After a post-mortem year that couldn’t end soon enough, the first week of 2021 offered not so much the balm of 2020 as the relentlessness of last year. For Black America in general and Black athletes in particular, the year began with a series of events that once again emphasized the practice of faith.
In Wisconsin, Kenosha County Attorney Michael Gravely announced Tuesday that no charges will be filed against Rasten Shesky, the police officer who shot Jacob Blake seven times in the back. The August shooting resulted in an unprecedented boycott of play in sports ranging from the NBA and WNBA to tennis, MLB, MLS and NHL.
Later on Tuesday and Wednesday, Georgia saw a runoff election between Democrat John Ossoff and Reverend Rafael Warnock in the U.S. Senate. Warnock’s victory, in particular, was seen as a huge win for WNBA players, especially for the Atlanta Dream, whose public support for Warnock against team co-owner Kelly Loeffler helped build Warnock into a force and raised the national profile of both races.
On Wednesday afternoon, a mob of Trump supporters, some armed and most fueled by an early morning rally of the president falsely claiming the election, stormed the U.S. Capitol and temporarily postponed certification of the U.S. presidential election.
Error! The file name is not specified. A crowd of Trump supporters stormed the U.S. Capitol on Wednesday to disrupt the Electoral College confirmation results. AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta
While the country crumbled, the NFL continued its annual, weekly mid-season ritual – the end of the regular season, followed by the league’s sinister crackdown on firing team coaches, inevitably followed by hiring coaches and the annual humiliation of black coaches.
Each of these moments created a new exercise of faith. Kenosha’s decision puts the protests of last summer in perspective, a mix of the pride of athletes making statements and the anticipation of a month of fear that Shesky, like many police officers before him, might try to kill without consequence. Furious, the athletes refuse to play. Former President Barack Obama advised them to stop boycotting, be good citizens, vote, encourage others to vote and make the system work. You have to believe him. But despite his hundreds of millions of dollars in salaries, visibility and fame, the day of fear has arrived, with Blake now paralyzed from the waist down and Shesky free, making the term Black Lives Matter what it has always been: a bitter and rhetorical question that still wants to be a statement.
Along with Chris Paul and LeBron James, Obama urged the players to get back to work, lead by example and believe. In imperfect criminal justice systems. In imperfect political systems. In America. Black athletes have been reprimanded over the years, both by the president (maybe you shouldn’t be in the country, as President Donald Trump once said at a protest against the athletes) and by aggressive and predominantly white radio hosts, fans, colleagues and coaches. The players, like most blacks, were told that their protests would be useless if blacks just followed the rules, like good Americans do. As grotesque as these admonitions may seem Wednesday, in their insidious nature, the pro-Trump protesters, most of them white, stormed Capitol Hill without much initial resistance from police, defied everyone, threatened the police, with Congress in place, precious democracy hidden under the table with them, and five people dead.
In the NFL, the call to faith made a furious trip to the ultimate zone of humiliation as black coaches once again hoped to get an interview for a head coaching position, begging to be considered viable candidates by an industry that has little respect for them professionally. The coaches and experts found themselves on the same tired ground again with the same result.
Black football pros from the Fritz Pollard Alliance to individuals Eric Benimis and Marvin Lewis – one waiting for his first chance as a head coach, the other an NFL coach for 16 years with a .518 winning percentage who might not have a second – have no choice but to fight. Football was his life. Training is his livelihood. The NFL is a closed society, meaning there is no American alternative to the NFL that they can turn to and tell the NFL to go to hell without missing Go. The difference between the work of a mentor and that of many assistants is not only the prestige of the title and the ego test, but also the uncapped wealth. The head coaches are millionaires. Assistant coaches, for the most part, are not. Not being eligible for the top job also means not being able to get rich, and wealth is the best weapon to tell the world to go to hell without it. Without financial freedom, the people who are most humiliated by the NFL need it the most.
However, NFL Punditry has a choice in how it positions the NFL’s role in this humiliation. He’d rather think of the NFL as supporting black coaches than the explicitly hostile idea that it is. It’s not difficult. The NFL doesn’t want black coaches, so they don’t exist in abundance. The lack of interest in hiring blacks in management positions is a low-profile position, as most American companies do.
If 2020 was a revelation – and it was for much of white America – it is evident in the changing employment prospects of African-Americans after the police killed George Floyd, a bubble that gave him no dignity and did not compensate his family. Rather, it is an indictment of the fact that the vast majority of countries that claim meritocracy routinely deny the merits of blacks. After Floyd was killed by police in Minneapolis in May, the industry showed an unexpected commitment to fighting racism. Television commercials usually feature interracial couples. Netflix has revealed a great preview of Black Lives Matter. Suddenly the black professionals arrived.
While the result of this spotlight has benefited black professionals desperate for work, it has also dramatically exposed the depths of racism that permeate corporate America, the total closure of labor markets and the true longevity of black people – and has been for some time. Floyd’s death triggered a series of scathing news stories highlighting how companies have perceived black professionals as historically incompetent or deliberately refused to hire qualified black candidates for decades. There is no third way.
Yet America regularly engages in an astonishing display of gibberish, convincing itself of its inherent post-racial fairness and welcoming an embarrassing litany of late and ignorant neophytes. She does this dance with a smile of progress and a flash of anger when blacks notice an obvious injustice and explain why it’s news when a black man actually gets a good job, or when Georgia sends a black Democrat to the Senate for the first time since it joined the Union – in 1788.
In July, Dario Calmese became – in 2020 – the first black photographer to cover an issue of Vanity Fair. In 2018, Tyler Mitchell became the first African-American to make the cover of Vogue. Also this summer, General Charles Q. Brown, Jr. became the first Black to be appointed Chief of the Air Staff, making him the first Black to lead a branch of the U.S. Army…. ever. One. In November, the Los Angeles Chargers lost another lead, but came up just short: The game was the first television program in NFL history to feature a black director and a top producer. Later that month, the NFL assembled a team of all-black officials. From finance to publishing, sports to vice presidents, black professionals across the country were getting calls with job offers and interest from places that had never mattered to them before – until Derek Shovin put his knee in George Floyd’s neck and killed him. Vogue was founded in 1892. The first live broadcast of an NFL game took place on the 22nd. October 1939 took place. The Air Force, founded in 1907, became an independent part of the Army in 1947. The first version of Vanity Fair was published in 1913, and was reprinted in 1983. Before George Floyd was murdered, of course, a black man could have been photographed for the cover of a fashion magazine.
Domonique Foxworth, Martensi Johnson and Soraya Nadia MacDonald discuss America, double police standards, privilege and a longstanding problem: Does the black life really matter? See
The NFL is clearly anti-black. He sees the hiring of black coaches as a triumphant ascent of some sort of Everest, as if finding a black man who can do better than Adam Gase is one of the greatest achievements of our time. That has a definite hallmark, but it’s not in Brian Flores’ success, it’s in the apparent fanaticism of an industry that requires committees, think tanks, special rules, and years of public incentives to ensure that there is a black person smart enough to know how to use leave.
The NFL, with its media savvy, has positioned itself as part of the solution to a corrosive culture of racism that has destroyed countless careers by artificially inflating others. And it says nothing about the power of the union except that the police doubt their own ability to reform. It also shows a total lack of imagination on the part of the experts to whom the public is exposed. This last point should come as no surprise, given that sports television has actively fragmented black journalism over the past three decades. She has replaced black journalism professionals with former top players. During the same period, the print media is so distorted that many journalists are reluctant to criticize the sports leagues that could be their next employer. They’re trying to survive.
Unless a black player is clearly superior to a white contender – traditionally said to be fast enough to play wide, or just fast enough to cover one – he is committed by a large majority. The NFL is a hostile place that doesn’t believe in black jurisdiction. Let’s not forget that just a few months ago, the NFL essentially admitted that it was so racist in hiring practices that it actually suggested giving selections to teams that develop minority coaches, only to lose them to other teams. They should be encouraged to do their jobs, and yet there are serious discussions about the Rooney Rule going on, with panelists who seem as irritated or indignant as a broken clock. Thinkers don’t think.
The NFL agrees with other industries where skill recognition is a white luxury. White workers may complain about promotions or who might be better at a particular job, but they rarely, if ever, imply that a colleague is not good enough to enter the building, as they often do when referring to their black colleagues as affirmative action hires. Meanwhile, they insinuate the incompetence of the black candidate by attributing to him a risk, uncertainty, a reason why he cannot work. It’s a burden that Matt Patricia, recently fired (career record 13-29-1), will never carry.
No more Howard Bryant.
Just as the presumption of white competence allowed black candidates to be ignored in the job market, it also gave police permission to kill without consequence, assuming that their honesty and judgment could be trusted as surely as meeting a black person meant danger. The same order of fairness and responsibility was given to the white protesters who stormed Capitol Hill. Capitol police did not consider them a serious threat to the members of Congress present in the building or to the rule of law; the blacks were repeatedly told they would not be deterred. While armed white men smashed the windows of the nation’s main legislative building, tanks stood ready outside black homes, safely parked in anticipation of the protests.
The message is unreadable. They are the owners of the American dream. Blacks are renters. When the Milwaukee Bucks and Orlando Magic boycotted and followed Naomi Osaka and several athletes to protest Blake’s firing, it served as a touchstone, an epiphany from them that the players were somehow finished. They were willing to bet on principle and in fact parried the pejorative comments that one cannot kneel to undermine protests. The actors performed. The next question in America’s never-ending aggressiveness to protest is whether we should criticize the athletes for not doing enough, or whether we should shrink the moment by speculating about what they are willing to do in the future.
Neither was important. The real revelation remains the need to continually protest, not to ask permission to impose one’s will. This revelation is felt in real time. The sports industry and many of its former players are trying to protest and vote in an ahistorical opposition. But for much of the country outside of Georgia, it was the WNBA wearing T-shirts that read Vote Warnock – a simple public protest, not an elaborate coup – accompanied by police or special celebrities – that drew attention to the major Senate races in Georgia.
For all the actors who may have forgotten that they were in enemy territory, or who were unsure of the point of the boycott, or who took comfort in the fact that Obama was interested in them, the fact that Kenosha County did not indict Shesky should be a revelation. Maybe they shouldn’t have been muzzled – by Obama or anyone else. Players who begged to be treated like human beings, with inspirational slogans on the back of their jerseys, who registered their fellow citizens to vote and who were persuaded to believe, now see images of white citizens taking control and mutilating the U.S. Capitol, in an attempt to nullify the results of the elections in which these players were supposed to invest. In case the players have forgotten, White America was reminded Wednesday on Capitol Hill that many of them don’t want democracy. They need control.
The events in Kenosha and Washington made the players’ departure last summer crucial. When the athletic field came to a halt after Blake was shot, the players saw it as an extraordinary display of power. It has also been heavily criticised, but the actors – like all the ordinary people who have taken to the streets before them – have now experienced what it is like to be beaten by a system that will only give up its power if it is defeated by force.
The reprimand will hurt, but it will also remind these already highly competitive athletes that the shooting and resulting police irresponsibility is why they left the field in the first place. Seeing the rioters loot the U.S. Capitol only reinforces the fact that despite their wealth and fame, the athletes’ place in the movement must always be aligned with that of the people on the ground doing the work of activism every day. And so the worldview of legendary sociologist Harry Edwards – that there are no final victories in the struggle for justice – should guide them for the rest of their lives.