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Politics on the playing field: Howard Bryant pens new book on black athletes, race and culture

  • Sportswriter Howard Bryant, of Northampton, looks at the legacy of black athletes and activists in his new book, “The Heritage,” By Beacon Press of Boston. Photo by Brittany Martin

  • In his new book, “The Heritage,” Howard Bryant examines how the subject of sports serves “as a barometer of blacks’ standing in the larger culture.”  In his new book, “The Heritage,” Howard Bryant examines how the subject of sports serves “as a barometer of blacks’ standing in the larger culture.” 

  • Basketball star LeBron James, now with the Los Angeles Lakers, was told to “Shut up and dribble” by a FOX News commentator after he criticized Donald Trump. Photo by Robert Gauthier/Los Angeles Times

  • Another NBA star, Carmelo Anthony, joined a march in his hometown of Baltimore in 2016 that protested the death of a black man, Freddie Gray, who died in police custody.  Photo by Hector Amezcua/Chicago Tribune News Service



Staff Writer
Thursday, July 19, 2018

 As Howard Bryant sees it, it was the “black body” that first enabled African-Americans to be treated as full American citizens. 

If, in the wake of World War II and the beginning of the civil rights movement, advancement through business, schools, and other conventional means was still blocked for many blacks, then the ascension of Jackie Robinson to Major League Baseball in 1947 gave black athletes their first opening to a level playing field, Bryant says.

“This is a question of black body versus black brain,” Bryant writes in “The Heritage,” his new book. “In the United States, the black body has always been what’s been compensated ... That’s the currency.”

Yet the veteran ESPN sportswriter, who lives in Northampton, says African-American athletes today, even as they’ve come to dominate sports like football and basketball, still confront a complicated picture. In the past few years, black players who have protested police shootings of unarmed blacks or spoken out about social injustice have gotten flak from what Bryant calls the “militarized culture” that has come to surround sports.

Whether it’s Fox News commentator Laura Ingraham telling LeBron James to “shut up and dribble” in response to his political comments, or Donald Trump demanding that black football players who kneel during the national anthem be fired, African-American athletes, says Bryant, are discovering the cost of speaking out and whether they’ve really “made it” in a sports world — and a country — still run mostly by whites.

“Today’s players wrestle with where they fit, feted with multimillion-dollar salaries, hamstrung by corporate entanglements — and by a public that expects the money to buy athletes fast cars and silence,” he writes.

“Looming over them, when police kill innocent citizens and white nationalism becomes reaccepted, is the legacy of [Paul] Robeson, Robinson, and the lesser-known members of the heritage who gave sports its special historical currency — and the expectation to speak out.” 

Beyond the field

In “The Heritage,” whose subtitle is “Black Athletes, a Divided America, and the Politics of Patriotism,” Bryant traces the history of activist black athletes like Jackie Robinson, Tommie Smith and John Carlos, and Muhammad Ali, men who were among the first to use their public visibility and fame to demand equal rights for blacks and other non-white Americans.

He also revisits the story of Paul Robeson, who, before he became a famous singer in the 1920s and 1930s, was a star athlete at Rutgers University. Later on, Robeson saw his singing career in the U.S. derailed for many years, as he was blacklisted for consistently speaking out against racism in the country, and because of his support for the Soviet Union during the height of the Cold War.

Robeson, who died in 1976, was “the living embodiment of the Heritage,” writes Bryant, in large part due to “the enormous price he paid for an unwavering fidelity to his people.”

Other black activist athletes paid a price, too, Bryant notes. Robinson died at just 53, bitterly disillusioned that blacks had made no inroads into the business side of baseball (the first black manager, Frank Robinson, was not hired until 1975). Olympic sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos, who gave the Black Power salute at the 1968 summer games, were ejected from the Olympic Village, attacked in the U.S. press and ostracized from much of the sports world afterward.

And Ali, who died a beloved national figure in 2016, nevertheless was stripped of his heavyweight boxing title in the late 1960s and faced tremendous white anger — and possible jail time — when he refused to be drafted to fight in the Vietnam War because, as he said at the time, “I am not going 10,000 miles from home to help murder and burn another poor nation simply to continue the domination of white slave masters of the darker people the world over.”

Bryant uses this background to set the stage for the main part of “The Heritage,” which looks at how a new generation of African-American athletes, from LeBron James to Colin Kaepernick to Carmelo Anthony, have emerged in the past few years to speak out against what they see as police mistreatment of blacks and other minorities.

Just last week, the city of Milwaukee agreed to pay $3.4 million to settle a lawsuit alleging that its police department spent years targeting black and Latino residents without probable cause with its stop-and-frisk policy.

That kind of activism is welcome, Bryant says, after nearly four decades, beginning in the mid 1970s, that were marked by what he calls “greenwashing.” That’s when notable black athletes like O.J. Simpson, Michael Jordan and Tiger Woods became rich corporate spokesmen, endorsing a wide array of products and companies as they simultaneously played down their race (Jordan, asked what he thought of the riots that rocked Los Angeles in 1992 following the Rodney King verdict, said only “I need to know more about it”).

But in an account that’s forcefully argued — if occasionally a bit repetitious — Bryant says black athletes today who speak out about social issues are coming up against the “sports-industrial complex”: the salute to patriotism that, ever since 9/11, has become a ritual at so many sporting events, from singing “God Bless America” at baseball games to ovations for visiting veterans and police at football games. These traditions have also conflated troops and police in many people’s minds, he notes.

As a consequence, he says, when Kaepernick, the former San Francisco 49ers quarterback, and other black football players began kneeling a couple years ago during the national anthem to protest police actions, they were attacked by many, including Trump, for disrespecting the American flag, and by extension the military.

That attitude strikes some as absurd. “People can’t seem to accept that protest is patriotic,” Air Force veteran and military historian William Astore tells Bryant. “And this obsession with the flag — I didn’t serve twenty years in the military for the flag … I did it to uphold the Constitution, which grants us a protected right to protest.”

And Sean Doolittle, a relief pitcher with the Washington Nationals who comes from a military family, says, “In America today, we display patriotism through the lens of militarism and war and pass it off as support for the troops. It can smell a lot like nationalism.”

But many people, including athletes, have become leery of voicing an opinion on the issue, Bryant says, for fear of being labeled unpatriotic. Blowback can be extreme, even bewildering: He points to the bizarre episode at a New York Yankees game in August 2008 when a fan was stopped by police from going to the bathroom during the singing of “God Bless America,” then ejected from the stadium when he protested (he successfully sued the Yankees and New York City for $10,000).  

Bryant has gotten some blowback himself for his arguments, which he first aired a few years ago in some ESPN magazine articles, from conservative critics who have accused him of defaming police and insisting on seeing racism where it doesn’t exist.

Some of those critics pointed to Bryant’s arrest in 2011 in Shelburne Falls for allegedly assaulting his wife outside a pizzeria; Bryant’s lawyer at the time said the arrest was racially motivated, as Bryant is black and his wife, who did not press charges against her husband, white. Police denied race was a factor in the arrest. Charges were later dropped on the condition that Bryant complete a six-month probation period. 

In his book, Bryant argues that simply “saluting the troops” is a convenient way for people to ignore the fact that a tiny percentage of Americans do the fighting — and dying — in the volunteer military. Likewise, saluting police at the ballpark pays lip service to the terrible sacrifice made by first responders at 9/11, he says, and the difficult work police do, while also ignoring recent police shootings of unarmed blacks, like Tamir Rice, the 12-year-old boy in Cleveland killed in 2014 as he played with a toy gun.

He also revisits the revelation, in 2015, that the U.S. Department of Defense had paid sports teams up to $6.8 million to stage military-themed events at stadiums in the years following 9/11. “The surprise homecoming ceremonies at halftime? Staged,” writes Bryant. “The throwing out of the first pitch by a returning soldier? A deception.”

It’s at this intersection of protest, politics, race and patriotism that African-American athletes now find themselves, he adds. It can be treacherous ground, he writes, where athletes risk public censure and anger, but it’s one they need to stand on until sports can simply be sports again.

“This is the inheritance of the black athlete, his coat of arms, and no contract or endorsement deal has yet been big enough to make that obligation go away. It is a responsibility the black player will carry until America values the black brain over the black body.”

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com.