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How Taking A Stand For Justice Can Threaten The Careers Of Black Athletes


This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, editor of the website TV Worth Watching, sitting in for Terry Gross. These are turbulent times in professional sports and not only because of the pandemic. Earlier this week, basketball superstar LeBron James established a new group called More Than a Vote aimed at combating voter suppression and energizing the vote among African Americans. Last week, the NFL apologized for the league's dismissive responses to protests by its players regarding racial injustice. No specific mention was made, though, of then-San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who in 2016 took a knee as the national anthem played in silent protest against police brutality and social injustice.

Our next guest, Howard Bryant, says there's a long tradition among African American athletes of speaking out on issues of social justice. His book, titled "The Heritage: Black Athletes, A Divided America, And The Politics Of Patriotism," traces that history back to Jackie Robinson, Bill Russell, Muhammad Ali and others. He says activism among athletes practically disappeared in the 1980s and '90s as sports stars made millions and got lucrative endorsement deals. But, Bryant reports, athletes are speaking out again. Howard Bryant is a senior writer for espn.com and ESPN The Magazine and does regular commentary on sports for NPR's Weekend Edition Saturday with Scott Simon. He spoke with FRESH AIR's Dave Davies in 2018 when his book, "The Heritage," was first published.


DAVE DAVIES, BYLINE: Well, Howard Bryant, welcome to FRESH AIR. You write about this tradition, this sense of responsibility among black athletes to use their position to advocate for social justice, which goes way back. And one of the early ones that you write about is Paul Robeson, who I always thought of as a singer, as an entertainer. Did Americans know him as an athlete?

HOWARD BRYANT: Well, I think Americans knew him as an athlete early, especially when he was a star at Princeton. But I think what people don't know is that he played in the National Football League in 1921 and 1922 and did not have a long NFL career because the NFL decided to impose segregation, just as Major League Baseball had. After Robeson from 1922, the NFL didn't integrate again until 1946. So people forget that Paul Robeson was a star athlete first before becoming a legendary performer.

DAVIES: Right. And you write about how he ran afoul of the U.S. government, in particular with a speech in Paris. Tell us about that.

BRYANT: He gave a speech in 1949 right as the Cold War was starting to ramp up about how he did not believe that in a conflict between the United States and the USSR that African Americans would be better served fighting on the side of the United States, that he was treated better in Russia than he had been as an African American in the United States.

DAVIES: He had visited the Soviet Union, yeah, right.

BRYANT: Many times, yes. And so Robeson had run afoul very much not only of the government but also of the public. And so in terms of trying to nullify him, especially someone of his stature and his fame and his influence with the African American community, the House Un-American Activities Committee sought out Jackie Robinson to testify and essentially denounce and refute Paul Robeson's claim that black people were not going to be loyal to the United States in case of a Cold War conflict.

DAVIES: Of course, Jackie Robinson, you know, is a towering figure in American sports, the guy who broke the color barrier in baseball. And he's an interesting character. So he goes before the House Un-American Activities Committee, which was investigating communists, and people were - at the time were writing that many of the advocates for civil rights were really inspired or even themselves members of the Communist Party. So what did Jackie Robinson have to say?

BRYANT: Well, one of the things that he said that got the most attention, obviously, was he criticized Paul Robeson and said exactly what the committee wanted him to say, told him that the American people had - though African Americans had fought for freedom in this country for so long, that they were not going to essentially be traitors. He said something along the lines of, I've got too much invested for my wife and child to be in - and myself - in the future of this country to throw it away because of a siren song sung in bass - is how he referred to Paul Robeson, which is - as we would say today, that's quite the shade against Robeson.

But one of the things about that testimony that no one talks about is after he talked about Robeson, in the middle of that testimony, he also said, and one other thing the American public ought to understand if we are to make progress in this matter - the fact that it is a communist who denounces injustice in the courts, police brutality and lynching when it happens doesn't change the truth of his charges. Just because communists kick up a big fuss over racial discrimination when it suits their purposes, a lot of people try to pretend that the whole issue is a creation of communist imagination, but they're not fooling anyone with this type of pretense, and talk about communists stirring up Negroes to protest only makes present misunderstanding worse than ever. Negroes were stirred up long before there was a Communist Party, and they'll stay stirred up long after the party has disappeared unless Jim Crow has disappeared by then, as well.

To me, that's the heritage. That's the beginning of this responsibility that African American athletes have faced or have felt ever since.

DAVIES: Yeah, and that's, you know, considering the context of the 1940s and the growing anti-communist, you know, kind of fervor in the country, that's a fairly militant statement, that these issue...

BRYANT: It's pretty radical, absolutely.

DAVIES: These issues are real, and they're not - it's not the work of communists or anybody else. You write about Robinson himself. I mean, of course, he - you know, he endured an awful lot of torment when he entered the league and kind of took it and played magnificently and had an interesting role in the social and political currents as his life went on. Tell us about that.

BRYANT: Well, I think one of the things about this book, about "The "Heritage," that I really sort of enjoyed - and one of the reasons why I wanted to do it in the first place - was this notion over the past four or five years that athletes being involved in political issues is a new thing. It's nothing new. It's one of the reasons why I wanted to do this was to say, wait a minute; how about we step back a little bit and think about this inheritance, this legacy that athletes - that black athletes have had? And when you think about Jackie Robinson and Muhammad Ali and Tommie Smith and John Carlos, you think so much about that rehabilitation that they have. Robinson's a saint today. Jackie Robinson can do no wrong. In Major League Baseball, everybody wears his number on April 15. But when you go back, this was a radical concept. In fact, some of the things that Robinson had said back in the 1940s and 1950s are far more militant and far more aggressive than what we hear today. And today, people will refer to Robinson as being mainstream.

DAVIES: Right. And, you know, as he got older, he was an ally of Richard Nixon - right? - to support Republicans.

BRYANT: Long Republican, absolutely. He was a Rockefeller Republican, a Nixon Republican, and, as he saw the changes in the '60s, realized his mistake in supporting Nixon. And the interesting thing about Robinson as his radicalism continued - once again, we talk about him like he's a saint. People do not realize that Jackie Robinson was never offered a job by Major League Baseball after he retired and on top of that was so disillusioned by the state of race relations that he - Jackie Robinson, veteran Jackie Robinson, legendary Jackie Robinson - did not stand for the American flag either.

DAVIES: Yeah. I was surprised to - I didn't know that till I read it in your book. In the 1960s, this tradition of protest and social advocacy had a lot of really memorable athletes who took part in it. You want to just mention a few?

BRYANT: Absolutely. Well, I think they - there's Bill Russell, of course, the great champion of the Boston Celtics; Jim Brown, Curt Flood and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. In fact, when he was Lew Alcindor, he was the one - instead of Tommie Smith and John Carlos raising their fists at the '68 Olympics, Kareem was the one who wanted to boycott the Olympics. He didn't want to play at all in Mexico City in 1968, and he did not play. And so that history - I talk about this quite often in the book about if you're from a certain generation, you remember this; this is a part of your life - an African American athlete having their culture and their racial identity be part of their public persona, not something that they're trying to deny or ignore or erase.

And if you're part of a different generation, if you were born in the '80s or the '90s, you are not used to athletes taking a stand. You're not used to seeing these players attach their racial identity to their public identity. And I think that's one of the reasons why we have so much tension today because we're just not used to it. We're not used to LeBron James opening his mouth, and you respond to that with, stick to sports. But for me, for my generation, Muhammad Ali, Bill Russell, Jackie Robinson - when I was a kid in the 1970s and the '80s, they - their memory was very, very fresh for their activism.

BIANCULLI: Howard Bryant speaking to FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies in 2018. More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies and his 2018 interview with journalist Howard Bryant. His book, "The Heritage," is about the history of African American athletes and their public reactions to issues of social justice.


DAVIES: This is one of those things that hadn't occurred to me until I'd read your book and thought about it, but, for decades, this tradition of black athletes speaking out on racism and social justice kind of disappeared. What happened?

BRYANT: Not kind of - you're being kind.


BRYANT: It most certainly disappeared, and it was gone for 40 years. And some of it makes sense. A lot of it makes sense in some ways - that getting out of the 1960s, I think the country was very weary. I think citizens were weary. You had Vietnam. You had the assassinations of prominent political figures. You had Watergate coming up very soon. And it was a very tense time. And I think that, on top of that, you finally also had the opportunity for African American players to start making money.

I talk about this in the book, that we have three acts of the American athlete. You have the immigration story. You have the integration story. And then you have the commodification story. And coming into the 1970s to the present, we are in the commodification story, where it would not be long before players were making millions of dollars. Nolan Ryan was the first million-dollar player in 1979. By 1992, Magic Johnson had a $25 million contract. And so because of that, there comes risk. And suddenly, the players are no longer part of the society. Hank Aaron's kids went to public schools. Today, these players - their kids have no connection to these issues that we talk about today. They're super rich. They are protected. And so that activism began to disappear as their status increased. On the one hand, that made it - you're proud of the players for being able to finally earn after how they'd been treated. But on the other hand, that legacy or that responsibility certainly disappeared.

And over the last 40 years, up until LeBron James in 2012, the guys with the biggest number of zeros on their paychecks did not get involved. You did not see - you follow the lead of O.J. Simpson. He was not going to get involved in these issues. You follow the lead of Michael Jordan. He was not going to get involved. You follow the lead of Tiger Woods. He was not going to get involved.

And not only were they not going to get involved on social issues, but they wouldn't even announce their blackness. They wouldn't - they would run from that. Tiger Woods would refer to himself as Cablinasian. Michael Jordan didn't do that. He always identified in the African American community, but he made sure he did not get involved on specific issues that would have placed him in a political spot. And, of course, famously, I'm not black, I'm O.J. So that's the attitude, and that is the attitude that took place for - 40 years is a lot of time, and it's two generations or even maybe four or five generations in terms of sports. And this is the attitude that permeated the next generations of players. They followed the leaders, and that's why a lot of this heritage and a lot of this social activism disappeared until Trayvon Martin was killed.

DAVIES: You say that 9/11 changed everything in sports in ways that would eventually figure into activism again. What was the change?

BRYANT: Well, it was everything, and I think everything is an understatement. If you are of a certain age, when I was a kid, the Cold War was what shaped our lives. I remember the 1976 Olympics. You remember the 1980s when - the 1980 Olympics when the Americans didn't go and then the 1984 Summer Olympics when the Russians didn't go. This was what shaped your life. If you were born in 1990, you were 10 or 11 years old on 9/11. And everything about sports that you've seen ever since has been shaped by militarization, jingoism, patriotism at the ballpark - all of these different symbols and images that are now embedded into the game-day experience.

If you were my age, sports teams and sports leagues did not want to get involved in politics because they didn't want to anger half of the fan base. If you get involved in politics, somebody is going to be mad at you. But post-9/11, the attitude was very different. Who could possibly be against patriotism? Who could possibly be against supporting the troops? And so you start to look at how the game actually appeared on the field and on your TV screen. You have first responders singing the national anthem now. You have soldiers in the crowd. You have police in every sort of part of the game. When you look at the game, pregame, you have the surprise military inductions and surprise military homecomings. And all of these different things are part of the selling of sports now. That's completely attributable to 9/11.

And what's even more, to me, sinister about this was the fact that it was underwritten by the Department of Defense while being sold to the public as organic - that the teams were doing this because they were being patriotic. And they were joining the war effort when, actually, it was the National Guards across the country that were paying these sports teams to sing the national anthem and to have these homecomings and all of these things. It was a complete deception to the American public.

DAVIES: Yeah. I mean, this is - let's be clear about this. What we're - you know, we're talking about how now the singing of "God Bless America" has been added to the seventh inning of ballgames. And there are bigger flags, and there are flyovers from military jets. And it was in 2015. There was a report that came out, which (laughter) surprised a lot of people, which said the military was paying baseball teams not insignificant sums of money...

BRYANT: Not just baseball teams. All of them.


BRYANT: All of them from...

DAVIES: Sports teams every...

BRYANT: That's right.

DAVIES: And football probably more than others, right? I mean...

BRYANT: And NASCAR as well and all of the above.

DAVIES: Yes. So what were the arrangements? They would pay for the privilege of what?

BRYANT: They would pay for the singing of "God Bless America." The Wisconsin National Guard paid the Milwaukee Brewers $49,000 to sing "God Bless America" during the seventh-inning stretch. When you look at a game on TV and you see all those military members up in the fourth deck - to the fan watching the game on television, that must have been a sports team donating those tickets to the troops. But it's actually the DOD paying for those tickets. The surprise homecomings before a game also staged by the Department of Defense - by the Pentagon.

DAVIES: You mean the servicemen and his family are reunited.

BRYANT: The servicemen are coming home and being reunited with their families.

DAVIES: Right.

BRYANT: Absolutely. That is a staged event, and so this has become part of sports. And so the two Republicans, John McCain and Jeff Flake of Arizona - they authored the report "Tackling Paid Patriotism," chastising teams for this practice, for charging the military for these displays and deceiving the public and, on top of that, forcing these teams - and sometimes to give the money back. But a lot of times, as you watch on TV, these displays haven't changed. It's a part of sports now. I think what's really interesting about this and where I found this collision with the heritage is that you have this post-9/11 sports militarized and nationalized and all of these different sort of attitudes toward patriotism taking place at the ballpark colliding with a revived black athlete whose experiences with police - it runs counter to these displays that are taking place at the game. So you have the post-9/11 sports colliding with the post-Ferguson black athlete. And this is really where a lot of the tension comes from.

BIANCULLI: Howard Bryant speaking to FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies in 2018. More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies and his 2018 interview with journalist Howard Bryant. His book, "The Heritage," is about the history of African American athletes and their public reactions to issues of social justice. When we left off, they were talking about the tradition of black athletes speaking out. Bryant talked about a post-9/11 era when sports became militarized and nationalized and what happened when those attitudes towards patriotism collided with the post-Ferguson black athlete.


DAVIES: And when Colin Kaepernick took a knee in 2016 - I mean, he was certainly not the first one to join the protests against police shootings. LeBron James had made a statement. I think it was at an ESPN awards banquet, right?

BRYANT: Absolutely.

DAVIES: It got a lot of attention.

BRYANT: He and Carmelo Anthony and - yeah.

DAVIES: Right. What was different about Colin Kaepernick? I mean...

BRYANT: Well, I think the first thing that was different about Kaepernick was the gesture itself. The players had spoken before, and you had the hands up, don't shoot gesture. You had Derrick Rose and LeBron James wearing I can't breathe T-shirts. You had the Minnesota Lynx, the women's basketball team in the WNBA, doing the same thing. But the fact that Colin Kaepernick took a knee during the national anthem - that changed everything. And what it did was it got people's attention, which is what protest is supposed to do. But what it also did was it exposed the gap between how African Americans were viewing what was taking place in the climate and how the mainstream media and how teams were viewing it. And now it was forcing teams into a collision with what they were selling at the ballpark in terms of flags and flyovers and militarization and how these African American players were feeling about what was happening in the community. So it was - the gesture brought these two seemingly disparate strains together. And it brought them together at the ballpark, which is another interesting sort of twist to it because the ballpark is the place where everyone's supposed to get along. And it's the toy department, and sports are supposed to be fun. And suddenly, sports became the most politicized place in America.

DAVIES: Right. Now, some owners...

BRYANT: I was going to say, and then the other part of that, too, is then you add Donald Trump into it and - who recognized very quickly that this was a political piece that he could exploit for his base. And you saw what he did in terms of questioning the players' citizenship and questioning whether or not players belonged in the country and questioning whether or not players - it was appropriate for players to protest at all. Obviously when he called them SOBs in 2017 in September, and I wrote...

DAVIES: And said they should be fired, right? Didn't he tell owners that they should fire...

BRYANT: Exactly.

DAVIES: Right.

BRYANT: And that they should not even be employed. This is explosive, powerful, undemocratic territory. Actually suggesting that a citizen and that an employee lose his job - you take away their employment for disagreeing with something that's taking place in the United States. And I wrote in the book - I'd like to just read a quick paragraph to you about how I felt about this. I said that (reading) Trump positioned dissenting views as unpatriotic at best, traitorous at worst, both to the United States in general and the country's armed forces in particular. Black players, such as Colin Kaepernick, enjoyed wide support from military members and nationwide black police organizations that were committed to eradicating police brutality, but it didn't matter. Sports, if not completely nonpartisan but famously ambivalent to overt political messages, was sending its own message through its fans, media, broadcast partners, teams and leagues. The American flag did not represent ideals. It was supposed to be obeyed.

And so that's the energy that Trump brought to this issue as we've seen ever since the start of his presidency. He's used the players as a wedge between being patriotic and unpatriotic. And in a lot of ways, it follows a template when it comes to dealing with African Americans during electoral years. I was saying the other day, it feels like you've gone from welfare queens to Willie Horton and now ballplayers.

DAVIES: You know, if you take the long view of African American athletes, I mean, you can go back to an era when there was outright segregation. Blacks were then admitted into the leagues. More are now in coaching staffs - some in the front office, I think a couple in minority ownership positions. Do you see a throughline of progress in all this? Are we, over the long run, moving in a positive direction?

BRYANT: No, we're not. And the reason that we're not is because of that throughline is essentially a myth. The way that you view sports - and it has been this way for years - is white owners, white coaches, white season-ticket owners, white media, black player. That is the filter. This is how sports is run. There is one owner in professional sports who is African American. And it's Michael Jordan with the Charlotte Hornets. And he's the only black owner, and that's a sport with an 80% black workforce. The NFL is a 70% black workforce. And yet these players are being muscled into not having political opinions.

When you look at media, media has focused not on the filter of the black athlete in terms of their protest but through their own filter, which is through police and through the flag. So the player isn't even able - the player spends so much time being frustrated that this is not what their protest is about. They can't even explain themselves in a way. And that's because the predominantly white media does not want to relinquish control of this narrative. If they actually listened - if it actually listened to the player, we'd be having a very different conversation about these protests. And so to say that there's progress is to suggest that some of these - or any of these components are changing. And actually, they're not.

In baseball, front-office opportunities are becoming less and less possible for African Americans. The numbers are actually shrinking. They're going away. And so it feels like we're going backwards in a lot of ways. One of the main issues of this book is the question of black body over black brain. The reason why we talk about players is because players were supposed to be this pipeline to education. They were supposed to be the pipeline to a better America for the African American player. But what you have instead is you have really rich African American athletes, a very small percentage of them, who have made it and a lot of other players and a lot of other people who haven't. And the response to those players, the LeBron Jameses and the Dwyane Wades and the Colin Kaepernicks who actually have made it, the response to them has been shut up and play, shut up and dribble. That doesn't sound like progress to me.

DAVIES: Howard Bryant, thanks so much for speaking with us.

BRYANT: My pleasure. Thank you.

BIANCULLI: Howard Bryant speaking to FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies in 2018. His book from that same year, "The Heritage," is about the history of African American athletes and their public reactions to issues of social justice. His latest book, also focused on sports and racism and injustice, was published in January. It's called "Full Dissidence: Notes From An Uneven Playing Field."

On Monday's show, Terry's guest will be Eve Ewing, the author of a book about racial inequality in the Chicago schools and a book of poems called "1919" about the 1919 riots in Chicago and the 1922 report that investigated them titled "The Negro In Chicago: A Study On Race Relations And A Race Riot." They'll talk about racial inequality, then and now. I hope you can join us. FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our senior producer today is Roberta Shorrock. For Terry Gross, I'm David Bianculli.


Dave Davies is a guest host for NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross.
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