When NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick kneeled during the pregame national anthem to protest mistreatment of African Americans, he was met with videos of his Jersey being burned, media ridicule, (Rork, Copland, 2017) and what many have referred to as a blacklisting from the NFL (Moore). While many others supported him with praise and high Jersey sales, the intense backlash against Kaepernick (Coombs) was emblematic of the dramatic reactions black athlete-protesters have faced for decades. (Henderson) Black athletes that speak out against injustice face undue backlash from a primarily white audience that does not consider their voices legitimate because of its distorted perceptions of black athletes as intellectually unqualified and untouched by racial discrimination.
While black athletes have had a strong tradition of protest against social injustice, they have also faced particularly intense criticism and rejection at the time of these protests. (Henderson) In 1968 Olympic Athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised gloved hands to symbolize black power and protest human rights violations. (Henderson) At the time of their protests they were ostracized from the sports community and even received death threats. (Henderson) No specific research exists quantifiably comparing the backlash against athletic protesters and their non-athlete counterparts. However, evidence abounds of particularly extreme reactions to athlete protests. (Carlin) For example, the television show Blackish, which has covered controversial topics of prison injustice, the use of the N-word, and police brutality, was unable to air an episode on kneeling athletes due to “creative differences” with NBC. (Carlin) Understanding the network as an entity that needs to protect a source of profit, it seems clear that they feared the backlash against a discussion of athlete protests might damage their show and its revenue more than comments on prison injustice and police brutality. Also, at the height of Puerto Rico’s crisis with hurricane Maria, President Trump tweeted over 20 times about the anthem controversy and only 6 times about the US citizens on the devastated island. (Ramirez) As much as the President represents the mood of at least a significant portion of the US population, it seems clear from these examples that, for many, the protest of black athletes hits a particular nerve that other issues do not.
One reason that black athletes face such backlash in protest is that they are often seen as athletically superior but intellectually inferior to whites and therefore not in a position to make social commentary. When Lebron James spoke about the divisive leadership of Donald Trump and the challenges of being a black role model, Fox News host Laura Ingraham dismissed the NBA star’s credibility to speak on political issues. In a segment that went viral, Ingraham mocked James, saying she didn’t need the political advice of “someone who gets paid $100 million a year to bounce a ball.” (Sullivan) James is thereby delegitimized by the racist preconception of the unintelligent black athlete, whose road to success was fully dependant on athletic ability and therefore has no validity to speak about social issues. (Sullivan) The “long-standing, widely held, racist, and ill-informed presumption of innate, race-linked black athletic superiority and intellectual deficiency” pervades white and black America. (Patterson) This misconception also leads to many black families who tend to push children towards sports careers to the detriment of other talents. (Patterson) The public misconception about black athletic and intellectual ability perpetuates itself through a “drain in talent potential toward sports and away from other vital areas of occupational and career emphasis.” (Patterson) Partly because of this drain, there is a disproportionately large amount of black public figures in athletics rather than academic or intellectual roles, which reinforces the delegitimizing stereotype . (Simiyu)
The voices of black athletes are also delegitimized by the idea that their cries for reform are hypocritical because they are successful and therefore have not truly faced the systemic disadvantage they protest. Backlash against Colin Kaepernick’s protests has painted him as a “prima donna millionaire,” using his athletic and financial success characterize him as someone who knows little of the struggle he supports. (Savannah Morning News) For many Americans, athletics are viewed as a “broadly accessible route to black social and economic mobility.” (Edwards) This idea plays into the perception of the United States as a land of equal opportunity, from which black athletes benefit and for which they should be grateful. (Savannah Morning News) This may also at least partially explain the opposition’s insistence that Kaepernick’s protests disrespect the armed forces. (Savannah Morning News) The struggle of “wounded warriors at a VA hospital” is much more physically apparent than that of athletes like Kaepernick, (Savannah Morning News) James or even Muhammad Ali whose supposed cowardice was at one time contrasted to the brave soldiers fighting adversity in the Vietnam war. (Kaufman)
Despite what some protest opponents may think, talented black athletes face the same patterns of exploitation and institutional racism that has impacted black experience in America for centuries. The exploitation of black bodies in athletics is in many ways a continuation of exploitation of black labor that has existed for centuries. (Patterson) This history began with chattel slavery and sharecropping in which black labor was used without fair compensation for the benefit of rich and powerful white landowners. (Adamson) The history of the prison industrial complex whose black population increased substantially after the end of slavery, can be understood as a history of exploitation of black bodies and the labor they produce. (Pelaez) Athletics, at the unpaid college level can also be contextualized within this history as the vast majority of black athletes are used as commodities by a disproportionately white-run organization. The NCAA has profited handsomely from the use of student athletes, particularly in basketball and football. (Patterson). African Americans are disproportionately represented in football and basketball programs. While twenty-one percent of all athletes are African American, seventy percent of African American college athletes go into football or basketball. (Patterson) This means that black athletes are disproportionately the ones that make profit for the NCAA. While this in and of itself may not be harmful, participation in these sports actually disadvantages the majority of athletes. (Simiyu)
Black athletes must suffer and therefore can comment on the problems of institutional racism given that the NCAA commodifies college athletes by using their talents to gain vast profits without compensating them to the detriment of their academics and career outcomes. According to the NCAA, among college athletes who attended a single university, only 67 percent of white male athletes graduated and only 58 percent of black males were able to do so. (Patterson) These low graduation rates are consistent with an analysis of the effects of athletic participation on black males which found that “pressure and desire for these athletes to succeed negatively impacts their ability to fully experience college, immerse themselves in their studies, and prepare for careers and life beyond professional sports.” (Patterson) The fact that only 3.6 percent of football players will play professionally shows that the NCAA fails to prepare the vast majority of its athletes who leave college unprepared for the workforce ahead of them. (Patterson) In this context the athletes who make it to the NBA and NFL have not done so in a vacuum devoid of struggle (Simiyu); they are simply the exceptions that succeeded through remarkable talent and determination and who provide hope to “ thousands upon thousands of black youths in obsessive pursuit of sports goals that the overwhelming majority of them will never attain.” (Edwards) In fact, even for those who make it to the NFL, the odds of long-term success are low. (Patterson) According to Sports Illustrated, “By the time former NFL players have been retired for two years, nearly 80 percent of them have gone bankrupt or are under financial stress…within five years of retirement, approximately 60 percent of former NBA players are broke” (Patterson) In essence, the vast majority are systematically disadvantaged because of the value of their talents to largely white institutions like the NCAA. Still, the ones who do make it out of this system face intense backlash in part because of the erroneous belief that they don’t understand the struggle of African Americans in a white dominated America.
The struggle of being an athlete is particularly hard on African American students attending predominantly white institutions. Because they face genuine institutional challenges, they are therefore qualified to comment on them. (Simiyu) There is a 19 percent disparity between the graduation rate of African American football players and their white counterparts. (Patterson) In keeping with the idea that “the experiences of Black college athletes reflect the place of the Black people in the United States of America” this gap in graduation rates is present in non-athletes as well. (Simiyu) The predominantly white colleges attended by African American students have been set up with whiteness as the dominant culture. (Simiyu) This leads to “not only occasional open acts of racism that create a hostile climate, but also unintended acts of ignorance, routine questioning and disparagement of Black people’s intelligence.” (Simiyu) Predominantly white institutions alienate African Americans and therefore deter them from participating in the academic and educational activities that facilitate active higher learning. (Simiyu) Being a minority as well as a commodity for the NCAA provides an intersection of disadvantage that in some ways makes successful black athletes uniquely qualified to see the false hope given to many of their close friends who were a part of the vast majority that couldn’t break free. (Edwards)
Before becoming professionals, black athletes must face the harsh realities of institutional racism and therefore have validity in their criticism of racist structures despite outside efforts to dismiss them as hypocritical or intellectually underqualified. The ways in which the predominantly white colleges develop black athletes athletically but not academically (Patterson) underline a deep seated view of African Americans as physically dominant but intellectually inferior to their white counterparts. (Edwards) This false perception has shaped backlash against protesters, (Sullivan) along with the erroneous perception of black athletes as removed from racist structures. (Savannah Morning News) In a world where even the most talented African Americans of a generation are used as sources profit without regard to their well-being, (Simiyu) not only are black athletes a legitimate source of social and political criticism but their help seems desperately needed.
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