Or perhaps I should say “dear brother athlete”? You should know you are kindred to your community, not simply from a genetic perspective but from a socioeconomic aspect as well. Do you recall when you were a child playing the game? You most certainly remember those days practicing your craft in cutoff corduroy shorts and off-brand athletic apparel.
Labels didn’t matter as the old you braved broken glass and rusty cans to play tackle football in vacant lots and fields that were more dirt mixed with gravel and mud than grass. Your mother would admonish you for fingers and palms black on the wrong hand side from perfecting a lethal handle by dribbling a half-deflated basketball on uneven asphalt before dinnertime.
I’m sure you can also recall days shoveling snow off the basketball court in the wintertime when the gyms were closed, or shooting on hoops made of milk crates or bike rims nailed to telephone poles. But it didn’t really matter. Whatever geometric apparatus you could suspend in the air was good enough. You were like royalty, the shining black prince of the hood. And then you elevated.
It is not uncommon for young men who are athletically gifted to leave their respective hovels and familial haunts to go off to institutes of higher learning, returning to the neighborhoods that spawned them as mentors, coaches, teachers, law enforcement, sports administrators and trainers. This is their penance paid. Others become political artisans, officers of the church and even officers of the law.
No matter the opinion of any envious onlooker or contrarian, the initial catalyst for individuals who return to their communities after days playing is simply to give back. While there are some who stumble upon obstacles that clutter their noble endeavors, most had learned in their prior athletic aspirations to enrich the lives of those who come behind them and were inspired by their sporting and real-world accomplishments.
From a very young age, many black athletes of merit are inundated by reminders to give back to the communities that spawned them. Most carry those messages in their hearts throughout collegiate careers. The very best carry those positive hood hallmarks into their respective NFL and NBA endeavors. To the world, these occupations are merely jobs, and the very best professional athletes are corporations unto themselves.
The high visibility that comes with being the best is parlayed into the promotional apparatuses of their leagues, and the marketing endeavors of corporate partnerships. For the greater American society, these people are just athletic entertainers. But for the hoods that spawned them, they are much more.
Aside from providing entertainment, those men and women who reach the very top are celebrated within the African-American community. This is not done solely because of their physical mastery but because of what they represent—especially to those who braved the same extreme poverty that birthed kings and queens. This sometimes inspires professionals to give back financially to their community and to do so with impunity.
While no one can disparage those who altruistically give to numerous charitable institutions that are near to their conscience, money is not necessarily what is needed in most instances. There are those elite athletes who, by their outstanding athletic achievements and personal presentation skills, are given a platform upon which to address any issue of their choosing. But most refuse to do so. Why?
In the aftermath of the slaying of Trayvon Martin, the Miami Heat, led by LeBron James, were emboldened to show support for the tragic cry for justice by donning hoodies in the Million Hoodie March campaign. Though I was pleasantly surprised and inspired by this show of support for a controversial issue, I was saddened by the realization that these inspiring instances are so rare an occurrence in the modern age, where professional sportsmen receive up to 50 percent of their respective incomes from endorsements and corporate sponsorships.
Muhammad Ali, Jim Brown, Bill Russell and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar are but a handful of those who reached the pinnacle of their careers but were brave enough to speak and act on the hot-button issues of their day. For example, Ali suffered tremendous financial hardships for standing up against the war in Vietnam. Millions of dollars were lost in fight revenue as he sat in jail. But his voice was heard and moved many to speak out.
No one is expecting anything like Ali’s prison extremity to occur in the present. But there is room within this vacuum for top-level NBA and NFL players to eloquently give their support to the issues of gun violence, black-on-black genocide, poor public schools, gang violence, police brutality and other issues that have plagued the black community for decades. But it would seem that some leagues, the NFL in particular, have a system set up to immediately punish any attempts at free speech.
Read more at the Shadow League.