I was driving out of Atlanta the other day, speaking to my baby sister. She listens to me ramble, and that’s why I love her. Our topic for the day was black men and sports. I mentioned how I turned on ESPN in my hotel room (all 10 million channels) and saw nothing but brothers on every channel. If there wasn’t a court full of black men dribbling a basketball, there were black men in pads banging each other up on the football field.
The presence of Americanized Apartheid was evident by noting that while the men doing the work were black, the men on the sidelines getting paid millions of dollars were white, as were the fans in the stands enjoying the entertainment.
I thought about all my years as a college professor and youth coach, and how the young men on the field had been groomed since birth to take their role in society. It was their dream to be on television in front of thousands, showing the world that they were born to be athletic phenoms. In fact, for some, being great athletes would be the epitome their existence, leading many of these men to trade in every ounce of their academic future in exchange for the chance to shine for 15 minutes on ESPN.
As I thought about how these men came to be and the systems that created them, I also thought about what happens after their athletic careers are done. Only one or two of the 100 or so black men I saw on television that day would go on to play professional sports. But sadly enough, many of them have chosen to play Russian Roulette with their lives. Quite a few players would never graduate from the colleges for whom they were earning millions of dollars, and some of them will never even learn to read. After their glory days of sports are said and done, you’ll find the same brother on the same corner hanging with the same dudes he used to run with in high school.
Even the athletes who are lucky enough to go pro have very short careers. Most NFL players don’t last longer than 3 or 4 years, and the money runs out fast. But while the money’s good, the athlete may form a few bad habits, pick up a few baby’s mamas, and end up with massive bills for car notes, child support and other expenses that he can barely maintain. After his knees wear out and he has turned over every rock trying to find a team that will sign him, he’s stuck with an endless pile of financial commitments and no way to pay them.
Many of our men are sucked into a culture of sports that minimizes the value of education and overstates the desire to make irresponsible personal decisions. The order of the day for many professional athletes is to spend all the money you can, keep yourself ignorant and sleep with as many women as possible, even though STDs are a serious threat to black public health. If a man fully embraces this culture, he may find himself unemployable and virtually incapable of being anyone’s husband or father. He has, to some extent, walked right into the trap of black male marginalization.
A man who has been shoved out of society becomes both a menace and a threat. Black men have historically been placed in this role and some of us even enjoy it. When a man becomes a menace to the world in which he lives, there are two places that society wants to send him: to prison or to the morgue.
In order for African American males and black athletes to understand this system, they must be educated about it. The culture that grabs our boys at an early age is one that is based on profuse amounts of mis-information, peer pressure, tradition and self-destruction. A man can be an athlete and still be an intelligent, productive and capable member of the community in which he lives. In fact, there is quite a bit of room for black male athletes to become part of our nation’s black leadership. With all the intellect these men use to contribute to the NCAA sweatshop, I only pray that they are willing to use the same intellect to become captains of their own destiny.
As it stands, sports becomes the drug that makes us feel good and the bane that destroys us. The NCAA and other institutions designed to encourage black men to pass up education in exchange for athletic pursuits serves to marginalize as many men as the prison system itself. If black mothers, fathers and “the village” doesn’t take a stand to confront this culture and these institutions, they will continue to undermine the progress of our community. We must raise our black boys differently.