The lines between athleticism and activism aren’t as divided as I thought.
Image by bdc629/Pixabay.
Growing up, I resented the assumed aptitude that black Americans have for sports. Even after two years of volleyball, it was evident I didn’t have it. I did, however, long for their popularity. The athletes got everything — the scholarships, the school pride, and, of course, the funding.
Not being good at sports removed many opportunities for me both educationally and socially. Also, many of the kids who bullied me were athletes. I learned to resent anyone who wore a jersey. I navigated my way through school and found my crowd among the social outcasts. But that resentment stayed. By the time I graduated high school, I’d decided I’d do all I could to stay far away from athletics.
Over the next four years, I developed a passion for social activism. I found comfort in that it was led by brain power and not physical strength. I didn’t detest sports anymore, but I started to view them — particularly football — as removing from young black boys the desire to be intellectually successful. In the world of sports, you just need to pass so you can play.
Unfortunately, this trend continues through college. According to “Black Male Student-Athletes and Racial Inequalities in NCAA Division I College Sports” by Shaun R. Harper, Ph.D., black males make up less than 3% of the undergraduate population at the 65 Power Five schools but 56% and 61% of college football and basketball players. However, black male athletes showed the lowest number of student graduations with less than less than 54% graduating in six years.
I knew I didn’t want that for my son. But I didn’t know by this point there was already an expectation that he would fall in line. He wasn’t even six months old the first time someone referred to him as a “future football player.” That infuriated me. Since that first comment, countless individuals have taken upon themselves to plan out his destiny. I’ve heard the comments over and over, and he’s not yet 2.
In my eyes, stereotyping and benevolent racism were the reasons people assumed my son had to be some form of athlete. For many, black bodies have little value if not in some area of entertainment. Washington Post columnist Kevin Blackistone opined that black athletes have such low graduation rates because they aren’t brought to joined the academic environment but as revenue producers.
I began shutting comments down by responding that he will grow up to be an engineer or a mathematician. I had dreams that my son would defy the odds in a distinguished STEM field and exist as an example to other young black males. But making an impact in that area is unlikely.
[quote position="full" is_quote="true"]The last two years show that I am not the only one frustrated with the expectation that black males must ignore community issues in a sport over-represented by black men. [/quote]
Recent data suggests there has been little to no improvement in hiring bias for blacks over the last 25 years — a figure that is substantially worse in the tech world. While historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) make up 3% of colleges, they produce 27% of STEM bachelor's degrees for black Americans. HBCUs have worked hard to decrease the STEM gap, but despite these efforts, there has been little improvement for black males in 10 years.
On the other hand, black men make up nearly 70% of NFL players but roughly 6% of America. Those odds make it clear that athleticism might be a black male’s only ticket out. And while my son’s only approaching 2, that hurts me.
The last two years show that I am not the only one frustrated with the expectation that black males must ignore community issues in a sport over-represented by black men. Many players are using their platform to address community issues, and it's causing me to question the message I’d been taught about black athletes.
In early 2016, I did my best to avoid the sports hype, but I couldn't help but hear about one player who seemed to be testing the boundaries of the NFL platform: Colin Kaepernick.
At first, I didn't understand the significance of his decision to sit and later kneel, but after researching his motives, I was moved. He cared about his cause and worked within his community to increase opportunities for people of color. He has already donated $800,000 of his million-dollar donation pledge to increase opportunities for people of color. His outspokenness ultimately led to his unemployment in the NFL, but he is still going.
Kaepernick was the first black athlete I had the opportunity to witness making such a significant impact. I needed to know more about the relationship between athletics and civil rights — who else had used their platforms for social change. Some like Althea Gibson were activists by what they endured upon integration. Others like The Black 14 disagreed with the racist policies of others and planned organized protests. Muhammad Ali spoke out against war and started discussions of economic power in the black community. There is an overlooked history of black athletes using their privilege and finances to stand up for their community and illuminate the struggles faced by black Americans.
I realized the lines between athleticism and activism aren’t as divided as I thought. Kaepernick and those before him made me second-guess my assumptions about the aptitude of intelligence, cultural competency, and athleticism. For the first time in years, the relationship between intellectualism, civil rights, and sports have been blended for me.
At times, athletes were forced to lead the way for black intellectualism because they were the only ones with access to the platform. And maybe my son could be both an athlete and an activist too.
I had been socialized to see the negative and the bad decisions made by many athletes. These messages affected the way that I saw myself and ultimately led to ideals that limited my son's access to opportunity in the future.
There is room for many types of activism at the table. For me to exclude athletics from his list of potential careers is no different from those who stopped young black males like him from pursuing academics. He deserves better than that limitation, and I will do my best to never limit him again.
The NFL protest reminded me that it is possible to be a part of two worlds at once. I would still like my son to pursue science and technology, but that does not mean that he can’t pair that career with something physical. Sports can come with a legacy of excellence and have the ability to open doors that he may not have reached otherwise, but it doesn't mean he has to close others.