A well-researched meditation on the historical pressures on African-American athletes to embrace (or avoid) political engagement.
ESPN the Magazine senior writer Bryant (The Last Hero: A Life of Henry Aaron, 2010, etc.) writes with passion on this sensitive and relevant topic, currently embodied by the protests inspired by Colin Kaepernick. Sports, writes the author, have often served as a “barometer for where African Americans stood in the larger culture, how American they would be allowed to be.” He develops an intense historical narrative to illustrate this idea, analyzing how black athletes like Joe Louis and Jackie Robinson were granted a grudging route past segregation. “The black athlete wanted to stick to sports,” writes Bryant. “It was white America that wouldn’t let him.” He uses their experiences to mirror America’s racial travails, discussing many significant athletes who stood up for civil rights in the 1960s and ’70s, often paying the price. However, the rise of O.J. Simpson (and later, Michael Jordan) arguably crimped the legacy’s power by offering an alternative that moved “from identifying with black issues to green ones. Simpson opened up a world of financial possibilities to black athletes.” Jordan and Tiger Woods added further complications by purportedly downplaying their blackness during the 1990s: “there was no advantage to identifying with being black.” Following 9/11, professional sports organizations focused on celebrating the military and police, which seemed at first cathartic and then authoritarian and were eventually revealed to be profit-driven. In the sports-military complex, Bryant concludes, “patriotism has been turned into a white ideal.” He sees a response to this in the evolving views of players, including superstars like LeBron James, “that being a politically active black athlete should no longer be considered a radical gesture but a commonplace one.” Bryant controls his narrative with confidence, and he avoids polemicism while making clear the ironies of what is asked of the black athlete.
An appealing blend of sports history and provocative discussion of race and success, respect and representation in America.