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By: T.D. Williams

Professional football player Richard Sherman attends The Players’ Tribune Summer Party at No Vacancy on July 12, 2016 in Los Angeles, California. Rich Polk/Getty Images for The Players’ Tribune 

“Magic [Johnson] made white people feel comfortable. With themselves.” —Kareem Abdul-Jabbar

There is a specific moment in my sports writing 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 it happened, it is almost impossible to fathom something like the 1967 Muhammad Ali Summit in Cleveland, where Abdul-Jabbar 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.

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; Kareem’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 to, as Abdul-Jabbar put it, “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 press conference 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 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 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, 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 doubtful Sherman’s views evolved as much as it’s likely 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 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 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.


IBW21 (The Institute of the Black World 21st Century) is committed to enhancing the capacity of Black communities in the U.S. and globally to achieve cultural, social, economic and political equality and an enhanced quality of life for all marginalized people.