Tuesday, June 2, 2020

Sports isn't the answer, but it can serve as a way, a means and a platform for how far we come and how far we must go

With the citywide curfew in the back of my mind, I took to my phone and said I'll give myself a few minutes on Instagram. Perhaps you have been setting limits to your social media intake, as well. I pressed play and listened to the SportsCenter clip featuring Hannah Storm and former Irish forward Brianna Turner. Turner's message was one I needed to hear and wanted to hear. Sports is more often than not, my portal for processing our culture, our world, people and even politics. I would like Brianna Turner to know her words also led me to prayer.
Storm said "Among the many voices who have been very strong, Brianna Turner of the Phoenix Mercury joins us now. Brianna, we appreciate you for being here, a young female voice. As a Notre Dame grad and a fellow Houstonian, the hometown of George Floyd, I am grateful for your voice, for speaking out and for taking a leadership role in this regard."  Turner is the daughter of police officers; she is African American. 

Storm said, "So many people have been saying it is up to young people to push for meaningful change after generations of systemic racism. This racism has been called America's original sin. What can you and your contemporaries do so to make sure that this next generation,  that our children in the future aren't facing these same prejudices and dangers?"

Turner replied, "We need to be able to talk about race without making it uncomfortable. Talking about race should not make you feel like 'Oh! I don't know if I should talk about it or it's not my place!' It's everyone place.  It's everyone's place to talk about equality—it shouldn't make you uncomfortable to talk about what is equality." 
I agree. We need to read about race and we need to talk about it. We need to be patient and supportive with one another as we undertake those conversations. We ought to be able to share our feelings and raise our questions. Ultimately we should be ready to get comfortable with being uncomfortable. I write what many people already know because i believe sports is a good place for these necessary conversations to start.

ESPN SportsDaily's podcast reminded me that two easiest topics for small talk are the weather and traffic. I have often thought sports can be included in this category. However,  the beauty of my favorite topic is that should you meet a person who speaks sport, the conversation can go much further and much deeper. With that platform in mind, I would like to offer a few thoughts on what I've learned reading and writing about race. 

I have often wondered what my own students see as my blind spots in terms of race. I want to own that I have them because I see them in two of the people I care about the most: my parents. They have instilled wonderful example and strong principles that I have taken as my own when it comes to this topic. And  yet every so often, I find myself correcting my Dad. You can't say that word, Dad! Or "Mom, that's not a fair assumption." I must be guilty too. 

That being said, I can't forget the time my dad and I talked about who is the G.O.A.T. in Major League Baseball. He said "Anne, people will tell you Babe Ruth or Joe DiMaggio. but I believe the greatest ballplayer was Willie Mays. What he did on offense and on defense is superlative. He doesn't get the credit he deserves because of the color of his skin, especially in that era."  On that day, I listened to my dad with an open heart. I learned a lot about his point of view and how he saw racism at that time and at work in society today. Sports served as the portal for what was and what remains a necessary conversation.  
Not only do sports provide an avenue for talking about race, they can also measure how far we have come and how far we need to go. This may come as a surprise, but I have come to the conclusion that sports are neutral. They CAN be one solution toward racist attitudes and beliefs. They certainly perpetuate them as well. They can build character and reveal it. They can destroy it too. Still, the potential within sport is why I give of my time, energy and attention to it.

In the essay "Success is a Journey" the Hall of Fame basketball player, William F. Russell speaks to this point. He writes
So much for the American Dream. It is, in fact, no more than a sugarcoated fantasy that sport has fundamentally improved or advanced any faster than the other components of society in the last two decades. I suspect because we elevate sport to a position of sanctity (witness the hysterical reaction to Curt Flood's suit against the reserve clause) that the falsehood is piously maintained that sport is out there in the forefront in the march of human rights. Sport brings a city together. You know that; you hear it all the time. A public hanging would achieve the same end. Sport reflects American life. Yes, it does. The fans bring their prejudices right along with them. 
Indeed, the belief that sport is so progressive probably manages to cause a great deal of harm by perpetuating corollary myths. How harsh it must be for some young athlete to trust that he will be judged only on his abilities and then find out that that ideal is administered by a coach who will bench a boy because his hair is too long or because his politics are too dovish or because it is long-standing policy to start two at home, three on the road and five when you get behind. Progress should be viewed from two standards—not just how far we have gone, but how far we still must go.
I don't want to lose sight of that point. The frustration and disappointment, the anger and outrage that millions of Americans hold today is understood. I believe it is justifiable. As Brianna Turner said "I'm 23 and this is normal?! it's another hashtag, another instance. It's just so frustrating. " AND and I don't want to forget that we have come a long way. We have so far to go, but to say we have NOT made some improvements to systems and structures to hearts and minds is errant. 
Bill Russell is an Oakland native, played at the University of San Francisco and was an 11 time champion with the Boston Celtics. What struck me most about his essay, which appeared in Sports Illustrated on June 8, 1970 was how it serves as bellwether for the times we live in. He had a lot to say. Much of it was not easy to hear. He is direct, he gives poignant examples that speak to the injustice of racism. I believe it is important to be open to the truth to which he has spoken. I want to discuss with others how far we have come from the examples he provides. And how far must we go?

I encourage you to read the entire essay for yourself. I will require my own students to read it this fall in Sports and Spirituality. Russell names names. He speaks about the privilege of white folks in a way that is provocative, disarming and on point. Furthermore, he doesn't speak about women whatsoever in sport which to me is a tremendously important example of how far things have come and again.....how far they have to go. He notes,
Basketball is clearly the most progressive sport now. Blacks have even reached a point in basketball where we have achieved the right to failure. That's very important, you know. It is just as important as the right to succeed. When John McLendon was fired as the coach of the Denver Rockets this winter, there was no fuss made about anybody picking on a black man, or anybody saying a black man couldn't coach. He got the ax, just like any coach, because the team was going bad. Now that is progress.
It is also isolated. Baseball front offices are whiter than anything but press boxes, and football has really looked out for itself. It has never needed a quota system. Football has a much better gimmick. It is called a quarterback. As long as quarterback can be a segregated position, football is protected. It can be assured of having one white star every game, who can get all the endorsements and win all the sports cars. At the same time, the all-white quarterbacks perpetuate the racist theme that no black man is smart enough to call signals. 
I can remember watching a game on TV a couple years ago, and I was moved to say something like: "Man, that Unitas is great." One of the black guys I was watching the game with, said: "Who knows?" A little bit stunned by that, I asked him what he meant, and he replied that he really could not evaluate Unitas or any other quarterback fairly since they had never faced a full range of competition. A Paul Hornung, Mickey Mantle, Jerry West—you cannot deny their greatness, because they have stood the test of time in a free market, so to speak. But no one can pretend to know how good our best white quarterbacks would be if the NFL permitted the development of black quarterbacks to compete with them. 
What makes a quarterback so very important is that he is consistently visible. Everyone else only comes and goes in the crunch. I don't think, for example, that the appeal of its violence has helped make football so popular. I think where it has the edge on basketball and where it has captured more public imagination is in the dead period between plays. At this point, the plays can be run over again and everybody can point out how smart the football players are. In basketball, you don't have time to talk about how smart the players are. 
I do think that basketball is the most graceful of all our major sports. It is not nearly so rough as it was when I came into the pros. The jump shot opened it up, made it more fluid. Today, I think it is close to an art form, with greater potential for growth than any other of the more popular games, because it is more appealing to women.
I referenced this piece of the essay in my blog reflection on Michael Vick. Vick was the first black quarterback chosen as the number one pick in the NFL draft. Since that time, athletes like Patrick Mahomes, Lamar Jackson, Teddy Bridgewater and one Colin Kapernick have come forward and succeeded in this position. Second, basketball is indeed appealing to women but one reason might be because they play it professionally. The WNBA wasn't created until 26 years after this essay was written but one of its stars, Brianna Turner is using her voice and her platform to call us to talk about race. Progress noted.
Mahatma Gandhi said “The true measure of any society can be found in how it treats its most vulnerable members.”  Well another measure might be how we talk about race, especially with people who don't look like us. Can we do that? Can we ask questions? Are we ok with saying "I don't know?" Do we have to stand or can we live in the complexity, listen, love and serve one another.

In the meantime, let us pray
God of Justice, God of Mercy, you created all people equally in your image and you call each of us to recognize your presence in every person we meet. Racism, inequality, and oppression are the fruits of our human sinfulness when we fail to uphold the dignity of our brothers and sisters, as you command. In every age, prophets cry out against these injustices and, in our own time, we hear the pain of your people who suffer. Heal the wounds of our division not only with the balm of your love but also with the strength of your Spirit to move us to action. Teach us to oppose racism in our culture, in our institutions, in our families, and even in our own thoughts. Give us the courage to examine our hearts, where every true transformation begins. Even if we should find our sinfulness, we shall also find your mercy. 
In the words of your prophet, Amos, we pray: "Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream." Amen.
Photo Credits
Willie Mays
Celtics Russell
Russell Success is a Journey
Floyd George Memorial

Turner and Storm

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