"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.
The result is a tightrope-walking routine in which black professional athletes engage that is as awkward as it is macabre. It’s a routine that sacrifices the dignity of black reality in America at the altar of white innocence. It produces tragicomic moments like Charles Barkley waxing skeptically about the horrors of slavery, Stephen A. Smith turning issues of athlete misconduct into forums on black pathology, and Richard Sherman conflating concern about police brutality and societal indifference to black plight with a lack of accountability by blacks in impoverished communities.
What made Sherman’s comments and his father’s subsequent doubling down on his sentiments so lamentable is that he gets it. At least, when the term “thug” was spoken 625 times in the aftermath of his infamous 2014 postgame rant, he got it. He was nimble in explicating coded language, in highlighting and deconstructing latent racism. "I've fought that my whole life, just coming from where I'm coming from. … You fight it for so long, and to have it come back up and people start to use it again, it's frustrating."
Back then, Sherman grasped the unfair burden and stigma that those from impoverished communities bear. He understood the frustration of being victimized by perception rather than judged within the parameters of his personal reality. Suddenly, though, when discussing the Black Lives Matter movement, Sherman lost his grasp of nuance and context. To paraphrase Dinah Washington: What a difference a year makes.
The difference is not time, of course. It’s less likely that Sherman’s views evolved than that his frustration with societal racism deepens when it directly affects him. When it came time to take a potentially controversial stance for the greater good of an oppressed population, Sherman vacillated between the utopian language of colorblindness and the simplistic, coded language of black accountability.
Lost on Sherman is the fact that there are times when a contrived stab at balance and all-inclusive sympathy is off-putting, if not downright inappropriate. In the quest to win points with a broader audience, you can end up sacrificing credibility among all of them. The best perspectivism doesn’t privilege all perspectives; it encourages the accumulation and dissection of as many perspectives as possible so that one can distill something closer to truth from them all. The ultimate goal is to make sense of an issue or idea, not to make concessions.
"Philosophically, the opposite of love is not hate. The opposite of love is indifference.” —Bill Russell
The concept of Black Lives Matter isn’t particularly complicated to any but the militantly obtuse and tone-deaf. I have—not always, but often enough—felt a justified paranoia about police since age 12. The myriad instances of black males being framed for crimes and detained without any cause, beaten for being in the wrong neighborhood or conversing with a white female of similar age … they leave behind a trail of psychological trauma. Among other terrible things, I've been detained, ticketed and made to feel unwelcome, and had a big, stupid white male demand my ID at the door of a house party—at a house a good friend lived in, a house the male asking for ID didn't live in.
All too often I receive crushing reminders that there are people who despise my existence for reasons beyond my control, ugly reasons that follow a logic I can't make sense of regardless of my grasp of human psychology. Such an illogical hatred wears on a person, gives him pause, beats him down a bit over the course of life. If you’ve felt this gradual wear and tear of the soul but you’re fortunate enough to have a good heart and a good mind, then you realize the futility and antithetical folly of indicting a wide swath of people for the sins of a select group. You realize that “Black lives matter” and “All lives matter” are, in essence, the same damn statement.
Like Sherman, I’ve lost friends and family to murder. My best friend was shot and killed execution style when I was 18; when I was 25, my cousin—who was as close to me as a brother—was shot and killed by an errant bullet in a nightclub. The shooters in both cases were black men. Only in a warped world would those murders preclude me from being outraged by police brutality and the policies and practices that create communities in which people like me are double-victimized by the conditions that lead to rampant crime and the abuse of police power.
During his podcast, in response to Sherman’s statements last year at his press conference, ESPN personality Michael Smith made the salient point that the overwhelming majority of the time when he hears someone bring up “black-on-black crime,” it’s as a retort, meant to shut down rather than enhance or expand conversation.
“What about Chicago?” has never been a plea of concern but, rather, an ugly and dismissive taunt. The attempt to redirect discourse about police misconduct against the most vulnerable and least resourceful among us to violence in inner-city neighborhoods is about justifying indifference to the conditions that create a cycle of violence and dysfunction. It’s a figurative washing of the hands of any collective responsibility we have for the problems that plague our nation.
The simpleminded and hateful among us imagine the world in an ahistorical vacuum. In their minds, the poor are poor because they had a fair shot at not being poor and they blew it; violence is prevalent in certain communities because of a cultural predisposition to violence. The Abdul-Jabbars and Russells of the world realized why black opinions mattered. They sought to provide nuance and context to an audience stubbornly clinging to tired talking points born out of a need to dodge any and all complicity in societal turmoil. The Shermans of the world seek to reaffirm the innocence of the audience, unless the audience is directly indicting them.
Our society isn’t one that values history, though we pay endless lip service to it. We have a habit of reappropriating attempts to subvert mainstream thought. That is how Martin Luther King Jr. became a Hallmark card, to be selectively quoted in support of ideas that he would never espouse; it is how Muhammad Ali became a neutered, torch-lighting half-ambassador, half-teddy bear; it’s how Che Guevara became a T-shirt for liberal arts credibility seekers, and a goofy rap punch line conspicuously dipped in bling. We like our icons stripped bare of any substance. Voiceless monuments, no matter how majestic, don’t offer counterpoints.
In this same vein, modern athletes’ opinions are praiseworthy only when they’re tantamount to banal non sequiturs that allow us to feel comfortable about the world we live in, and our lack of accountability for it. Which is how we end up with the Charles Barkleys and Stephen A. Smiths of the world given prominent platforms to loudly and sloppily articulate opinions that the vast majority of blacks find repugnant. Which is how Richard Sherman’s “All lives matter” comment suddenly humanizes him among the very same people who likely thought his postgame rant in 2014 was “thuggish.”
Abdul-Jabbar and Russell understood the significance of their platform, and the responsibilities that went along with having it. They understood that an individual’s integrity—not his carefully crafted image—was his brand; that his word was his bond. They were deeply rooted in the line of thinking that their own struggles with racism were not separate from larger black society, but symptomatic of the same societal sickness. And I imagine that today they would agree the days of making allowances for racism are long gone—dead days.
The onus is decidedly not on the victims who are being triple-victimized in such an equation: first by the actual racism and criminal behavior committed against them; then by the psychological scars left by said crimes and racism; and finally by the humiliation of having to be the ones to make "allowances," in the face of sickness, evil and injustice. That's not turning the other cheek; it's burying the whole head in the sand. It's wanting the basic right to be left alone and finding the only way to do so is not to leave your home. A life of “allowances” for racism becomes an ignoble series of concessions in a nation that claims to encourage—at least on the surface—individuality, daring and boldness.
It’s 2016, and allowances for racism, police brutality and societal injustice cannot be made and should not be suggested. I really hope that Richard Sherman and his father didn't mean to suggest that. In this case, they’re straddling a very tenuous line, and that sort of straddling eventually leads to a clumsy fall.
T.D. Williams was born and raised in New York City, where he spent his youth in a welfare hotel for the homeless in Times Square. He has been a soda salesperson, camp counselor, a parking lot attendant, a waiter, a bartender, a civil rights activist, a dean of college admissions and an adjunct professor. He is currently finishing his first novel, and his writing on sports and societal issues has appeared in various publications, including Sports Illustrated. Follow him on Twitter.