The Race Files – Athlete-Speak (The Haunt Of)

Fred McCrary, the former NFL fullback, appeared recently on the PBS Newshour, along with two other guests. He was there to speak about the NFL’s recent concussion settlement, as well as a new study about the effects of concussions on younger children who play sports.

McCrary was nearly incoherent from the start, not answering correspondent Jeffrey Brown’s questions,[i] using strange and incorrect sentences and grammar, connecting his thoughts vaguely and incompletely, and wandering off-topic several times. Brown did his best, but probably was flustered at having to speak to this grown man – this millionaire Super Bowl champion – like a middle school-aged child. To top off the disaster, McCrary coughed embarrassingly into his microphone while one of the other guests was speaking.

I don’t mean to pick on McCrary, who self-estimated that he has suffered a thousand concussions in his career. I just wonder why the Newshour chose such a poor communicator to represent the athlete’s side of the issue. Why leave one side of the argument underrepresented? And in a bigger sense why would PBS want to remind people like myself of the ever-present specter that haunts the sports fandom of so many of us?

In American society, many of the most visible faces of black wealth and competitive success are professional athletes. These are the people who have attained a higher plane of performance and self-mastery. In many senses they are role models, the demigods whose feats we want our children to match or surpass. These regional heroes carry the reputation and outlooks of the city-state on their backs. In exchange they are idolized, and paid fantastical sums of money.

Ideally one would like to see these black supermen and superwomen continue to re-educate society about the underestimation of black worth, the innovative and irrepressible spirit of the stolen children of Africa, the hideous wrongness of slavery, Jim Crow and racial discrimination.

But it’s difficult when sports are haunted, haunted by the specter of black athlete-speak.

Athlete speak is the condition where athletes can’t or won’t express themselves. It’s a sustained lack of openness and eloquence that marks the majority of half-time and post-game interviews, TV commercials and other media appearances black professional athletes make. What causes this stunting of emotional and intellectual expression? Low levels of education and academic focus, team rules, the desire for privacy, celebrity culture, the controversy-generating properties of sports media, a frowning upon of opinion – the list goes on.

The reason this matters is that black athletes occupy a disproportionate share of the public’s attention – They are shaping the whole world’s perceptions of blackness, whether they know it or not.  The dullness, banality and “Black English Vernacular” of black athlete-speak represents a missed opportunity. Athletes with tremendous influence are limited by themselves – the capitalist idea that as long as they are rich and famous, there’s no reason to strive for intellectual, personal growth or larger racial progress – and a prevailing culture that chastises and punishes – but does not reward – athletes for being “outspoken”. [ii]

So yes, I would like to see Dwight Howard reading poetry in the post-game press conference, David Ortiz lecturing on the history of the Dominican Republic. I want to see Blake Griffin’s surrealist comedy show, Derrick Rose’s impassioned speech decrying the murder of Fred Hampton and Serena’s Williams’ op-ed about the long-term harm of racist stereotypes. Neil deGrasse Tyson, Cornel West and Henry Louis Gates Jr. just can’t represent black intelligence and curiosity alone[iii], there need to more successful black voices speaking intelligently and passionately in the public sphere.

Michael Wilbon wrote a nice article about LeBon James’ newfound reading habits going into last year’s NBA finals. I probably pumped my fist when I first read it. It wasn’t a return to Paul Robeson, but to see a black athlete of LeBron’s stature reading books openly and regularly – that’s progress!

And that’s what being haunted by athlete-speak is, clutching at small progress. You watch sports and admire your favorite players for their physical intelligence, their power and grace on the field – then you hear them talk. You realize you have little in common, and it’s disappointing. But you still wonder what’s there behind the athlete-speak – perhaps some depth of personality, feeling and intelligence that remains hidden for the purposes of expediency, or perhaps nothing at all. You wonder what could be if black athletes could express themselves more freely, without the risk of fines, being cut and media and public scrutiny. Imagine if black athletes could freely express and improve themselves, build a community of wealth and feeling and march forward with the incentives of black progress, community, peace and justice in view.

[i] After one breathless ramble, McCrary actually said “I’m sorry, what was your question?”

[ii] As anyone who reads the ESPN comments on articles knows, internet sports fans are still very racist. One of the most common outbursts follows the line that black athletes are all unintelligent thugs, who should go directly to jail. This cramming of black men into a stereotypical behavioral box of criminality hurts for a lot of reasons. Another is that athletes should stick to what they know – sports – and not become opinionated in politics and social issues, unless it’s a harmless basketball camp or United Way commercial. The comments became so hateful and racist that ESPN switched over to a facebook account-only comment system in an attempt to bring some accountability to the boards.

[iii] I don’t mean literally alone. Obviously there are many black entertainers who have voices, some of them strong. However, there are few industry leaders and CEOs of color. No one should look to career politicians for any kind of lessons on actual progress.

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