By: Taylor Zachary ~Columnist~
Recent commentary on activism among Black athletes asserts that Black athletes should not be compelled to speak simply because they are called upon – and I agree.
Let’s take in consideration the #NoJusticeNoLebron campaign in December of 2015. Writer and activist Tariq Touré created the hashtag to call on LeBron James to lead a collective sit out until the Department of Justice indicted the murderers of Tamir Rice. Not only did LeBron not do so, his response illustrated he knew very little about the case.
While some might say that James was within his right not to take a sacrificial stance on a matter he knew little about, his response reinforced the myth that Black athletes transcend the reality of race. His response set an example for his fans – like Tamir Rice himself – and other young Black boys coming of age in Cleveland that simply not being well versed in the details of an unarmed child murdered by police is enough of an excuse for inaction.
Again, as so many times before, we were reminded that athletes are not activists. But that’s not completely their fault.
Discourse about Black athletes must also include the ways in which the sports industrial complex teaches athletes the myth of economic security as freedom. Walter Byers, the orchestrator of the NCAA, wrote in his memoir that he and his team “created the NCAA with a neo-plantation mindset.” Their goal was to exploit both Black talent and Black hope, the hope that sports could be a vehicle to a greater life free of the many systemic oppressions that plague Black and Brown communities.
But who is teaching Black athletes about their Blackness?
A large part of what made Muhammad Ali willing and able to leverage a massive platform – in service of Black liberation – was his level of political education by the Nation of Islam.
Activists and other members of the Black community are not wrong in making a call to action; however, it’s wrong that they even have to when adequate political education systems for Black athletes are lacking. Underserved by a white-washed educational system and misguided by a sports system rooted in the exploitation of Black bodies, Black athletes are intentionally severed from engaging in any matter of identity or liberation.
But, rather than regard Black athletes as a lost cause, systems must be created specifically for the political education of Black athletes. Such systems of politicization and activism already exist, such as Black Youth Project 100 and Black Lives Matter, both of which have an expansive following and national chapters of young people. Some of these young people surely play a sport or two.
But winning games creates scheduling conflicts. Dreams of million dollar contracts don’t include protests. And while most coaches are mentors to young Black athletes, most coaches are also white. Black athletes are not left out of the aforementioned spaces by intent of the organization but by the systemic structure of white supremacy. To be Black is to be in a constant struggle for control of your body.
To be Black and an athlete is to assume control of your body, but athletes’ time, ambitions and education do not belong to them. The creation of educational systems specifically geared toward Black athletes creates a counter-narrative integral to preserving their platform.
Imagine an organization that provided a counter-narrative to athletes from the early ages of middle school, a narrative that facilitated an understanding in heteronormative patriarchy and rape culture. Imagine the same organization working with athletes in high school on a curriculum that formally grappled with Blackness, identity politics, cooperative economics and activism. Envision a few of these athletes playing sports in college and being able to hold a dialogue that centers feminism and the histories and contemporaries of imperialism, colonization and liberation.
It is through political education centered in Blackness that we shift the border of initiating action from the community to the athletes themselves.
Such systems aid Black athletes who enter any arena – be it high school, college or professional sports – with the tenacity and understanding that it is their duty to fight for their freedom, and it is their duty to win.