impoverished communities like those in which he came of age. The question was neither opportunistic nor leading—the day before, I had spoken at length with his mother, who spoke passionately and thoughtfully on the very subject. I was following up on her words.
He paused, stammered and finally proclaimed/asked in a voice bathed in inner conflict, “I … I think I have no comment on that sort of thing?” Immediately his white branding agent’s voice, thick with authority and brimming with glee, poured into the conference call: “Great answer!”
That exchange played on a loop in my mind over the past week in the wake of Richard Sherman’s father offering a firm endorsement of his son’s now infamous “all lives matter” comments. It played again after Simone Manuel’s emotional interview in which she tied the significance of her historic gold medal at the Rio de Janeiro Olympics to the epidemic of police brutality against black Americans. This all on the heels of the WNBA players’ firm stand in honoring those unjustly killed by police, regardless of league-imposed fines. All of which brought me back to last fall’s New York Times profile of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, which made a depressingly profound point about the devolution of the role of the black male athlete in larger society.
The most striking aspect of Abdul-Jabbar’s life is that, in the context of sports and society today, it reads like fantasy. Except for the proof that it happened, it is almost impossible to fathom something like the 1967 “Muhammad Ali Summit” in Cleveland, where Abdul-Jabbar (then Lew Alcindor) gathered with Walter Beach, Jim Brown, Willie Davis, Curtis McClinton, Bobby Mitchell, Bill Russell, Jim Shorter, Carl Stokes, Sid Williams and John Wooten in support of Ali’s refusal to enter the draft for the Vietnam War. Or that the next year, Abdul-Jabbar refused to play in the Olympics as a personal protest against racial inequality.
I remember one of my uncles talking in reverential tones about Bill Russell—and rarely about his prowess on the court. Though he has been remade in mainstream American consciousness as a lovable old man and a symbol of championship pedigree, Russell was at odds with mainstream sensibilities throughout his career. So principled a man was Russell that he skipped both his jersey retirement and his Hall of Fame induction. He held a particular disdain for equating athletes and heroes, and was outspoken against the mistreatment of blacks in society in both word and deed.
“Makes me sick … how far we done fell.” —Bunk Moreland to Omar Little, HBO’s The Wire
These days we’re surprised (some of us pleasantly, many angrily) when basketball players sport “I Can’t Breathe” shirts in pregame layup line, or a gaggle of football players sprint onto the field with their hands up in a show of sympathy for those victimized by excessive police force. The mere hint of social and political consciousness startles us, and is met with public backlash.
Of course, professional sports in the 1950s and ’60s was not the big-money operation it is now. There was no branding agent lingering over Abdul-Jabbar’s and Russell’s shoulders, making sure they stayed “on message.” Players back then had (in some cases literal) front-row seats to societal unrest and injustice.
Even in their basketball lives, Russell and Abdul-Jabbar felt the sting of white fear and injustice. Both were directly targeted by the NCAA rules committee: Russell’s dominance in the 1955 NCAA tournament inspired the widening of the free throw lane and a revamping of what constituted a blocked shot; Abdul-Jabbar’s dominance led to the preposterous outlawing of the dunk. They and many of their peers were fully aware that their dignity was at odds with the pretend innocence and pretend superiority of a large percentage of those who watched them play.
The role of today’s athletes is drastically different: They serve as fuel that revs the engine for the cash cow of professional sports. The dignity of the athlete is still often at odds with the dignity of the majority of his audience; to affirm one can mean jeopardizing the other. But there’s enough money flowing that prominent athletes can reside in a bubble that creates a disconnect between their personal status in society and those who still exist under oppressive, unjust conditions. Thus, their chief duty—and inclination—is, as Abdul-Jabbar put it, to “make white people feel good. About themselves.” There are honest answers, there are subversive answers and then there are great answers.
Source: The Root | T.D. Williams