Tom Matlack examines the racial implications of playing, watching, and supporting American sports.
My son is the starting outside linebacker on the 10th-grade Boston College High football team. Varsity, JV and 10th grade squads share a locker room at the Jesuit school. The majority of the kids are white, but a handful of the best players are African-American. The black kids control the music in the locker room, and this is the song they play before and after every practice and every game. It’s become a theme song that each kid knows by heart:
So I ball so hard muhf*ckas wanna fine me
But first ni**as gotta find me
What’s 50 grand to a muhf*kaa like me
Can you please remind me?
This sh*t crazy
Ya’ll don’t know that don’t sh*t faze me
The Nets could go 0-82 and I look at you like this sh*t gravy ball so hard,
This sh*t weird
We ain’t even ‘spose to be here,
Ball so hard, since we here
It’s only right that we be fair
Psycho, I’m liable to be go Michael
Take your pick, Jackson, Tyson, Jordan, Game 6
Got a broke clock, Rolleys that don’t tick tok
Audemars that losing time, hidden behind all these big rocks I’m shocked
Too, I’m supposed to be locked up too
If you escaped what I’ve escaped
You’d be in Paris getting f*cked up too
Let’s get faded, Le Meurice for like six days
Gold bottles, scold models, spillin’ Ace on my sick J’s
B**ch behave, just might let you meet Ye,
Chi-town’s D. Rose, I’m movin’ the Nets to BK
“Niggas in Paris,” Jay-Z and Kanye West
I’ve spent enough time in places like Harlem, Dorchester, and South Central L.A. to realize that drugs and sports are viewed as the most reliable ways out of the ghetto. Sure, there are African-American mothers living below the poverty line who understand that education is a far better bet than perfecting a jump shot or becoming a gang kingpin, but for the most part they are helpless to do anything about it. There is no credible public education system in those places. And since they as parents have no experience with education, they have little ability to understand what their children will even need to become a lawyer or banker or even president. The only programs that seem to work are total immersion—programs like the Epiphany School here in Boston or Homeboy in Los Angeles—where children attend school from morning to night and even on weekends to keep them off the streets and infuse them with the most basic concepts that white children of college-educated parents get every night before going to sleep.
Early on in the Boston Celtics’ championship 2007-2008 season, I found myself inside the locker room, a middle-aged, obsessive sports fan pretending to be a reporter for a night. (Yes, a wet dream of epic proportions.) I had managed to sell the idea of writing a very brief piece about the team’s Russian masseur, Vlad Shulman, to Boston Magazine (“The Best Hands in the Game”). The team’s suits had made clear that they didn’t want staff quoted during the season, but they were more than happy to grant me a one-day press pass and send me into the locker room to see what I could find out.
I wandered among my heroes, a pass around my neck, trying to get them to talk to me while they changed into their uniforms. What I got was an up-close-and-personal look at what many professional basketball players are really like: African-American and functionally illiterate. Few of the players would engage with me. They knew the big-time reporters and grudgingly talked to them, but I was clearly a new face, a scrub. They grunted at me. Two stars, Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett, refused to talk to anyone except during the postgame press conference.
There were two exceptions: Tony Allen and Ray Allen. Ray asked me who I was and what I wanted. After I replied, he asked me to wait while he put on his shorts, then turned around and sat down to talk to me for 20 minutes. Within thirty seconds, I had all that I needed for the article and just started asking him about his background and his game. I found him so unlike the rest of the players. Where they seemed to me to have very little real education, he was thoughtful and articulate. I fell in love. I wore a Ray Allen jersey to every game the rest of the year. To this day, he is perhaps my favorite athlete.
But it was my talk with Tony Allen that actually stuck with me. Tony is known as a freak of nature in terms of his athletic ability, particularly as a defensive specialist. He doesn’t even look that big, but he can stop pretty much anyone in the league when he has his wits about him. His wits are the problem both on the court and off. From what I could tell he is borderline mentally challenged.
I taped all my interviews. The clip of Tony became a favorite among my friends because to an Ivy League guy, Tony sounds like he is out of his mind (you can listen to it HERE). We laughed our asses off listening to him, but inside it made me sad. Really sad.
This guy has zero chance in life, I kept thinking to myself. He can play basketball but beyond that he barely knows what planet he is on.
When I was in college, one of my professors, Peter Kilby, developed what he called the “oil slip hypothesis” in which he showed that citizens of countries where oil was discovered actually fared worse than those in Third World countries where economies were forced to develop more broadly. When oil was discovered, wealth became extreme both in magnitude and concentration. There was remarkably little spillover from the owners of oil to the nations’ citizens who were struggling to survive.
Terrific wealth of the few, it turned out, further impoverished the many. The scene in the Celtics locker room brought me back to Professor Kilby and made me wonder whether eliminating pro basketball altogether might actually do more for the African-American community than continuing the charade of success for the genetically-gifted few.
I live a short walk from Fenway Park. I have grown tired of the Red Sox after spending 46 years living and dying by every pitch, and so these days I go to a few games a year just to catch up with friends. The games drag on forever, so my buddies and I bet on pretty much everything to pass the time. Dollar bills change hands and end up back where they belong by the end of the game.
We have two favorite bets, beyond the obvious baseball-related ones. The first is called “grass or dirt.” It’s a bet on where the ball will end up when the umpire rolls it out at the end of each inning: on the dirt of the mound, or on the infield grass just off the mound. The second bet is based on who is the first to point out an African American anywhere in the stands of Fenway Park.
At first, I resisted the second of these two bets as blatantly racist. Then I embraced it as a sociological study of just how segregated and hypocritical so-called liberal Boston really is. As the innings pass by and we all fruitlessly scan the crowd for a black face, the common refrain is, “This is just fucking insane!” Half the players are black, and yet none of the fans are. Once we went into the seventh-inning stretch before a dollar changed hands.
As much as Charles Barkley might say, “I am not your role model!” adult men in America worship professional athletes. In Boston, we have not one but two 24-hour sports radio stations devoted exclusively to dissecting every player, play, and team. ESPN has become the most valuable media franchise in America for the very same reason: guys love to immerse themselves in sports.
From an African-American perspective, this idolatry of sports is tragic. It is not good to have a few dozen men become enormously wealthy—with those who can ‘t handle it, squandering that wealth through bad behavior—while a million black men are in prison (43 percent of the total inmate population) and the majority of African-American boys can expect not to find a decent job and live in poverty.
From a white perspective, this athlete worship is hypocritical. It turns grown men into circus characters. We adore them for one thing and one thing only: what they do with the ball. We refuse to look under the covers at what is really there. It may be that athletics is great for teaching discipline and hard work to youngsters, but from the NCAA to the NBA it’s all about money and winning—not about character or even a 7th-grade reading level—and things get more than a little out of whack.
I was sitting with a group of rich, white, finance guys when one of them brought up the fact that the Jets cornerback, Antonio Cromartie, has nine children with eight women in six states. “Four of his kids, each by a different woman, are three years old,” my friend pointed out. “They all delivered at the same time.”
He went on to point out that the Jets had to front Cromartie $500,000 to try to deal with his status as a deadbeat dad. “He had six probate courts, each of which had assigned a percentage of his salary to a different mother for child support. None of the cases was consolidated, so when you added them up, he owed 300 percent of what he made,” my buddy claimed.
Another friend pointed out that Cromartie had recently been on HBO’s football show Hard Knocks, trying unsuccessfully to name all of his children.
I laughed. I then I got quiet as I thought about Wilt Chamberlain’s claim that he had slept with 10,000 women, and Antoine Walker going broke after making $110 million as a player… and I thought of Tony Allen, in his lovable way, talking nonsensically to me when I asked him about Vlad.
I don’t blame African-American pro athletes. Most are making the best of a horrific situation. Between unemployment and a good chance at jail or tens of millions of dollars, which one would you choose?
No, I blame us for drinking the Kool-Aid of pro sports: the packaging, the theme music, and the talk shows all aimed at obscuring the underlying truth of how narrow these men’s skills truly are, and the role of race in everything that is going on.
My friend Stephen Locke, an African-American artist, wrote a compelling piece about why he doesn’t want to talk about race. That’s his right. He’s been on the receiving end of racism all his life. But I do want to talk about race. I want to talk about how insane it is that my son listens to rap songs about “niggas” every day, about Tony Allen and every other functionally illiterate NBA player, about Jackie Robinson’s number being enshrined in segregated Fenway Park, and even about Antonio Cromartie’s nine kids—because all those things aren’t a poor reflection on them. They reflect the truth of race in American right here, right now.
How about we look at sport not just as a male obsession where our favorite players run, jump, hit, and catch balls with amazing agility, but where our deepest vulnerabilities as a nation get played out just below the surface? We like to believe that we aren’t racist—that the Civil Rights Movement is over and done with—and yet it’s nearly all white fans who go to basketball games to watch these freakishly large, predominantly black men perform like circus performers. We don’t want to know what’s going on underneath because that will lead us back to the larger truth of staggering poverty, illiteracy, and hopeless circumstances among large numbers of black American across this country.
How about we start talking about high school graduation rates rather than triple doubles? Who gives a shit about winning a game when people are suffering systematic discrimination?
So let us not talk falsely now
The hour is getting late
“All Along the Watchtower,” sung by Jimi Hendrix, song by Bob Dylan