- Senior Writer, ESPN.com and ESPN The Magazine
- Author of “The Last Hero: A Life of Henry Aaron”
- Author of “Juicing the Game”
Following the postmortems of a year that couldn’t end fast enough, the first week of 2021 has not provided a balm for 2020 as much as it has amplified last year’s relentlessness. For Black America in general, and Black athletes in particular, the year has begun with a series of events that once again have put on global display an exercise in belief.
In Wisconsin, Kenosha County District Attorney Michael Graveley announced Tuesday that no charges would be filed against Rusten Sheskey, the police officer who fired seven shots into the back of Jacob Blake. The August shooting led to an unprecedented boycott of play in sports, from the NBA and WNBA, to tennis, MLB, MLS and the NHL.
Later Tuesday and into Wednesday, Democrats Jon Ossoff and Rev. Raphael Warnock swept the U.S. Senate runoffs in Georgia. Warnock’s victory, in particular, was viewed as a major victory for WNBA players, especially those from the Atlanta Dream whose public support of Warnock against team co-owner Kelly Loeffler helped turn Warnock into a force and heightened the national visibility of both races.
By Wednesday afternoon, a mob of pro-Trump supporters, some armed and most fueled by a morning rally with words from a president falsely claiming election fraud, stormed the U.S. Capitol, temporarily postponing the certification of an American presidential election.
While the country tore itself apart, the NFL continued to spend the week in the throes of its annual ritual — the end of the regular season followed by the league’s bleak sobriquet for teams firing of coaches, inevitably followed by the hiring of coaches and the annual humiliation of Black coaches.
Each of these moments has created yet another exercise in belief. The Kenosha decision put last summer’s protests in perspective, a vacillation between the pride of athletes making a statement and the monthslong anticipation of dread that Sheskey, like so many police officers before him, could attempt to kill without consequence. Exasperated, athletes refused to play. Former President Barack Obama advised them to end the boycott, to be good citizens, to vote, encourage others to vote and let the system work. To believe. Yet for all their hundreds of millions of dollars in salary, visibility and celebrity, the day of dread still arrived, Blake is now paralyzed from the waist down, and Sheskey is free, returning the term Black Lives Matter into what it has always been: a bitter, rhetorical question still aspiring to be an affirmation.
Working with Chris Paul and LeBron James, Obama had urged players to return to work, set the example and believe. In flawed criminal justice systems. In flawed political systems. In America. Black athletes for years have been admonished — by a president (“Maybe you shouldn’t be in the country,” President Donald Trump once said of protesting athletes), and by aggressive and predominantly white talk radio hosts, fans, colleagues and coaches. The players, like most Black people, have been told that their protests would be unnecessary if Black people just obeyed and followed the rules as they do, as the good Americans do. On Wednesday, how utterly grotesque those admonishments lay, rank in their insidiousness, as pro-Trump protesters, mostly white, stormed the Capitol with little initial resistance from police, obeying no one, threatening police, with Congress sheltered in place, the precious democracy hiding under a desk along with them, and four people dead.
In the NFL, the call to believe took an infuriating trip into the end zone of humiliation, as Black coaches once again hoped they would receive an interview for a head-coaching job, begging to be seen as viable candidates by an industry that has little professional respect for them. The coaches and the punditry alike are again left trudging over the same tired territory with the same tired results.
The Black professionals in football, from the Fritz Pollard Alliance to the individual Eric Bieniemys and Marvin Lewises — one waiting for a first head-coaching chance, the other a 16-year NFL coaching veteran with a .518 winning percentage who might not get a second — have no choice but to fight. Football has been their life. Coaching is their livelihood. The NFL is a closed business, meaning there is no American alternative to the NFL to which they can appeal and tell the NFL to go hell without passing Go. The differences between a head-coaching job and many assistant jobs do not lie just in the prestige of the title and ego of the challenge, but in raw wealth. Head coaches are millionaires. Assistant coaches mostly are not. Not being considered for the top job also means not having the opportunity to gain wealth, and wealth is the best weapon to tell the world to go to hell without passing Go. Without the financial freedom to walk away, the people most humiliated by the NFL are the ones who need it the most.
The NFL punditry, however, does have a choice in how it positions the NFL’s role in this humiliation. It chooses to treat the NFL as supportive of Black coaches instead of as obviously hostile to the idea, which they are. It is not complicated. The NFL doesn’t want Black coaches, which is why it does not have them in large abundance. A lack of interest in hiring Black people to upper management positions is an unremarkable stance, for it is how most American corporations go about their business.
If 2020 was a revelation — and for huge swathes of white America, it was — it could be seen in the shifting job prospects for African Americans following the police killing George Floyd, a bubble that neither paid tribute to him nor provided any recompense to his family. It is rather an indictment of how overwhelmingly a country that claims to be a meritocracy routinely denies the merits of Black people. After Floyd was killed by Minneapolis police in May, industries pledged a sudden commitment to anti-racism. Television ads routinely featured interracial couples. Netflix introduced essential Black Lives Matter viewing. Black professionals were suddenly present.
While the result of this attention has been beneficial to Black professionals desperate to compete for work, it also spectacularly revealed the depths of racism present in corporate America, of just how completely shut out of job markets Black people have truly been — and for how long. Floyd’s death sparked a run of insulting firsts that underscored how business sees Black professionals as historically incompetent, or has purposely for decades refused to hire qualified Black candidates. There is no third way.
Yet America routinely engages in a stunning display of hocus pocus, convincing itself of its inherent, post-racial fairness while patting itself on the back for an embarrassing litany of too-late, low-bar firsts. It does this dance with both a smile of progress and a flash of temper, angry whenever Black people note the obvious unfairness that explains why it is news when a Black person actually gets a good job, or when Georgia sends a Black Democrat to the Senate for the first time since it was admitted to the Union — in 1788.
In July, Dario Calmese became — in 2020 — the first Black photographer to shoot the cover of an issue of Vanity Fair. In 2018, Tyler Mitchell was the first African American to shoot a cover for Vogue. Also in the summer, Gen. Charles “CQ” Brown Jr. was named the first Black chief of staff of the Air Force, making him the first Black person to head a branch of the U.S. military — ever. On Nov. 1, the Los Angeles Chargers blew another lead, but it occurred within a milestone: The game was the first television broadcast in NFL history to have a Black director and lead producers. Later in the month, the NFL played a game with an entirely Black officiating crew. From the financial sector to publishing to sports to the vice presidency, Black professionals across the country received phone calls with job offers and interest from places that never before had very much use for them — until Derek Chauvin drove his knee into George Floyd’s neck, killing him. Vogue was founded in 1892. The NFL broadcast its first live telecast of a game on Oct. 22, 1939. The Air Force, formed in 1907, became a separate branch of the military in 1947. The first version of Vanity Fair was published in 1913, and later revived in 1983. Certainly, before George Floyd was killed, someone Black could have taken a picture for the cover of a fashion magazine.
The NFL has been unambiguously hostile to the Black condition. It treats the hiring of Black coaches as the triumphant scaling of some form of Everest, as if finding someone who is Black and could do a better job than Adam Gase is one of the great accomplishments of our time. There is a certain specialness to this, but it isn’t in the success of Brian Flores but in the obvious bigotry of an industry that requires committees, think tanks, special rules, and years of public prodding to be convinced there is someone Black out there smart enough to know how to use a timeout.
The NFL is positioned by its media punditry as part of a solution to a corrosive culture of racism that has ruined countless careers while artificially inflating others. And that speaks to the power of the league no differently than the idea that police are given the benefit of the doubt in reforming themselves. It also speaks to the utter lack of imagination on the part of its punditry to which the public is being subjected. The latter should come as no surprise, as sports television has for the past three decades actively shredded Black journalism. It has replaced Black journalism professionals with supplicant ex-players. Print media has been so decimated during that same period that many journalists are reluctant to criticize the sports leagues who might well become their next employer. They’re trying to survive.
Unless a Black person has clear superior value to a white job applicant — which traditionally has been relegated to being fast enough to play wideout or just fast enough to cover one — they are a hiring long shot. The NFL is a hostile place, disbelieving of Black competence. It should not be forgotten that just several months ago, the NFL essentially admitted it is so racist in its hiring that it actually suggested awarding draft picks to teams that develop minority coaches and then lose them to other teams. They need to be incentivized to do their jobs, and yet, the earnest Rooney Rule discussions continue, the panelists appear vexed, or outraged, as predictable as a broken clock. The thinkers are not thinking.
The NFL is engaging in the same attitudes familiar to other industries, where the assumption of competence is a luxury reserved for whiteness. White employees might complain about promotions or who might be better at a given task, but they rarely if ever suggest a coworker isn’t good enough to even be allowed in the building, as they often do by calling their Black colleagues “affirmative action hires.” Meanwhile, they assume the incompetence of the Black candidate, attaching a risk, an uncertainty, a reason why it cannot work. It is a burden the recently fired Matt Patricia (career record 13-29-1) will never have to bear.
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Just as the assumption of white competence allowed Black candidates to be ignored in job markets, it also gave police the dispensation to kill without consequence under the idea that their integrity and judgment could be trusted as certainly as an encounter with a Black person portended danger. That same dispensation of integrity and responsibility was afforded the white protesters who stormed the Capitol. The Capitol Police did not treat them as a grave threat to the congressional leaders in the building or to the rule of law Black people are constantly told is immutable. While armed white people smashed the windows of the nation’s most prominent lawmaking building, the tanks waiting at the ready in anticipation of Black protest were safely parked at home.
The message is unsubtle. They are the owners of the American dream. Black people are the renters. When the Milwaukee Bucks and Orlando Magic boycotted, Naomi Osaka and several athletes followed in protest of Blake’s shooting, it provided a touchstone, its own revelation that players had in a sense graduated. They were willing to risk their money for a principle, effectively parrying the reductive comments of “you can’t just take a knee” that attempted to undermine the protests. The players took action. The next question in America’s never-ending aggression toward protest was to criticize athletes for either not doing enough, or reducing the moment by speculating what they might be willing to do in the future.
Neither was important. The true revelation remains the necessity of constant protest, of not asking for permission, of imposing one’s will. That revelation can be felt in real time. The sports industry and so much of its ex-player punditry attempts to position protest and voting in ahistorical opposition. But for much of the country outside of Georgia, it was the WNBA wearing T-shirts that read “Vote Warnock” — simple, public protest and not some elaborate ride-along with police or special concierge celebrity access — that brought enormous attention to the pivotal Georgia senatorial races.
For any of the players who might have forgotten they are in hostile territory, or were unsure about the utility in the boycott, or took comfort in Obama taking an interest in them, Kenosha County not charging Sheskey should open their eyes. Perhaps they should not have let themselves be muted — by Obama, or anyone else. Players who were begging to be seen as human, with inspirational slogans on the backs of their jerseys, registering their fellow citizens to vote and being told to believe, now watch the images of white citizens overrunning and defacing the U.S. Capitol, attempting to overturn the results of the very election these players were told to invest in. If the players forgot, white America reminded them at the Capitol building Wednesday that many of them do not want democracy. They want control.
The events in Kenosha and Washington, D.C., re-centered the player walkouts last summer as crucial. When sports shut down after Blake was shot, it was received as an extraordinary statement about the power of the player. It also received heavy criticism, but players have now discovered, like all the commoners who have taken to the streets before them, what it feels like to get slapped in the face by a system that relinquishes power only when it is defeated by force.
While the rebuke will sting, it will also remind these athletes, already highly competitive, that both the shooting and the subsequent police unaccountability is why they walked off the court in the first place. Seeing the U.S. Capitol marauded by rioters only further confirms that despite their riches and celebrity, the athlete’s place in a movement must always be aligned with the people on the ground who do the activist work daily. And that is why the worldview of the legendary sociologist Harry Edwards — that in a fight for justice, “there are no final victories” — should guide them for the rest of their lives.
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