For Black athletes, sports and politics have always been intertwined. Their very presence on the field is a political act. Some athletes have used their status and influence to speak out against racial injustice; others have remained silent. From legends like Paul Robeson and Jackie Robinson to current icons like Colin Kaepernick and LeBron James, the heritage of Black activism within sports is deep and complex. Journalist Howard Bryant details it in full in The Heritage: Black Athletes, a Divided America, and the Politics of Patriotism.
As Bryant guides us through this history, he illustrates the ways earlier Black athletes have dedicated themselves to political activism. Renaissance man and football player Paul Robeson advocated for Pan-Africanism and anti-capitalistic economic systems. The House of Un-American Activities Committee suspected him of Communism and even revoked his passport. Bryant quotes Robeson at his appearance before the committee in 1956 to request the re-issue of his passport:
“The reason I am here today, you know, from the mouth of the State Department itself is: I should not be allowed to travel because I have struggled for years for the independence of the colonial peoples of Africa,” he told the committee. “I stand here struggling for the rights of my people to be full citizens in this country, and they are not. They are not in Mississippi. And they are not in Montgomery, Alabama. And they are not in Washington. They are nowhere, and that is why I am here today.”
The committee did not re-issue his passport. Thus, Robeson would become one of the first casualties of the Heritage—the Black athlete’s fight for Black people at the expense of his career.
Jackie Robinson, Muhammad Ali, and other members of the old guard continued the tradition. But starting in the 1970s, other athletes would undermine it. This is because of what Bryant calls the “greenwashing” of Black athletes like O. J. Simpson, Michael Jordan, Charles Barkley, and Tiger Woods. As Bryant points out:
Instead of athletes using their celebrity to advocate for black people, as the old guard had, elite black players now opted for big salaries to sell sports and products, to help white America believe that all the messy history—and the nagging realities of the present—was gone. It was high fantasy.
A key moment that showed the Heritage was dead happened in 1991. The video of LAPD police officers beating Rodney King went public. Chicago Bulls player Craig Hodges, who embodied the tradition of the Black political athlete, felt that the Lakers and Bulls should stage a boycott. Black athletes couldn’t be silent on the attack on King, he believed, as they too had personal experience with this. What better way, Hodges thought, to speak out against police brutality than with the most visible and big-time athletes like Jordan? But as Bryant writes,
“There was just one major roadblock: Michael Jordan, king of the world, on his way to a dynasty, wanted nothing to do with it. Magic Johnson, king of Los Angeles, was silent. NBA bad boy Charles Barkley, silent. All the stars, quiet.
After the September 11 attacks, the political landscape for Black athletes was changed. Post-9/11, military pageantry at sports events pushed the idea of healing and unity. At the same time, it promoted the notion of conformity, unquestioning patriotism, and the dangerous conflation of the heroic military and the police. It was hard to ignore the increased symbols of patriotism on the field: military flags; flyovers; police, fire, military, and sometimes emergency services being celebrated as heroes. At the same time these displays were happening, police departments around the country were under fire for the unarmed killing of Black people. “You cannot separate 9/11 from what's happening with the black athlete today,” Bryant said in an interview on NPR’s Weekend Edition with Scott Simon, “because the white athletes and anybody else who tried to challenge what was taking place after the towers fell, they felt the wrath. It's not necessarily a racial issue only. This is a question of patriotism, of weaponizing patriotism, of weaponizing jingoism, and of weaponizing the flag and of being able to speak.”
Current athletes active in the era of #BlackLivesMatter have breathed new life into the Heritage, responding vocally to accounts of police brutality that continue that make headlines. But their protests still come against opposition from those who don’t think Black athletes should express any form of dissent. The media has played a major role in trying to crush Kaepernick and other Black players’ protest. This is especially prevalent during the Trump administration. LeBron James, for example, voiced his critiques of Trump and his policies in a video on his multimedia website Uninterrupted. Fox News host Laura Ingraham struck back by telling him to “shut up and dribble.”
When James confronted Trumpism . . . Ingraham responded with an old weapon: an attempt to deny his voice—'Must they run their mouths like that?’—and, indeed, his citizenship. James and others shot back with I will not shut up and dribble, and Ingraham ultimately outed herself as a fraud, inviting James to appear on her show in a weak attempt to spin her condescending, racist attack into chummy celebrity banter. She failed, naturally, but her attitudes succeeded in reminding players, despite their millions and after all these years, why the Heritage endures: Even when African Americans think they’ve made it, they haven’t.
The Heritage is a book that speaks to today’s political climate and shows us through the lens of activism in sports the work that remains to be done in order to bring an end to racial injustice. Bryant has done us a tremendous service documenting this history of now. As sports editor of The Nation Dave Zinn says, “This is the book for explaining our times, whether you give a damn about sports or not.”
To find out more about Howard Bryant’s The Heritage, check out his other interviews on TSL Sports Talk/The Shadow League, Make It Plain with Mark Thompson/SiriusXM Progress, and Murph and Mac Show/KNBR Radio AM 680. Read other select excerpts on ESPN The Magazine, Salon, and Literary Hub.
About Howard Bryant
Howard Bryant is a senior writer for ESPN.com and ESPN the Magazine and has served as the sports correspondent for NPR’s Weekend Edition Saturday since 2006. He is the author of The Last Hero: A Life of Henry Aaron; Juicing the Game: Drugs, Power, and the Fight for the Soul of Major League Baseball; Shut Out: A Story of Race and Baseball in Boston; and the three-book Legends sports series for middle-grade readers. A two-time Casey Award winner (2003, 2011) for best baseball book of the year, Bryant was also a 2003 finalist for the Society for American Baseball Research Seymour Medal. In 2016, he was a finalist for the National Magazine Award and received the 2016 Salute to Excellence Award from the National Association of Black Journalists. He lives in Northampton, Massachusetts. Follow him on Twitter at @hbryant42 and visit his website.