It’s not just Brees — fans must better understand Black athletes, too

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The story has been rendered less meaningful, justly, but the story persists, offstage for now, waiting. The story is this: Three months into various degrees of ongoing or softening societal responses to a generational pandemic, American professional and major college sports continue to lurch forward toward a resumption of seasons interrupted (NBA, NHL) or the launching of seasons that once seemed certain to be postponed (NFL, college football). Some sports have already resumed (auto racing, for instance) or never stopped (horse racing, for instance). The particulars of these seasons remain under discussion, some organizations closer than others.

Put aside for a moment the debate over whether playing games is safe or appropriate at this time, or whether seasons begun will be completed. That’s a deep, dark hole that I’d prefer to observe from the edge, rather than leap into. League and sport and college officials are in a place they never imagined and never planned for, and about which they know as much as they can absorb, but less than they would like to know. (Medical professionals are still learning about the virus, and insist they will be learning for a long time). They are businessmen (and women, but mostly men), making business decisions, presumably with their employees’ and others’ best interests at heart.

As the resumption of NBA and NHL games unrolls, even without fans in attendance, and as the NFL and college football prepare to start, there is soon to be a steady chorus of assurances that sports are going to heal our wounded country. Stepping back: America can absolutely use some sports right now. No argument there. But that word: Heal. Society is both literally and metaphorically scarred by, first, the pandemic; and next by civil unrest following the death of George Floyd, a Black man, at the hands of four Minneapolis police officers – and beyond that to the issue of systemic racism by police against Black citizens in the United States. Suggesting that some games can heal all of that is a big ask. Especially since games are also part of the problem.

But that does not mean there is no opportunity here. Consider what major league sports are to their audience: Entertainment. Right? Simple. That takes many forms: An NFL game attracts its giant audience because some people are passionate fans of one of the teams involved. And because some people play fantasy. And because some gamble on the outcome. And because some just love the game and love watching it, because they watched with their dad or their brothers and sisters or because they played a little in high school or because it connects them to a broader community. A similar set of motivations can be applied to almost all major sports – and sporting events — in the country (in different numbers, of course). The games bind us, in many ways. They do good things.

But: They are entertainment, and often that entertainment is provided by Black performers for an audience that is overwhelmingly white. (This is true in the NFL and major college football, vastly more true in the NBA and major college basketball, less true in baseball, not true in hockey, but that does not mean that hockey has no problems with race. It does. You can keep going down the list; it is most true in the biggest, most-watched sports in the country). This is a discomforting reality that is rarely confronted, but looms as inescapable in the wake of the last two weeks’ demonstrations and unrest. There has always been a gulf between fans and athletes. That gulf has grown wider over the last half-century as two things have happened: Sports have become blacker and athletes have become wealthier. This has increasingly led to many fans viewing athletes dispassionately, with more attention to their lifestyle and miscues, and less to their humanity. Or, put another way, with more attention to the ways in which athletes are different from fans, and less to the ways in which they are alike.

Over the years, when I have written words asking for empathy with athletes for enduring hardships – such as brain trauma from head blows in football – the most common response is that those athletes are well compensated for their hardships. Pay me $10 million and you can hit me in the head, too. That sort of thing. It always seemed remarkably cold to me, as if wealth could offset every possible challenge in life. It’s not binary. But in all of this, the physical wall between athletes and fans became metaphysical, too.

George Floyd’s life was much the like the lives of the Black athletes we watch on weekends and weeknights. As my former colleague, Michael Rosenberg, wrote for Sports Illustrated, “Scan the roster of your favorite pro team, and you will find somebody who was scrounging for meals as a teenager and in the top 0.01 percent of earners in their 20s.” The athletes understand that connection deeply and implicitly. In Floyd’s death, they see their own place in the same society, separated – but not necessarily protected – by the random commodity of athletic talent.

Caron Butler, who played 14 years in the NBA before retiring in 2016, wrote a searing, first-person piece for The Players’ Tribune.

“When I saw brother George Floyd being pinned down and kneeled upon … a whole lot of images flashed through my mind.

“These memories came back.

“And I’m gon’ tell you like this, as someone arrested more than 15 times in my life: I almost never had a positive interaction with the police.

“Not just coming up, either. Shit — I got pulled over when I was in the NBA already.”

As part of a roundtable discussion for The Athletic, former Phillies’ All-Star Jimmy Rollins said: “Obviously, our white counterparts, they have a completely different view. They don’t have to grow up having that talk — and we all know what that talk is. They don’t have to get in a car, drive down the street knowing I didn’t do anything wrong, but this cop has been behind me for two blocks, something’s about to happen. They don’t have those fears. And every time something like this happens, as a player, you know exactly what is going on. When you get in the clubhouse, you do look at your counterparts, they’re going about their day as if nothing happened. And you’ve got three or four guys in the clubhouse looking at each other like, “Man. You see that? You know what that’s about. What can we do?” Then it’s four versus 21. It makes you a little uncomfortable.”

This week, Saints’ future Hall of Fame quarterback Drew Brees and teammate Malcolm Jenkins provided a modern – and real-time demonstration – of the divide Rollins described, a racial divide inside a locker room (and one which is separate from, but not unlike, the fan-athlete divide).

In interview posted by Yahoo Finance, Brees was asked to reflect back on Colin Kaepernick’s 2016 protest. Kaepernick’s protest has become newly examined because, as critics of ongoing demonstrations argue that peaceful actions are more appropriate than violent ones, it has been widely noted that Kaepernick’s very peaceful protest almost certainly ended his football career. Brees responded: “I will never agree with anybody disrespecting the flag of the United States or our country.” He went on to describe his pride that two grandfathers served in World War II and that he becomes emotional when remembering them during the playing of the anthem. He concluded: “Is everything right with our country right now? No, it’s not. We still have a long way to go. But I think what you do by standing there, showing respect for the flag, with your hand over your heart, is that we’re all in this together and we can all do better and that we’re all part of the solution.”

Jenkins, who is returning to the Saints after six seasons in Philadelphia, posted an emotional response on Instagram. “Drew Brees, if you don’t understand how hurtful and how insensitive your comments are, you are part of the problem.” Later: “Here we are in 2020, with the whole country on fire. Everybody is witnessing a Black man dying, murdered at the hands of the police, in cold blood, for the whole country to see, and the first thing you do is criticize one peaceful protest that was years ago… because it doesn’t fit with what you know, and with your beliefs, without even acknowledging that a man was murdered at the hands of the police.”

Many other Black NFL players – and other Black athletes, including LeBron James — lined up behind Jenkins in calling out Brees. On Thursday morning, Brees posted an apology on Instagram; it included an image of white and Black hands clasped, which is clearly aspirational in the moment.

Two other things. 1) Brees’s pre-apology stance was not materially changed from 2016. 2) Kaepernick was never protesting the flag, or the national anthem; he was protesting the violence by police against young Black men, which has heightened relevance today. Although Kaepernick does not have a job in football.

In the current societal unrest, there is a chance for white fans to better appreciate the athletes whose work they consume. Activism in the current societal unrest, there is a chance for white fans to better appreciate the athletes whose work they consume. Activism would be a stronger position, but lord knows, a stab at understanding would be a worthy first step. Some white men in power have tried this week. Predictably, Gregg Popovich was among the most forceful, telling Dave Zirin in The Nation, “The thing that strikes me is that we all see this police violence and racism, and we’ve seen it all before, but nothing changes. That’s why these protests have been so explosive,” he said. “But without leadership and an understanding of what the problem is, there will never be change. And white Americans have avoided reckoning with this problem forever, because it’s been our privilege to be able to avoid it. That also has to change.”

On the same day, in an interview with the Austin American-Statesman, Texas football coach Tom Herman, when asked if fans understood what it was like to be a Black athlete at Texas, said, “Absolutely not. No. No way… If you’re white, we can’t (understand). I will never know, you will never know, none of us will ever know what it’s like to have that genuine fear. When I make an illegal U-turn and get pulled over, I fear about what the cost of the ticket is going to be. I don’t fear that I’m going to get dragged out of my car and maybe killed because of something I said or did. And that’s real for them.”

And more:  “There’s a double standard maybe a little bit. We’re going to pack 100,000 people into DKR and millions watch on TV that are predominantly white — not all of them certainly, but most of ’em white. We’re gonna cheer when they score touchdowns, and we’re gonna hug our buddy when they get sacks or an interception.

“But we gonna let them date our daughter? Are we going to hire them in a position of power in our company? That’s the question I have for America. You can’t have it both ways.”

On Tuesday night, I reached out to sports psychologist Harry Edwards, Ph.D, who has been on the sports-and-civil-rights front lines for more than 50 years. I gently suggested that perhaps the events of this week had altered the calculus in some way, that some part of white American was better understanding the athletes they cheer, perhaps even Kaepernick, and long before him, Tommie Smith and John Carlos. Dr. Edwards forcefully corrected me, as he will do:

“NO!,” said Edwards (his emphasis). “Because the source of their antipathy to protesting athletes is not the validity or credibility of the protesting athletes’ arguments. Problem is that Black people have never been viewed as creditable witnesses to their own experiences, as creditable articulators of their own interpretations of those experiences, going all the way back to the times when slaves were declaring, `We want to be free!’ and the slave masters said, `Our slaves are happy!” And we know who won that struggle over definitional authority.”

More specifically, on the current unrest, Edwards, said, “White Americans might have been compelled to look in the mirror by the George Floyd lynching, but largely they still look away from the realities of Black life – and they most certainly will continue to condemn activist athlete protests which are likely to continue and intensify. There has never been a protest against race-based injustice to which mainstream White America has said `AMEN.’ When that changes, I will be hopeful that activist athletes will be seen in a different light as well.”

Sports cannot fix a centuries-old problem. But sports can help. But not just the athletes, It is time for much more of the audience to better understand the entertainers. Until that happens, there is a wall between two sets of Americans. There is adulation, but not respect. Awe, but not appreciation. Fanaticism, but not empathy.

Not healing, wounding.

Tim Layden is writer-at-large for NBC Sports. He was previously a senior writer at Sports Illustrated for 25 years.