When Succeeding in Sport Calls Your Race into Question

By Benjamin Narzissenfeld

Throughout the course of our daily lives, we always seem to remember the events and people that captivate our attention and manage to cultivate a dedicated following. In perhaps every aspect of human life we see an example of this.

Religion has the Fred Phelps of the Westboro Baptist Church and Louis Farrakhan leading the Nation of Islam. Its why Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders, on opposite ends of the political spectrum, can manage to appeal to the same voters in an election. Whether in Turlington Plaza or in your Twitter feed, everyone seems to have a cause. It why people either get behind a social movement or decry the wrong doings and support for such causes.

In this way, sports are not different at all. So when we see athletes and teams, we’re always looking towards the game to see the play that leaves us captivated, the polarizing athlete who never ceases to amaze us with his game play, or the upset of the year happening on the biggest stage. While games and athletes can divide us by who we’re rooting for, often times we become divided by their actions and decisions away from the field.

In America, and in turn all around the world, it’s beyond obvious that our simple human differences, such as our race, ethnicity, and religion are indeed a polarizing topic in our societies. Coming into 2016, it harder to think of a more polarizing issue than the discussion of race relations in our very country. From clashes over police interactions with our African American communities around the nation, the actions of Cam Newton while playing at the traditionally white position of Quarterback in the NFL, and perceived indifference to black culture in the United States, it obvious this discussion will continue to evolve and change throughout this new year.

In sports, we see the unique position of the black athlete in our country. Not only is there the pressure to not make a misstep on the field and cost themselves the game, but trying to avoid slipping up in the unique social dynamics that have been forced upon them is a totally unavoidable minefield disguised as stadiums and arenas. Whether they wanted to be or not, black athletes are often treated as the default spokespersons and faces for their entire community. In this way, we see that the contentious state of affairs in some of these discussions put serious consequences on the type of responses athletes give or indicate. Representing your community can often times come with the risk of alienating the community that you play in front of or for.

It’s hard at times to not be envious of these athletes and their incredible prowess in their respectable fields. Everyone can recall a time when they wished they were as calm and clutch in the face of pressure like Michael Jordan in game six of the 1998 NBA Finals, could allude opponents like Russell Wilson rolling out the pocket, or could drive to the basket like LeBron James.

However, when it comes to facing the pressures of society as black athletes, this is something I openly admit I’d be less than eager for. Michael Jordan is often criticized as “not being black enough.” There are multiple articles literally surrounding Russell Wilson “not being black enough” and therefore having bad relationship with fellow teammates who seem to meet this supposed standard for being black. In this case, he further get subjected to Cam Newton in a battle of being Too Black vs Not Black enough.

These men have done great things for their communities and have been great examples not only for African Americans, but for people of all backgrounds in our great nation. In these cases, I don’t really believe the discussion is focused on them being voices for Black America, but instead focused on what they say in contrary to perceived notions on what it means to be black in America.

Then there is the case of LeBron James. At times he has been extremely vocal about how he feels about racial issues, including public displays concerning the Trayvon Martin and Eric Gardner cases, going so far as to post a picture with all of his Miami Heat Teammates wearing hoodies and taking Derrick Rose’s lead in wearing a “I CAN’T BREATHE” t-shirt in pregame shoot-arounds. However, as a result of the verdict in the case of Tamir Rice, Black Lives Matter activists began calling on James to sit out his games in an act of protest. Literally, by the virtue of being the best basketball player in the world, living in the same city as the event, and being the same race as Tamir, these protesters felt the need to call on LeBron James to effectively risk losing millions of dollars in contracts and endorsements, costing his team wins, and enrage entire segments of the population.

I’m not trying to be cruel or offensive, but how does LeBron sitting out bring Tamir Rice back to life? How does it cause the court to change their reasonable conclusions on the case? How would it cause people to act different in these intense scenarios? The answer is that it doesn’t. What it actually does is shift the attention away from the issue and turn the dialogue into speculation as to how long he will sit out and what effect it will have on his reputation.

I have no problem with black athletes being the spokespeople of Black America. If they choose to do so, I believe they should be proud of the potential impact they have in representing and advancing their community. However, we need to recognize that it should be ultimately their decision in how they choose to voice their opinion, and not criticize them for failing to line up with what you think they should say or believe. Black athletes are a part of Black America, and whether one believes they correctly act as a voice for it or not shouldn’t determine their status as an integral part of their society.

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