Sunday, May 17, 2009

THE WIDE (FANTASY) WORLD OF SPORTS

I wanted to start this article by saying I used to be a sports fanatic. Indeed, I’ve probably forgotten more sports trivia than most people know. But then I watched about two hours of the N.F.L. draft and realized that the fervor for football and basketball had not completely left me. But, I have gotten better. After March Madness, the NFL draft and now, the NBA playoffs, I thought I should pause though and share some reflections of what this sports insanity means (to me) in the larger scheme of things.

As I watched day one of the pro football draft (an event my son and I actually attended ten years ago at Madison Square Garden) it became increasingly difficult to pay any attention to what the commentators were saying. I kept asking myself, “Why are they so serious?” and “damn, they really get paid for this bs.” And, paid handsomely from what I can gather. I realize that the NFL is the most lucrative sports enterprise in the world. But, it’s actually become more than that. It’s our great sedative – the super male testosterone, magical elixir that keeps us transfixed on a game – while all around the world there’s crisis, confusion and chaos.

Maybe it’s ok though that we get a respite from the suffering in other parts of the world, other parts of the country for that matter. However, it always strikes me as deceitful when, during a televised professional football commercial break, a visual image of some famous landmark of the host city will be shown. Never will the more dilapidated or impoverished areas of town be shown.

Truth be told, we don’t really care to see those ugly sides of America, let alone the rest of the developing world. And in today’s entertainment environment, this mainstream, corporate, march-in-lock-step media joke we call the free press – there is no appetite for serious journalism except in support of the America the beautiful myth. Perhaps more importantly for me, professional sports and journalism reinforces a beautiful black America myth.

I think the “March Madness”, college basketball championship series has become particularly disingenuous. Folks identify so strongly with their schools and although I like Temple University a great deal (my alma mater), I’m not crazed about what they do on the basketball court. What affects me more and what I consider pitifully ironic is why the “Sweet Sixteen” or “Elite Eight” or god forbid, “The Final Four” never include Howard, Lincoln, Cheney, Southern, Grambling, North Carolina Central, NC A & T, Hampton, FAMU – you get the picture. I wonder what the HBCUs would do with the revenue generated from their sports programs if the best of African American athletes attended predominantly black schools of higher learning.

I can remember when most black professional athletes, particularly in the NFL came from HBCUs. In fact, they couldn’t get a run at Alabama, Texas, LSU or Florida (hell, they couldn’t get on campus!) It’s my understanding that a great documentary exists entitled “Black Magic” about the college basketball geniuses and superstars attending HBCUs during the era of American apartheid (1920s – circa 1965.) It documents black colleges and their teams enduring and challenging injustice and hypocrisy at the hands of such lofty institutions as the NCAA.

Now brothers and sisters are recruited to mega-universities at very early ages, treated like royalty and expected to act like dutiful, mainstream (but rich) Americans. All so that our insatiable desire for entertainment and competition can be fed. Fed by a new class of Negro. Beholden only to the master. My bad, manager.

It should come as no surprise to us that many of the new Negro, mainstream American pro athletes that have become politicians are Republicans. J.C. Watts, Lynn Swann, Tony Dungy (has not run for office but is an out-spoken supporter of the neo-conservative crack pots) are just a few that come to mind. Of course the white former athletes/republicans are too many to name but a sampling includes Steve Largent, Jim Bunning, Jim Kelly and Steve Young. I needn’t delve into the political affiliations of the owners of the sports franchises.

Is it any wonder that you didn’t hear a peep out of any NFL players with respect to the illegal Iraq war? This unnecessary disaster over oil was orchestrated by Bush and Cheney, two men who hid from the imperial war of their era but had no reservations in sending over 4,000 of their countrymen to their deaths. Now there’s teamwork. And courage. The NFL was effectively the private promotional venue for the neo-con warmongers. Seven Super Bowl winning teams had the opportunity to visit the White House after their victories on the gridiron, as is the tradition. They couldn’t wait to get there and take a picture with King George II. I bet they also took time to shake hands with the Vice President who voted against Nelson Mandela’s release from prison. To its credit the NBA, though certainly not without its problems, seems to have maintained a modicum of black sensibility and a minute degree of progressivism (Etan Thomas and Steve Nash are the best examples.)

When ESPN decided to hire closet klansman Rush Limbaugh as a color analyst in 2003, the network knew about his racist commentary and intolerant opinions. How could you not? However, our Negro football heroes just grinned and skinned about the addition to the network. Not even the Players Association put up any protest even though at that time it was run by a black man. That is until the bombastic white supremacist put his foot in his mouth with an asinine comment about Donovan McNabb. The trespass got Limbaugh fired but the most embarrassing thing about the episode were the black ESPN commentators who cried (literally) and whined on camera about how unfair Rush had been (for upsetting their great fantasy world.) How times have changed. Jim Brown would have probably slapped the sh*&$ out of him.
As annoying as incidents like this are, what’s most revolting is the way the new breed of sports journalists (particularly radio personalities) frivolously juxtapose athletics and politics – American sports as a metaphor for American life. These highly paid, talking heads are the embodiment of the “average guy-G.I. six pack Joe the Plumber.” Perhaps a step above that malignant creature of American media, the right wing talk show host, the sports talk personalities often elevate themselves to conservative political commentator. Not all of them are of this ilk (Keith Obermann, Philly’s Mike Missanelli, Bill Rhoden - writer and Dave Zirin – writer, are notable exceptions), but too many assume their awareness of white American pop culture trivia qualifies them as political analysts.

One millionaire sports talk bozo in Philly is well known for his admiration of the 9th grade dropout, former Mayor and police brutality poster boy, Frank Rizzo. The talk show host once shared his “hatred” for the late attorney Johnnie Cochran, because Cochran got involved in NFL player contract negotiations. The past few years it seems as if it’s a rite of passage for anyone running for Mayor in Philadelphia to come on this person’s radio show to share their political and sports views. It’s hard to believe that politicians have to pay homage to someone who’s given the city such an important cultural event as “wing bowl.”

The historic election of Barack Obama generated commentary from all manner of mainstream media drones. And, sure enough, the Joe America sports crew was not to be denied its place in the sun. I had the misfortune of watching Mark Kreigle of Fox Sports.com give an impassioned, but frighteningly ignorant diatribe about how sports had helped pave the way for Obama’s victory. The only shred of evidence or example to support his fantasy was that former Alabama football coach, Paul “Bear” Bryant stated in 1970/71 that University of Southern Cal, African American running back Sam “The Bam” Cunningham’s dominating performance over the Crimson Tide in a bowl game did more to end segregation than the civil rights struggle. The fact that this watershed moment occurred more than five years after the landmark civil rights legislation seemed to have been overlooked by Kreigle.

Ian O’Conner, also of Fox Sports.com, wrote an article entitled, “Sports figures helped pave the way for Obama.” O’Connor claims Obama wouldn’t have even “gotten the chance to defeat John McCain…” if it had not been for black sports pioneers. He then goes into an unsubstantiated, convoluted tale of black athletes appearing on TV and into the living rooms of white folks. We are then to infer that these television appearances desegregated lunch counters, universities and fire departments. O’Conner even quotes a Brooklyn Dodger pitcher, Ralph Branca, who supposedly said, “I think Jackie Robinson accomplished more for black people than Martin Luther King did.”

It’s one thing for a white baseball player from Alabama to make a patently dumb statement. It’s quite another for a “professional” journalist in 2009 to use such a quote as some enlightened bit of fact or social analysis. For Mr. Kreigle and O’Connor’s very limited information base, Barack Obama is president because of the work, trials, tribulations, courage and sacrifice of both life and limb of thousands of people committed to eradicating hate and oppression. As that centuries old struggle evolved after the Second World War into what became the civil rights struggle, men, women and children suffered and were persecuted, also on TV in the living rooms of ordinary Americans.

One can understand the difficulty many pioneering black athletes had in trying to just persevere and succeed in their respective sports, while dealing with racism in athletics and in society at large. But not many were either willing or able to publicly challenge unjust laws, discrimination and terrorism. The Muhammad Alis, John Carlos and Tommie Smiths were few and very far between.

But the Paul Bryants, Ralph Brancas and the many other captains of sports enterprises – owners, executives, media professionals and the more popular players – did nothing whatsoever about the oppression they saw every day. None used their considerable political influence, financial resources or social notoriety to make a statement or stand against injustice and for universal suffrage. Not one person. That’s the story.

It was Martin and Malcolm, Ella and Fannie Lou, Rosa and Viola, Goodman, Chaney and Schwerner and so many other soldiers of peace and freedom who brought into being civil and voting rights legislation. That’s why Obama is in office today. Let’s not get it twisted and let’s keep athletes and their journalists in their proper place.
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