Professional Athletes and Racial Inequality: What Can They Do?

Patrick Velasquez, Ph.D.

Patrick Velasquez, Ph.D.

When I graduated from high school in 1971, I was pretty much an apolitical slug. I didn’t know much of anything that was swirling around me in society at that time, despite the fact that U.S. imperialism in Viet Nam was raging. The Black civil rights movement was still gathering steam, even in Omaha, Nebraska where I lived, the Chicano Movement was growing throughout the U.S. Southwest, and the American Indian Movement was making headlines within driving distance of my home. I had a very superficial awareness that something was happening. However, at the age of eighteen, I was more concerned with getting drunk, smoking weed, and making my car run faster. I must say, this was very typical of young people around me at that time.

I was fortunate that my brother Gary, who was two years older than me, was a conscientious objector to the the military draft and that he reminded me that I had to register for the draft and was facing the possibility of induction within months. That piqued my interest. One thing I knew was that I did not want to get drafted and go to fight in Viet Nam. At Gary’s urging, I read my first subversive literature about change in the United States. It was written by “white radicals,” Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin, respectively, and it was interesting but it didn’t really resonate.

I didn’t get involved in any level of activism until the end of my second year of college. That semester, I took an introductory level course in Sociology that helped change the way I looked at the world. For the first time, I was forced to consider that phenomena such as poverty and crime, which I had always perceived as the result of individual failings, were actually caused by structural issues such as the class and racial hierarchies in the United States. I was also taking a course in Black Studies that examined the civil rights movement as a logical response to systemic racism. It felt overwhelming but I also felt that I was seeing reality for the first time. This pissed me off, as I had already experienced about fourteen years of public education, all of which brainwashed me to support a toxic, societal status quo.

When I discussed my perceptions with my university academic advisor, he suggested that I consider a major and career in social work. So I signed up for their major. At the beginning of my third year at the university, I went full plunge into social work courses, another Black Studies course, and most impactful, I became involved in the campus’ Chicano student organization, the Chicano Association of United Students for Action (La CAUSA) at the University of Nebraska.

As I have so often observed with Chicano students during my career as an educator, my activism in La CAUSA enabled me to hook up with Chicano students that would become long-time friends, some even to this day. Equally important, La CAUSA pushed me to get involved in the local Chicano community. I became a volunteer with a community organization called the Chicano Awareness Center, a nonprofit agency of which I would eventually become executive director. Mind you that this was in Omaha, Nebraska, a city in which Chicanos made up only about three-five percent of the local population, not East LA or San Antonio, Texas.

So I was twenty years old, a relatively advanced age, when I became a Chicano activist. I came to the game a little late, so I try not to begrudge others that become activists relatively late in life. None of us are born as activists. I’ve been thinking about all this recently as I observe the responses of professional athletes to the unending string of police murders of unarmed Black men and women. I’ve been a huge sports fan much longer than I’ve been an activist. The current pandemic has been hard on me like everyone else, and not being able to watch sports on television added to my discomfort.

I was happy when professional baseball and basketball returned in July. I’m not obsessed with sports but I enjoy them. I appreciate a good athletic performance without getting emotionally involved in which team wins or loses (usually). I’ve been aware since an early age that some athletes of color have a strong social consciousness and are deeply committed to social justice. One of my first heroes was Muhammed Ali. By the time he passed away, Ali was beloved around the world.

Many don’t remember that Ali was deeply hated by white people while he was champion, especially after he announced his membership in the Black Muslims. I vaguely recall the protest of track stars Tommie Smith and John Carlos at the 1968 Summer Oympics in Mexico City. However, it seems that through the years, many more athletes of color have either been silent on social issues or have gone out of their way to kiss white people’s asses.

I always remember the Ronald Reagan years in the U.S. Before him, Richard Nixon was the U.S. president that was evil personified, yet Reagan may have been an even more virulent racist than Nixon. They were both bad, without doubt. When Reagan was president and was doing his utmost to destroy any progress that people of color had achieved, his wife Nancy attended an NBA basketball game. During a pathetic ceremony, Charles Barkley held Nancy Reagan’s hand and escorted her across the court as if he were a house pet. It was sickening. Later, Barkley admitted publicly that he was a Republican because he was rich and the Republicans are the party of the wealthy.

For years, as Michael Jordan became the most beloved Black athlete in my lifetime, I waited for him to call out racism in society and devote some of his millions to eradicate racial inequality. I’m still waiting. The recent ESPN documentary, “The Last Dance,” showed Jordan to be a blatantly apolitical, apathetic bystander in the face of social injustice. I’ve heard a number of apologists for Jordan say that he does things for the community “behind closed doors.” Bullshit. That’s easy for him.

Recently, after the George Floyd murder by police, Jordan made a multi-year, multi-million-dollar donation to causes that supposedly combat racial inequality. It’s very late in the game, as Blacks and Chicanos have been murdered by police in the United States for decades. I remember that over thirty years ago, an unarmed Chicano child named Santos Ramirez was detained in the back of a police cruiser while one of the cops played “Russian Roulette” with his service revolver. He shot and killed young Santos right there in the police car. The difference is that more recent police violence is captured on cell phones and disseminated through social media. But this is not a new manifestation of structural racism.

Athletes like Michael Jordan, LeBron James, and Oscar de la Hoya have already been castigated by activists for their inaction in the face of rising racism and inequality, so I don’t need to spend much time on that. Somehow, LeBron James’ publicists have cultivated an image that he’s a major spokesperson against racism. I don’t see it, and I don’t buy his argument either about doing good things “behind closed doors.” Like Jordan, LeBron James is a corporation, a private business, with one objective: to maximize profit.

I prefer to address what today’s professional athletes are actually doing and could be doing to fight against racism. Like many, I was struck by the athletes in baseball and basketball that refused to play their games after the police violence that disabled Jacob Blake. That took a lot of guts. In a strong article, Jerry Brewer wrote:

“Basketball players—and all sports figures—are not toy entertainers, America. They do not exist in some imaginary world that can be turned on and off. There is no place for them to be stored away when inconvenient. They are people—part athlete, all human. To be Black and human is to know society can separate the former and dismiss the latter.”

Brewer went on to say that the most powerful thing that such professional athletes can do is to express the seriousness of racial inequality. The Black Sociologist Dr. Harry Edwards pointed out the professional athletes can pressure the owners of sports franchises to put their own pressure on elected officials to change racist policies. Such franchise owners have easy access to governors, mayors, state legislators, even the president of the United States. But without the players threatening boycotts, which cut into owners’ profits when advertisers are no longer kicking in, those owners will not become effective lobbyists for racial equality.

Sports writers and broadcasters that routinely speak with NBA and MLB players often report the players’ increasing frustration that their protests don’t seem to stop police killings of unarmed Black women and men. As some have noted, putting catchy slogans on their jerseys and a “Black Lives Matter” sign on a basketball court will not convince racist cops from attacking unarmed people of color. The frustration expressed by the NBA and MLB players seems like a somewhat naïve response by people that have come very recently to a struggle in which some of us have been engaged for decades.

Speeches and protests alone will not stop racist cops but they are helpful in raising consciousness among people of color. And large scale protests covered by the media can stun some powerful white folks into a realization that at some point, socially conscious people of color will not tolerate racism. However, besides protest, it’s the slow, daily, tedious work of organizing communities of color and confronting policy makers in every way possible that creates change. Professional athletes that consider ending their playing careers to “make a bigger difference” might consider that activism is a life-long commitment to spending every day trying to make change.

What can professional athletes actually do to increase racial equality? Few of them are college graduates. College is not the only means through which to develop critical thinking skills, but my reading of the scholarly literature on critical thinking development (see Pascarella & Terenzini, 1991, 2005) is that college can definitely push the development of “cognitive and intellectual skills,” including the ability to analyze social problems that seem to have no verifiable solution. As I described at the beginning of this essay, my own critical thinking skills didn’t begin to develop until I was in college. By that time, I had reached the level of “cognitive readiness” that the literature says is necessary to comprehend and analyze challenging curriculum. That enabled me to make sense out of the “facts and information” that we generally need as a foundation to think critically.

So where do our professional athletes obtain the facts and information about racism and racial inequality necessary to make sound decisions about the best strategies that challenge societal hierarchies? Many of the best professional athletes have corporate ties and/or greedy agents that stand in the way of any involvement by their “clients” that might turn off white people. Michael Jordan’s connection with Nike is exhibit A. And since few outstanding professional athletes attend college for more than a couple of years, they often lack access to the settings through which they can develop critical thinking. Small wonder that many professional athletes are confused and frustrated that their “protests” have not stopped the police murders of Black folks. Realistically, do we expect that a racist cop that receives a call to investigate “erratic behavior” by a Black person will stop to think about what the NBA, NFL, or MLB players will do if the cop takes that person’s life?

As I’ve written before, I once participated in the “cultural competence” training of 500 cops during my days in Nebraska. I learned that cops have a racist, toxic culture that tends to infect all of them. As one of my early mentors reminded me, all the training of racist cops means nothing if there are not policies that discipline them for brutality, including firing and criminally prosecuting them.

It’s very interesting that the NBA players made three agreements with owners after they met following their one-game boycott. As I understand, one is to utilize NBA arenas as voting sites in November. A second is that the NBA will make frequent announcements during television broadcasts that encourage viewers to vote and become “civically engaged.” Those are easy moves for the NBA. The third agreement is most interesting, that NBA franchises will form an “equality council.” I haven’t heard any details of what such a council would do, but I have a few suggestions.

It makes sense that each NBA council would act locally to increase racial equality. If we take the example of Los Angeles, the LA Clippers and Lakers could combine forces to form one council. Players from each of the two teams should be represented on the council, perhaps on a rotating basis to avoid burn-out of any individual player. The NBA owners should not themselves serve on the council, as except for Michael Jordan, all of the owners are white men that are ignorant of racial inequality and totally incapable of identifying solutions. However, the owners should be represented on the council, perhaps by hiring a qualified staff member specifically to support the council. Beyond that, the owners should provide money (that’s right), political pressure, and other forms of support for the council.

I see at least two other parties that should be well-represented on any council that is designed to develop solutions to racial inequality. One would be scholars of color from local colleges and universities that have proven themselves as researchers and advocates for equity. In Los Angeles, institutions such as UCLA, USC, Loyola Marymount, Cal State Northridge, Cal State LA, and others could surely provide such representatives. Because the councils should attack racism wherever it is manifest, the scholars should reflect various disciplines related to law enforcement, education, political representation, judicial systems, employment, etc.

Equally important, the councils should include solid representation from local nonprofit agencies and organizations that are in the trenches, fighting against racism in communities of color every day. The combination of research and theory brought by the scholars along with the practical experience of the nonprofit staff would be powerful in identifying how systemic racism is manifested in communities of color as well as alternative solutions. Some of those solutions undoubtedly include changes in public policy and law, so the council would have to maintain consistent relationships with elected and appointed officials. And by necessity, some of those relationships would have to be adversarial. Some elected officials have demonstrated their commitment to equity, and a staff representative to the council from their office might prove useful.

I’m sure there are people wiser than me that can identify better strategies. I’m just trying to identify a starting point to go beyond protest rallies so that real change can be implemented broadly. One fundamental principle of any organization that challenges racism is that its leadership absolutely must be composed of people of color. We are far beyond the point of allowing colonial “solutions” to distract us from authentic transformation of society. And if these councils do identify racism, it needs to be called out publicly, not “behind closed doors.” If the councils are serious about increasing racial equality, they need to be tenacious, consistent advocates that never give up the struggle to create change.

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