There is a not-insignificant chance this article is going to be seen as “political,” or maybe not fit for a website about sports. To that, I say first that sports are political, second that this is only going to be as political as you let it be: that is, if you take a position that opposes all available evidence, and third that I refuse to be complicit in any kind of worldbuilding that forgets that athletes, and specifically student-athletes, are people who deserve to be heard - and given the sports we cover most often, whose blackness deserves to be heard. Or, as Nassir Little put it,
Black people do not exist solely for entertainment.— Nassir Little (@2ez_nassie) May 29, 2020
We didn’t cover it at the time, but former UNC linebacker Jake Lawler graduated early and retired from football, and is now in Hollywood pursuing his goal of being a writer for TV and film. He also, along with a few classmates, founded UNCUT, a kind of UNC-centric Players’ Tribune, and recruited Michael Carter and Garrison Brooks for its first video episode. You may have come across some of his earlier work that’s been signal-boosted across the UNC media-sphere, like this short story inspired by The Weeknd’s song “Wicked Game” or this essay about Kobe Bryant’s death.
His latest work, however, entitled What More Do You Want From Us?, takes a bit of a different direction, and it’s an absolutely vital one, I think, not just for Americans to read, but specifically sports fans. Spurred by the extrajudicial murders of three black citizens, two by police and one by wannabe police, that have gained prominence in the last week or so, Lawler takes us for a stroll down American History Lane, one that is particularly relevant for those of us who consume, enjoy, or make money from sports like basketball and football that have been dominated, ever since they were allowed to be, by black people.
What more can we do to show you that we deserve to live?
We’ve built the streets that you walk on, the houses that you live in, the cars that you travel with.
We’ve created music that you enjoy. We’ve written stories that you consume. We’ve styled you and dressed you... We’ve built the most beautiful and intricate culture on the face of this Earth,
Like those sports as we know them today, the United States, both as a cultural phenomenon and as a thing in and of itself, does not exist without its reliance on black labor. Its infrastructure was built through chattel slavery, its wealth accumulated by not paying for that infrastructure, and its cultural exports have been fueled by black innovation: music, contemporary art of all kinds (including dance, visual art, fashion, and narrative), etc. We do this thing a lot in sports fandom where we distance ourselves from the various markers of culture that we see black athletes representing, whether that’s through their manner of speech (please read James Baldwin’s “If Black English Isn’t A Language...” for more on this), the art they choose to associate themselves with (the number of times I’ve seen UNC’s social media post a graphic with a player and their pre-game playlist and the comments full of boomers complaining that nobody listens to their favorite artists anymore is ridiculous), or, most atrociously, the solidarity they show when injustice is being done to one of their own. At best, we tell ourselves that it has nothing to do with us, that they can say or do what they want but it doesn’t actually matter. At worst, we tell them to shut up and dribble. But the reality is that they, some of the most visible people in the country, are shaping our culture just by living their own. America just can’t help itself but to keep advancing through blackness. It’s never had to do anything else.
Yet you steal it, to appropriate it, to take credit for it —and we have asked for nothing other than mere acknowledgment of our efforts. Mere acknowledgment of our existence.
The bare minimum you can do after using somebody else’s work to advance yourself is give credit where it’s due. You’ve probably had the importance of citation drilled into you at one point in your schooling or another, but that education probably stopped at things, like music and writing and copyright law. It’s a little trickier when it comes to the intangibles, like culture. This isn’t about paying players for creating the product that we tune in to watch, even though that’s related. It’s about acknowledging that the players who create that product are whole people, and affording them the same opportunities that those you do consider people get. Consider this: Black men make up about half of college football and 11% of its head coaches, 70% of the NFL and just three of its 32 head coaches, 53% of D1 NCAA men’s basketball (excluding HBCUs) and only 24% of its head coaches, 80% of Power Five men’s basketball scholarship players and just 7 P5 head coaches... I mean, NFL owners literally proposed bribing themselves into hiring more people of color as coaches and general managers because they weren’t doing it otherwise. For black athletes much more than for white ones, their ability to contribute to the sport ends where their body’s ability to hold up does, with no respect for the person it houses.
Athletes, even highly prominent ones like those who play revenue sports for UNC or professional sports for the best-funded leagues in the world, are not immune to issues of racism or police violence. Sometimes, it comes from within, like when Sylvia Hatchell’s alleged racism, among other things, nearly caused 6 players to transfer out of UNC if she had stayed. Other times, it’s out and about, like when John Henson was racially profiled and had the cops called on him in Milwaukee for being black in a jewelry store, or worse, like when Sterling Brown was tased and beaten for parking in a handicapped spot. Some times, it’s personal connections, like Stephen Jackson’s to the late George Floyd. And all the time, it is being experienced every day by people like Lawler, his teammates and former colleagues at UNC (Garrison Brooks, Michael Carter, Carl Tucker, and several other UNC athletes present and former have shared Lawler’s essay), and Fox, who drew this image for Lawler:
Heck, sometimes, it’s from the people who claim to be their fans.
And what have we done in spite of all this?
We’ve continued to create for you, continued to support you, continued to accept you... We do this because we believe you deserve the benefit of the doubt. We believe in the power that humanity has and the good that humanity can do. Murder after murder, incarceration after incarceration, video after video, we continue to believe in you as people.
It’s about damn time you all do the same.
It is morally incoherent to call yourself a sports fan in this day and age and be complicit, or outright welcoming, to the violence that this country disproportionately inflicts on its black people. It is reprehensible to watch populations that are plurality-if-not-majority black put themselves in danger of losing their lives, livelihoods, and futures for our entertainment without respecting the magnitude of what is being sacrificed, to live like their lives do not matter as long as we get what we want. The country marches on as we wait for sports to come back, and, as the deaths that inspired this essay show us, it marches to the same beat that it has drummed since its founding. The people who give us so much are asking just that we stand with them in pursuit of a better world in return. It’s well past time that we all listen.