It is apropos that the Charlotte Observer would publish Rosemary Plorin’s hysterical open letter to Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton a week after a threat of a boycott by the black football players at the University of Missouri led university President Tim Wolfe to step down. Because both instances—while separate in scale and seriousness—articulate how awkward and unwieldy America’s relationship with the black athlete happens to be.
This relationship is also impervious to analogy. There have been many efforts to find an accurate comparison or some historical precedent to how this country treats its black athletes today—primarily its black football and black basketball players. Some have compared them to slaves; others to gladiators; and others to Greek gods, even.
But none of these likenesses quite works, and all of them feel forced—shoehorned in to make a larger point or fit a predetermined narrative. Because, again, trying to find a historical dynamic to compare our relationship with the black athlete today—complete with an analogous racial, cultural and financial context—is like trying to re-create the sun in a high school chemistry lab. It’s such a singular and unique entity that it renders equivalence useless.
To wit, last week I wrote that the University of Missouri boycott could possibly be the biggest American protest of the 21st century. Not because of what was actually being protested, but because of the precedent it would set if successful:
It’s nothing short of amazing that those kids had the wherewithal and courage to put their scholarships and livelihoods (current and future) on the line to stand up for what they believed in, and it’s nothing short of terrifying that nothing anyone else on that campus would have done would have mattered the same way. No hunger strikes—and thank you, Jonathan Butler, for sparking this flame—no protests, no petitions signed by students and teachers, no votes of ‘no confidence’ would have earned the same result as quickly.
Well, it’s not terrifying to me. But it should be to every Division I football and basketball coach in the country, and every administrator who happens to be at a school where the head ball coach makes 10 times as much money as the chancellor. This could very well be the college athlete’s Neo-in-the-hallway moment; when this exclusive and presumably powerless and thoughtless population becomes fully aware of the power they possess.
While writing that, I wondered if I was being a bit too much of a prisoner of the moment. If my premise was more hyperbole than truth. But those wonders went away when I realized that not only was I telling the truth, but I wasn’t even telling the whole truth.
The University of Missouri’s football team is not a good one this year. They have been before, but their 2015 season—at least their season on the field—has been and will be forgettable. Also, the game they were threatening to sit out was against Brigham Young University, a team that’s having a decent, but not great, season. Basically, this was a game that maybe 17 people outside of Missouri and Utah cared about. One of those games you’ll find on ESPN72 or some other off-brand network like Versus or FoxSportsWestNorthEast on a Saturday afternoon. But the threat of this mundane game being canceled was so serious, so potentially devastating, that the president of the university was forced to step down because of the mere chance that it might not be played.
There have been other instances when black college athletes used their considerable power to protest an injustice. But there’s been no other time when the results were so swift and so decisive. When a group of 40 kids just threatened to say, “No,” and that threat was enough to get the state’s most powerful academic officer fired. Within a weekend.
And what’s merely absurd goes beyond absurd when you realize that this type of power—possessed by football and basketball players in revenue-generated college programs—could be wielded whenever they choose. What’s to stop something like this happening at Notre Dame? Or Kentucky? Or the University of Pittsburgh? Who would blink first if the black players on the Duke basketball team refused to play another game until a racially insensitive English professor was fired? Or if the black players on the Alabama football team didn’t suit up again until that state’s Congress passed a voting-rights bill?
Again, the last couple sentences of that last paragraph seem ridiculous, but it’s just one of many examples of how our country’s obsession with sports has given athletes a ridiculous amount of power—a dynamic made even more ridiculous when you realize that these are 18- and 19-year-old black men holding this power on predominantly white campuses, deciding the futures and the salaries and the legacies of middle-aged white men and women. Whether they decide to wield it is up to them. But they definitely possess it.
And it’s this same dynamic—this same mélange of power and access and ownership and racial context—that prompted the letter from Rosemary Plorin. She, like many other Americans, is a willing participant in this relationship. And she, like many white Americans, seems to believe that her patronage of the sport and her support of the black player gives her ownership of him. It does not, obviously. But that doesn’t stop her from believing it, from thinking that she should be able to regulate his thoughts and his behavior.
While much different in tone and circumstance, the thinking behind Plorin’s letter is really not much different than the mindset possessed by Dan Gilbert when he wrote that terrible letter after LeBron left Cleveland. Or the mindsets of the people filmed burning his jersey. Or the mindsets of the people writing nasty tweets and letters to newspaper editors whenever their team’s running back or point guard says something—anything—other than “My team played good” when a mic is placed in front of his face. Effectively, it is them saying, “I have given you this power that you possess through my patronage. Therefore, I own you.”
They, again, do not. Ownership doesn’t work like that. But that very real power that the black athlete possesses has been bestowed, and what happened in Missouri and what’s printed in the Charlotte Observer are separate, but intrinsically connected, examples of that recognition.
Damon Young is the editor-in-chief of VerySmartBrothas.com. He is also a contributing editor at Ebony.com. He lives in Pittsburgh and he really likes pancakes. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.