America’s Black Athletic Conscience

The NBA functions as America’s celebration of Black culture and social critique

I am white. Too many of my musings require that disclaimer these days. But there it is, I am white. Therefore I have no idea how it felt as a black family to see Allen Iverson, braided and brash and black as dice craters snarl and spin his way to an MVP award.

I am white. Therefore I have no idea how it feels every year to see Bill Russell ascend the dais to convey his blessing upon newly minted champions. The celebration is carefully calibrated for the sake of mostly caucasian shareholders but Russell cuts the crowds like Moses. His endorsement, more than Michael Jordan’s, Magic Johnson’s or any other venerated warrior’s is cherished by current players. When the cameras cut away to his still impossibly athletic body folded into a stadium seat the significance of a game is drastically adjusted.

I am white. Therefore I have no idea how it must feel to remember that LeBron James generates income through streams beyond basketball. From pizza to television production. And to know he does so alongside men he’s known since boyhood in Akron. I have no idea how it must feel to read about James’ commitment to students in Akron, his indefatigable pursuit of promise on their behalf.

I am white. My shame at the events which unfolded in Charlottesville during the past weekend is incomparable with the hurt black men, women and children have felt in this country for half a millennia. I can’t remember feeling more existential sadness resulting from events within my national neighborhood…since the election of Donald Trump. I had made an uneasy peace with Trump’s presidency. I had convinced myself that he was serving as a sort of totem for our nation’s disgusting obsession with materialism, racism and militarism. I though Trump was our national id incarnate.

I was wrong.

Our id incarnate drives cars into people with different skin/ideas/accents/orientations. Our id carries the flags of failure, bright with hatred and challenge, wishing desperately for a chance to tell the microphones “Well they deserved it!” after the damage had been done. Donald Trump now famously refused to condemn the evil-doers by name initially, only to do so after the blood had dried on the pavement. But this is America, and one must activate one’s base before remembering one’s humanity. Therefore Trump took to the microphone in Trump Tower Tuesday to walk back the only sane statements he’s made on the issue. Trump suggested that not everyone marching under the Third Reich’s flag was a Nazi and not everyone singing the praises of the anglo-European white race was actually a monster. If you start underground I’m not sure how you recognize when you’ve hit a low point, but we seemed to have arrived.

After watching Trump’s statements for the third or fourth time I found myself wishing it were NBA season.

I’m not delusional. I know sports are not moral dramas. I’m not confused as to their significance. Sports are, at best, bonding opportunities and, more likely, distraction fuel. However the NBA stands alone in its willingness to allow individuals to be flamboyant activists. Colin Kapernick can’t seem to find gainful employment as an NFL quarterback, despite the sixteen touchdown passes he threw last year. His habit of demonstrating makes him an institutional pariah and financial liability. Yet LeBron James, Dwayne Wade, Steph Curry and countless other NBA stars and superstars have regularly voiced their sadness and outrage at racially charged events for years now. Hoodies and T-shirts and and press conferences have served as verses and choruses in the necessary crescendo of civil rights in this country. I am white and I wished our very visible black conscience could weigh in on the hatred our president can’t seem to condemn for more than twenty-four hours. I caught myself wondering if NBA players would have boycotted tonight’s game. Would they release a statement? Would they use Instagram? How would Shaq and Kenny and Charles react? I have no doubt commissioner Adam Silver would support them, though the injustice done to the paying fans would have certainly become a news topic. What qualifier would Trump attach to his Tweet following the boycott — “Sad”, “Dumb”, “Bad Men”?

Football finds itself in the unenviable position of hoping their players behave like zombies before they retire and nothing like zombies after they retire. Baseball’s players are miles from cameras and hold court in front of lockers immediately following marathons of inactivity that requires laser focus rather than behind a table after showering and donning the latest fashion trends. The NBA is black. As a major sport it seems entirely comfortable with its ethnic identity considering it banishes overt racists and embraces its employees activism.

I wish it were NBA season. And I wish every game was canceled.

Jared Wheeler
Jared Wheeler

I teach philosophy, religious studies and communication at a small college.  I am a dad and husband and am the spouter of multiple opinions.  @jaredawheeler 

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America’s Black Athletic Conscience