Beyond the Lens: Black Professional Athletes on Race, Racism & the Realities of Breathing While Black
Christina L. Myers
Michigan State University
Citation: Myers, Christina L.. “Beyond the Lens: Black Professional Athletes on Race, Racism & the Realities of Breathing While Black.” Hyperrhiz: New Media Cultures, no. 25, 2022. doi:10.20415/hyp/025.e03
Abstract: This study investigates how Black professional athletes articulate their lived experiences concerning race and racism in the United States through the online digital platform The Players’ Tribune. A qualitative content analysis of narratives (N=29) were analyzed. Results reveal themes of violence perpetuated by law enforcement, fear for the life of self and loved ones, identity, history of systemic racism, call for allyship, Black empowerment and unity.
Keywords: Critical Race Theory, Black athletes, race, systemic racism, Black experience.
We’re not just fighting for equality and justice, we’re fighting for our LIVES. We’re fighting so we don’t have to move with fear in a country we built.
– Sterling Brown, NBA player, Milwaukee Bucks (Brown, 2020, para. 29-30)
Systemic racism is embedded in the foundations of the United States and invades every aspect of Black lives (Du Bois, 1903; Hylton, 2009). The deaths of Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd and Breonna Taylor as well as the murder, mistreatment and abuse of other Black Americans at the hands of law enforcement and White supremacists have spurred protests across the country, causing anguish and re-exposing a wound within the Black community as national conversations and media coverage center on the harsh realities of race and racism in this country (Austin, 2020; BBC News, 2020; Beason, 2020; Samuels, 2020). In the realm of professional sports, Black athletes have been taking a stance on racial injustice by using their voices and platforms to advance the causes that directly impacts the policies that disproportionately effects the Black community (Pelak, 2005; Demby, 2012; Martin & McHendry, 2016; Schmidt et al., 2018). In August 2020, the shooting of Jacob Blake by Kenosha, Wisconsin police officers spurred a NBA work stoppage which spread to other professional leagues, too, pausing practice and/or canceling games in protest of this violent act (Cohen, 2020). Members of the WNBA team Atlanta Dream openly advocated against their then owner Sen. Kelly Loeffler for her anti-Black Lives Matter rhetoric, openly endorsing the candidates’ opponent for Congress. Black athletes have long operated as agents for social change, often criticized in the realm of public opinion and mass media for vocalizing their displeasures (Pelak, 2005; Smith, 2019). However, “when institutions like sport become complicit in institutionalized racist acts, it no longer takes the efforts of rogue actors or right-wing organizations when racism is intentionally or unwittingly perpetuated,” (Hylton, 2009). Sports leagues have attempted to tackle issues of race by promoting efforts of the Black Lives Matter Movement such as in the National Basketball Association where league officials allowed their athletes to change the name on their uniforms to words that empower the Black community such as, “equality,” “justice” and “unity,” (The Undefeated, 2020). However, league-wide support of these Black athletes who have been vocal about racial oppression has not always been met with acceptance, but often criticisms by league officials, members of the general public and even members of mass media (Lomax, 2002; Martin & McHendry, 2016; Wolfson, 2018; Bernabo, 2019). The move toward supporting the efforts of Black Lives Matter has been a tenuous one for Black professional athletes such as Colin Kaepernick, as leagues and teams are only now visibly promoting and supporting racial justice. Despite the initial backlash and seemingly gradual tolerance after nationwide outcry following Summer 2020 protests, many Black athletes have remained firm in their activism, seeking opportunities to participate in the protests, whether in the streets or on the field and basketball court (Deb, 2020; Scott, 2020).
Taking into account the implicit racial biases, ideologies and stereotypes that may contribute to the narratives associated to Black athletes in mainstream media, one conceivable means to identify the lived experiences of these athletes is to hear them in their own words as the Black experience is largely shaped by individuals in mass media who have little understanding of those experiences (Feagin, 1999; Hall, 1997, 2003). Founded by retired New York Yankee legend Derek Jeter, The Players’ Tribune is an online media platform that provides current and former professional athletes and coaches a space to write about issues that are important to them, from their perspective and in “their own words,” (The Players’ Tribune). The first-person narratives offered by the athletes provides an intimate glimpse into their realities and lived experiences, absent of the “professional athlete” label that seemingly tends to overshadow their humanness. The burden of baring the realities of being both Black and an athlete is often reflected in critical, and in some instances racist, mass-mediated discourse concerning the role of professional athletes in society – none more apparent than the case of arguably one of the greatest sportsmen of all time, LeBron James who was told to “shut up and dribble” due to his vocal displeasure with former President Donald J. Trump as well as the mistreatment, abuse and murders of Black men and women across the country (Galily, 2019).
Across the country, professional athletes participated in Black Lives Matter marches, lending their voices to the fight for social justice and reform, however the duality of their lived experiences, being celebrated and idolized by individuals for their athletic ability while also being devalued due to the color of their skin, is a phenomenon worthy of investigation. The purpose of this study is to understand how Black professional athletes articulate their experiences through this digital media platform. Examining the narratives published on The Players’ Tribune website and written by Black professional athletes will provide a powerful lens to examine their lived experiences as it relates to race and racism in the United States. There appears to be a paucity of research in expressions of the Black experience from the perspective of professional Black athletes, specifically as it relates to racial injustice. This research will further discussions on the impact of protest movements on player-activists and leaders who are directly impacted by the issues and policies being advocated for as well as further understanding as to how mass media portrays the movement through images. This study is unique in that a communication medium is being used to articulate the sentiments of a unique audience in society, providing a voice that is often designated to journalists and “writers” who have established media platforms to communicate.
I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses Black people and people of color. To me, this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way. There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder.
– Colin Kaepernick, former NFL player, San Francisco 49ers (Wyche, 2016, para. 3)
Depictions & Criticisms of Black Athlete Activism in Mass Media
Much of the realities of professional Black athletes, especially during the 1960s and early 1970s – a period of league integration and the Civil Rights Movement – were largely formulated through the lens of mass media. This is problematic considering the dominance and hegemonic function of a capitalistic, predominately White industry which is the prevailing gatekeeper over the narratives concerning the Black experience. These visual or written conceptions of who Black people are in society are often absent of the cultural, societal and political nuances that speak to the authentic Black experience while also laced with stereotypical and racist ideologies that continues to assert White racial dominance (Cruse, 1967; Lomax, 2002). It was not until the release of autobiographical narratives of Black athletes such as Bill Russell, Johnny Sample and Curt Flood, that their actual experiences of dealing with racism while being hailed for their athletic abilities was realized (Lomax, 2002). Harry Edwards, a political activist who pioneered work on the experiences of Black athletes during the Black Power movement, offered a critical conception of racial dynamics as “distorted images,” in mass media, suggesting that the “sports world reeked of the same racism that corrupted other areas of society,” (Lomax, 2002, p. 473). In an essay (2002) revisiting the groundbreaking book “The Revolt of the Black Athlete,” the research asserts Edward’s position that Black athletes played a legitimate and significant role in conversations surrounding racial injustice, which allowed them to leverage their platforms to spearhead revolutions in the field of sports. Lomax states:
“…the Black athlete revolt, as a phase of the Black liberation movement, was as legitimate as the sit-ins, the freedom rides, or any demonstrations of African American efforts to gain freedom. Its goals were the same as those of any other genuine aspect of the movement – equality, justice, regaining lost Black dignity during three hundred years of slavery, and attaining basic human and civil rights guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution and the concept of American democracy,” (p. 474).
Black athletes have been widely subjected to sharp criticisms for their engagement and public vocalization of displeasure, anger and frustrations over the mistreatment of Black men and women in the United States as well as the abuse, mistreatment and violence at the hands of law enforcement (Peterson, 2009; Agyemang, 2011; Martin & McHendry, 2016; Schmidt et al., 2018, Park et al., 2019; Smith, 2019). A predominant figure in professional sports surrounding discussions of racial unrest and police brutality focused on the highly criticized sitting and eventual kneeling of former National Football League quarterback Colin Kaepernick during the National Anthem. Literature in media framing suggests traditional forms of media distract from the messaging and original intent of the political demonstration (Park et al., 2019), “labeling athletes as un-American for protesting America’s treatment of marginalized populations,” (Schmidt et al., 2018) causing members of the public to view them the same. Kaepernick’s kneeling garnered strong reactions from members of the media, with his actions often labeled as unpatriotic and disrespecting the country and armed service members (Peter, 2016; Schmidt, et al., 2018). During his 2016 interview with an NFL.com reporter, Kaepernick emphasized his actions as a means of demonstration about his disdain for oppressive society, defending his actions, often having to refocus the interview away from the physical act and toward the message (Martin & McHendry, 2016). According to the 2016 article, “Kaepernick’s Stand: Patriotism, Protest, and Professional Sports,”:
Kaepernick’s protests, and his eventual explanations, exist in the context of a national debate about the relationship between race and police violence, as increasingly the killing of unarmed Black men by police are recorded and shared online and in the news. In the days and weeks that followed, Kaepernick has been castigated for his protest, (p. 88).
Schmidt et al. (2018) study examined Facebook commentary surrounding Kaepernick’s actions and found commentary involving themes of violating American values, shunning him for his actions, quandaries about whether racial inequality is a reality in the United states and questioning his masculinity and whether he was a “real man” for his actions (p. 665).
However, widely publicized demonstrations by Black professional athletes concerning the mistreatment of Black lives have long taken the spotlight in mass media, often met with criticisms while drawing attention on the world stage as athletes advocated for social change. Muhammad Ali was shunned from the world of boxing for his widely publicized exception to the draft process and adamant refusal to fight in the Vietnam War. In March 1967, Ali explained his anti-war position:
Why should they ask me to put on a uniform and go ten thousand miles from home and drop bombs and bullets on brown people in Vietnam while so-called Negro people in Louisville are treated like dogs and denied simple human rights? No, I am not going ten thousand miles from home to help murder and burn another poor nation simply to continue the domination of white slave masters of the darker people the world over (Wolfson, 2018).
Peterson (2009) examined the print media coverage of the 1968 Summer Olympic Games in Mexico City, protests where Black medalists Tommie Smith and John Carlos famously wore Black gloves, raising their fists in solidarity with the Black community and in protest of the ongoing struggles during the Civil Rights Movement for racial equity. Smith and Carlos’, members of the Olympic Project for Human Rights, Black power salute drew sharp criticism from sportswriters, as members of the media perceived the United States sprinters as violating, “the sanctity of sports by inserting their own politics,” (Peterson, 2009, p. 101). Peterson characterized the media’s discontentment with the Black athletes’ actions to an “unwritten rule or norm in sports that its participants leave their politics and social activism at the arena or stadium gate,” (p. 101), and the widespread backlash resulted ultimately led to the U.S. Olympic Committee as well as the International Olympic Committee suspended them from the remaining of the games and the country’s official team.
Professional athletes have engaged in various demonstrations of activism online concerning the murders of un-armed Black men which has largely been in the form of social media posts on Twitter and Facebook (Schmittel and Sanderson, 2015; Sanderson et al., 2016), and taking a knee during the playing of the national anthem. However, literature suggests that Black athletes are largely subjected to racist commentary and professional consequences due to their public displeasure of issues concerning racial injustices (Sanderson et al., 2016; Kilvington and Price, 2017; Frederick et al., 2018). The Players’ Tribune provides a unique platform for these professional athletes to publish their intimate realities concerning race relations on a platform where public commentary is not readily apparent or attributed to the content, unlike that of the structure of social media platforms. This communications platform offers a reprieve from the apparent and certain backlash of those who disagree or suggest the professional athletes’ role in society is limited to the court or field they play. To the researcher’s knowledge, there has been a paucity in research examining the personal accounts one could consider the personal diaries or reflections of professional athletes.
Media Coverage of Black Lives Matter
The killings of unarmed Black men and women at the hands of White perpetrators and members of law enforcement have consumed headlines and 24-hour news cycles in the United States, highlighting the mistreatments and abusive force against African Americans. While activism in the Black community in order to reform policy and systemic mechanisms that oppress this community have long been central to the culture, the modern-day capturing of Black assaults, recording and dissemination of the assault, abuse and murder of Black Americans has led to a widespread outcry of members of the Black community and their allies.
Early conceptions surrounding the coverage of controversial issues surrounding the abuse of Black lives can be attributed to the mass media coverage of the 1991 beating of Rodney King by officers of the Los Angeles Police Department, and the subsequent acquittal of the police officers involved. While King’s beating is certainly not the first instance of racial injustices captured in mass media, it is certainly one of the most prominent and widely publicized examples in the long history of Black abuse (Jacobs, 2000). In the book Race, Media and the Crisis of Civil Society (2000), Ronald Jacobs explores the implications of racial uprisings in Los Angeles due to racial injustices in the city. His conception of the role of news media during this time period is important in considering the role and demand for understanding and offering perspectives critical to accepting the sentiments of individuals to whom the stories reflect. “News media provide a common stock of information and culture, which private citizens rely on in their everyday conversations with others,” and the demand of for Black press during issues of racial injustices, offered “the possibility of new forms of discussion to emerge” as African Americans were seeking the “Black perspective” (Jacobs, 2000, p. 6). Considering the current coverage of Black Lives Matter and the often-skewed depictions of the movement’s mission, speaks to the importance of considering the source of content creation and how implicit ideologies may impact the coverage. Kilgo’s (2020) study on the varying coverage of protests concerning the deaths of Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown illustrates how the organizational structures, media practices and policies as well as implicit bias may influence the coverage of racial injustices. This is a key consideration as, “the general public’s opinion about protests and the social movements behind them are formed in large part by what they read or see in the media,” giving journalists the power to drive narratives (Kilgo, 2020). Kilgo found that coverage of the Black Lives Matter movement, members of the news media often referenced riots, emphasizing disruptive behavior and threat of violence, confrontation or “clashes” with police, the protests as a spectacle, highlighting the emotional behavior of protesters as well as the debate over the movement’s agenda (Kilgo, 2020). Considering these implications and the impact mainstream media has on the framing of issues critical to race relations, understanding the lived experiences of Black athlete-activists who have become leaders within the movement themselves – specifically during times of social unrest and racial injustices – speaks to how essential it is to gain perspectives of Black lives from the athletes themselves, instead of being filtered through the lens of content creators.
Critical Race Theory (CRT) seeks to examine the pervasive and prevailing presence of systemic racism in the practices, institutions and systems in society. Birthed out of legal studies, CRT scholars suggest White colonialism and the vestiges of the institution of slavery have contributed to the oppression, degradation, disrespect and harm inflicted on Black and brown bodies. Further assumptions of the role of CRT includes the position that racism is naturalized, a part of everyday society that upholds and advances White principles and interests; race is socially constructed by a predominately White society; and centering the voices of marginalized individuals in narrative creation is an attempt at dismantling or “countering” such disruptive stories. Literature in race and sports has been largely examined through the lens of critical race theory which posits that, “racism is an influential and pervasive force in American society and has become normalized to the extent that power differences between Whites and Blacks are reinforced to the point where such inequality is rarely questioned,” (Frederick, 2018, p. 5). Its application in the discourse of race and sports provides a logical conception of its theoretical underpinnings that seeks to demonstrate the, ‘exceptional and irregular rather than routinely ubiquitous and deeply ingrained,” racial inequality in sports that is prevalent in society as a whole (Mirza, 1999, p. 112). Building this counternarrative that is prevalent in American society, In order to understand the implications of such narratives is to examine the predominate messages that contribute to understandings of the Black experience in mass media. As such, this study seeks to answer the following:
RQ: How do Black professional athletes articulate their experiences of race and racism in the United States through The Players’ Tribune?
In order to understand the lived experiences of professional athletes within the Black community as it relates to race and racism, a qualitative content analysis of narratives from the ‘Silence is Not an Option’ section of The Players’ Tribune was conducted. The ‘Silence is Not an Option’ collection was developed shortly after the widely publicized killing of George Floyd and subsequent protests in support of the Black Lives Matter movement. The narratives (N=29) published through November 20, 2020, written by professional athletes, coaches and former athletes who identify as African American were retrieved and analyzed. Seeking understanding of the Black experience from the professional athletes’ perspective lends to this analysis. Media content, “often reflects the cultural temperature of a society,” and a qualitative content analysis of media allows for examination of, “broader cultural contexts to situate media messages,” (Smith, 2019, p. 185).
Critical case purposeful sampling (Patton, 1990) was employed for this study as this method, “proves or exemplifies the main findings, searching deliberately for confirming … and typical cases serve to increase confidence in conclusions,” (Miles, Huberman & Saldaña, 2014, p. 32). This method also allows for generalizations to be made in order to explain the phenomenon being exhibited in the analysis (Taylor-Powel & Renner, 2003). Since The Players’ Tribune is digital platform dedicated specifically to magnifying the professional athletes’ voice through narratives, using this source was a logical data point for the for me.
During first level analysis of the narratives, coding was conducted using a combination of in vivo, descriptive and emotion coding (Saldaña, 2016). Emotion coding is an appropriate method for exploring, “intrapersonal and interpersonal participant experiences and actions, especially in matters of social relationships, reasoning, decision-making, judgment and risk-taking,” (Saldaña, 2016, p. 125), and the use of descriptive coding helps identify the important topics of the passage (Saldaña, 2016). These coding methods are appropriate for capturing the rich commentary of the athletes who are reflecting on their personal experiences with racism and social justice through the perspective of their professional occupations and personal identities. The strong emotional elements of the text lend to in vivo coding in order to capture the depth of the athletes’ experiences. Analysis also involved pattern matching which according to Yin (2018), involves comparing or matching patterns in the data, which is defined prior to the data collection. During second-level analysis of the narratives, words, phrases and themes from the narratives were combined and categorized into subthemes. Predominate narratives that arose from the synthesis and integration of subthemes formed the final coding categories for third-level analysis, all pertaining to the experiences shared by current and former professional Black athletes concerning race and racism in the United States. Appendix I provides excerpts from the athlete narratives. For the purposes of this study, the seven themes were operationalized into the following:
- Violence Perpetrated by Law Enforcement. References to emotional and/or physical violence, trauma at the hands of members of law enforcement. Content addressing the athletes’ personal encounter/confrontation with police, expressions of fear, anger or helplessness due to the encounter, mentioning of systemic abuse of power (state sanctioned role of police), lack of accountability, Black people not feeling protected by police and mentioning of detainment by police without cause or justification.
- Fear for Life, Life of Loved Ones and Black Community. Content related to the Black athletes’ plea for life, wanting to stay alive as well as mentioning of survival instinct.
- Identity. References to how the Black athlete views themselves in contrast to how the world views them as well as mentions of their role as an athlete, entertainer vs. their role as an activist and Black citizen.
- History of Systemic White Violence. Content related to systemic racism, oppression and prejudice, government sanctioned role of police in history, perpetuating stereotypes of Black people, Black people robbed of liberties and devaluation of Black people.
- Call to Action/ Allyship. References to unify athletic and Black community, using platform/ voice to facilitate change, mentioning fight for justice & equality, supporting Black Lives Matter movement and initiatives, and rallying non-Black racial groups to support racial equality.
- Black Empowerment. References to resilience, resolve, strength and using their voice inspire members of the Black community.
- Unity vs. Division. References to unity or divisiveness within the professional sports league whether on the team, league or societal level.
We saw someone get the life choked out of them on social media. Pause and think about that. A lifeless body. How could you not release your knee to allow this man to breathe? He’s on his stomach. His hands are behind his back. And you just continue, despite his pleas for air. I can’t explain it. I can’t.
– Dawn Staley, NCAA Coach, WNBA player, (Staley, 2020, para. 1-3)
Initial coding of the final sampling revealed patterns of words or phrases in The Players’ Tribune narratives that spoke to the prevailing issues surrounding race and racism experienced by the professional Black athletes. The seven themes of “Violence Perpetrated by Law Enforcement,” “Identity,” “History of Systemic White Violence & Oppression,” “Fear for Life/ Life of Loved Ones and Black Community,” “Call to Action/ Plea for Allyship,” “Black Empowerment,” “Unity vs. Division” and “Role of Sports/Athletes in Social Justice Reform,” were found across the narratives (N=29) during final, in-depth textual analysis. For the purpose of this paper, in-depth discussion of themes will be taken from four of the data sources which also represent four of the most popular sports in America: National Basketball Association’s Sterling Brown with the Milwaukee Bucks, former National Football League player Usama Young, Women’s National Basketball Associations’ Natasha Cloud with the Washington Mystics and Retired Major League Baseball player Gary Sheffield.
Violence Perpetrated by Law Enforcement & Fear for Life, Life of Loved Ones and Black Community
Frequent for many of the professional athletes was a recollection to their personal encounters or confrontations with members of law enforcement, all of which has caused them either physical harm or emotional trauma. Often the overwhelming expressions of fear for life and loved ones was in conjunction to describing the prevailing racism the athletes have experienced. Sterling Brown opens his narrative by immediately describing his personal experience dealing with systemic racism in which the oppressor, the government, tried to silence his voice in order to cover what the author perceives to be an abuse of power by the law enforcement. Brown’s resolve to not remain silent during a time of oppression is clear in the initial lines of his narrative. Brown’s refrain, “…here’s the thing: I can’t be quiet,” appears to introduce the tone and intent of this piece, to allow his voice to be heard in the midst of what he deems to be oppressing times. Brown’s detailed encounter with police highlights the anguish of feeling helplessness, weighing the risks and potential loss when one is feeling trapped by a corrupt system and subjected to individuals who abuse their power. Brown states:
I knew I had a choice: Get free or give in. One of the officers had a knee on my neck. Another stood on my ankle. The cop who tased me had initially pulled his gun. The whole time I was on the ground, I was just wondering how we had gotten to that point. All I was focused on was getting back to my family and my job … All I was focused on was getting back to my family and my job. I thought about fighting back, but it was just an unnecessary attempt for them to show power. I could have gotten them off of me, but it was six guns to none (Brown, 2020, para. 12-14).
Usama Young shared his experience of an encounter with police and the lasting impact to his life, emotional trauma that started as a child and still impacts him during his adulthood. Young begins his narrative by stating, “the first time,” indicating multiple encounters with police. Young states:
Being 12 years old, I was just … shook. Helpless. That’s the only word for how you feel in that situation. Helpless. At that time, the police in PG County were notorious for pulling over young black men. We knew the deal. But we never expected to be cuffed and humiliated over nothing (Young, 2020, para. 11-14).
A 12-year-old kid who otherwise would not have experienced this trauma of encountering police if it were not for the color of his skin. Young’s descriptive experience and emotion-filled commentary taps at the heart of the lived experiences of African Americans and the subsequent traumas that systemic racism and a problematic criminal justice system can have on generations of Black people. That decision Young made that changed his entire perception on race in America, was deciding to take a ride in his friend’s car instead of riding his bike home which led to a stop without cause. Young equates his experience as a young man confronted by police with how he functions as a father. Being a Black man in society, he speaks to how inevitable these confrontations with racists will be for his children, whether from police officers or other members of society, making it critical to teach them how to operate and strive within this system.
More than 20 years after the police put us on display in our own neighborhood, people who look like us are still being killed regularly, senselessly. I have a one-year-old son and a four-year-old daughter. This is real to me. I don’t want my children to fall victim to these same injustices (Young, 2020, para. 23-24).
The incessant reminders of the prevailing racism in the country, highlighted even more after the killings of unarmed Black men and women, made the fear for life even more apparent. While Natasha Cloud does not speak of a personal encounter, her anguish and distress over violence at the hands of police officers is apparent through her reference of the murder of George Floyd. Cloud states:
As a black person in America, there’s only one thing that could possibly BE on my mind. And that’s fearing for my life. It’s fearing for my life, and for the life of every other person who is guilty of nothing more than belonging to a race that this country has been built on oppressing. It’s wanting to stay alive (Cloud, 2020, para. 3-5).
This tragic and unconscionable paradox of state sanctioned police killings of unarmed Black men and women is a revisited theme throughout the narratives. Individuals trained to “protect and serve” have seemingly failed Black citizens.
America’s systems of power exist so that, in 2020, George Floyd can have a knee forced on his neck by a white police officer, by someone whose job it was to serve and protect him, for almost nine minutes in broad daylight — nine minutes in broad daylight — even after he had become unresponsive (Cloud, 2020, para. 7-8).
A constant toiling of how the athletes view themselves in contrast to how the world views them is also evident in their narratives. The reconciliation between their role as athletes, activists and Black citizens is a frequent theme throughout their writings. The athletes spoke of a once hopeful for a future for Black people which is seemingly non-existent due to the frequent abuse and violence toward Black lives. Frustration is apparent and the optimistic outlook on life is dashed by the ever-present realities of being Black in America. for Natasha Cloud, she suggests the innocence of childhood is stripped due to the realization of race and racism because of ongoing White supremacist racial terrorism, violence and systemic oppression.
But what you realize as you get older is that if you’re a black kid in America, the future….. it just isn’t about possibility like that. You start to notice how many forces there are in place to make sure that 2020 isn’t really all that much different from 2010. Or 2000. Or 1990. Or 1920. You start to understand how the systems of power in this country, they’re not built to create possibility or opportunity for black people — they’re built to lock them out (Cloud, 2020, para. 6).
Brown contends with his identity by speaking of stereotypical ideals attributed to Black people and perpetuated by members of society. He acknowledges his “status” as a professional athlete did not preclude him from the stigma being attributed to him as a Black man, being perceived as aggressive or an aggressor with his encounter with police simply due to the color of his skin. Brown states:
…most people assumed I was just another Black man who got aggressive with the police. But once the video came out, people started to speak up in support of me (Brown, 2020, para. 19).
Brown associates his mistreatment to overall treatment of Black people in American society where there is a habitual lack of respect and dignity for human life and where incessant treatment by authority runs rampant, regardless of one’s personal or “elite” status as a professional athlete. For years, his voice was silenced by the disbelief of individuals who could not conceive such an encounter with police, authoritative figures praised in communities. The relief in the release of the police bodycam video subconsciously removed the asterisk associated to his experience, but also speaks to a dangerous notion that in order to believe, one would have to see with their own eyes. Brown weighed this issue:
…how many times does something like this happen when there isn’t a camera recording? How many times does it happen to someone who isn’t an NBA player and who doesn’t have the platform I have to make people stop and listen? Without the video of George Floyd, I guarantee the majority of the world would not have noticed or cared (Brown, 2020, para. 21-22).
History of Systemic White Violence & Oppression
Referencing systemic racism and the institution of slavery, underscored the tonality and sentiment of the narratives. The vestiges of slavery, oppression, prejudice, deprivation of civil liberties and the devaluation of Black lives was infused throughout the articulation of their experiences as both a Black athlete and a Black citizen. Generational trauma as evident through references to slavery and the lasting impact of the foundations of America are very much present and felt by the athletes as eloquently expressed by Natasha Cloud in her piece, “Your Silence is a Knee on My Neck.”
America’s systems of power exist to lock in the white status quo. America’s systems of power exist so that, in 2020, George Floyd can have a knee forced on his neck by a white police officer, by someone whose job it was to serve and protect him, for almost nine minutes in broad daylight — nine minutes in broad daylight — even after he had become unresponsive. America’s systems of power exist so that an acceptable response to a cop killing George Floyd is to make excuses for the cop. America’s systems of power exist so that George Floyd, a black murder victim, can be blamed for his own damn murder. But you know what crushes me most of all?? It’s how the systems of power in this country are built so strong, and with such prejudice, that in order for white supremacy to flourish — people don’t even have to actively be about white supremacy. They don’t have to carry the burden of being openly racist, or waste their energy on being loudly oppressive (Cloud, 2020, para. 7-9).
It’s evident that the trauma of watching George Floyd’s murder due to widespread dissemination of the cellphone footage that ultimately went viral, deeply impacted the narratives of these athletes. An “otherwise desensitized” America witnessed the abuse of power and prejudice against Floyd where ordinarily these encounters may not have otherwise phased a prejudicial society. Sheffield states:
…this otherwise desensitized country actually saw it happen. We saw a man take his last breath — we collectively bore witness to a modern -day lynching (Sheffield, 2020, para. 15).
Call to Action/ Plea for Allyship, Unity vs. Division & Black Empowerment
Lastly, the Black athletes used their narratives to speak to members of their professional sports community and Black community as well as those who do not identify with their racial community. Unlike the emotional, burdensome aspects of their narratives that spoke to the implications of race and racism in society, there were also moments of optimism and desire to turn this seemingly hopeless situation to that of motivation and inspiration to facilitate societal change. For Natasha Cloud, it was meaningful to see her White colleague speak up about racial injustices, using her teammates’ moment as a member of the predominate, non-Black racial group as an example of how others can, too, be a part of a movement to shift perspectives, inform others about the mission of the Black Lives Matter movement and be a catalyst for change. Cloud speaks of this moment as a lifting of a burden that she and other Black athletes have had to shoulder for years.
…[O]ne of the most famous white basketball players alive, and now everyone is seeing how real she is. How she didn’t hesitate — she got in there. And it was like, even that ONE post on its own, it took just a little bit of the weight off my shoulders. It made me feel just a little less powerless in this world. It also laid down the gauntlet, I think, for other athletes. And if it didn’t? Then I hope this article does. Because there’s no new information to wait for. There’s no other side to hear from. There’s no safe space, no neutral territory to chill in and sit these issues out (Cloud, 2020, para. 23-26).
The overall emotion of resolve expressed by Brown, for example, may speak to the development of his character in which through the hurt and prejudice imposed upon him, his drive to fight for something bigger than himself was more powerful than the forces that have tried to stop him in the past. Brown was in essence reclaiming ownership over his life.
We’re not just fighting for equality and justice, we’re fighting for our LIVES. We’re fighting so we don’t have to move with fear in a country we built. It’s crazy, but we’re fighting for what we already own. Our LIVES! Our FREEDOM! (Brown, 2020, para. 29).
This sense of Black empowerment was a consistent, prevailing theme across all the narratives. This was often reflected in a direct call to action, encouraging unity across racial lines as well as using one’s voice that has long been silenced by an oppressive society, strength and resilience as well as acceptance. Gary Sheffield described their opportunity as athletes as a, “moment to turn tragedy into triumph. It is our opportunity to put a stop to years of systemic racism, oppression and discrimination” while Sterling Brown specifically spoke to members of the Black community to create societal change that’s, “gonna have to come from every level. The ground workers in the neighborhood every day, politicians, businessmen, entertainers, and us athletes.”
The indication of seven narratives, “Violence Perpetrated by Law Enforcement,” “Fear for Life, Life of Loved Ones and Black Community,” “Identity,” “History of Systemic White Violence,” “Call to Action/ Allyship,” “Black Empowerment” and “Unity vs. Division,” encompass the sentiments of the professional Black athletes that wrote narratives as part of The Players’ Tribune’s Silence is Not an Option section and provides an understanding of their lived experiences of race and racism in an elitist society whose systems benefit those who are part of White society. However, the images captured by various members of mass media does not take into consideration the context behind the actions of the professional Black athletes, more importantly, does not capture their experiences with race and racism that may cause their selected methods of protest which is captured by mass media. The act of taking a knee, which has been synonymous with protests first by Colin Kaepernick then others, sparked controversy and overshadowed the intent of such demonstrations as exhibited by athletes and captured in mass media.
Communication platforms like The Players’ Tribune offers intimate access to the perspectives of professional athletes, specifically as it relates to issues of race and racism, that may not have otherwise been gained through other forms of communication such as social media posts and even interviews. This is significant considering the abundance of literature indicating how members of mass media portray their experiences, distorting them as ant-American for speaking against the civil injustices toward people of color, largely in a society that seemingly ignores the outcries of those abused by the system (Demby, 2012; Martin & McHendry, 2016; Schmidt et al., 2018; Park et al., 2019). Eliminating the interference created by skewed coverage of social movements and the athletes’ involvement with them will better provide a better understanding into the lived experiences of Black professional athletes (Peterson, 2009; Kilgo, 2020).
During this time of social unrest and unprecedented media attention stimming from injustices imposed upon members of the Black community, this study is especially important to understanding the sentiments of an oppressed people while countering a narrative in mass media that leans into stereotypical representations of Black professional athletes that is largely skewed by the implicit racial biases and ideologies of content creators who are, in large part, part of the dominant powers in society. This in-depth view into the perspectives of Black athletes offers an understanding to the dynamics of being someone of certain status while still operating in a system endemic to racial oppression, a vestige of slavery, “the root of all prejudice,” (Du Bois, 1903, p. 10).
As accustom to most research, this study had some limitations. This study focused solely on the experiences of Black professional athletes who wrote narratives for The Players’ Tribune which is a limited representation of the Black athlete community and not generalizable to the entire group. Future research could provide further insight into how Black professional athletes express their lived experiences through various media planforms, outside of the digital platform used specifically for this study’s analysis. Also, identifying as a postmodern critical culturalist, the researcher acknowledges how her positionality influences her involvement with this particular research. Postmodern researchers take an interpretivist approach in seeking understanding while acknowledging the subjectivity of one’s work and shunning the notion of objectivity or neutrality (Glesne, 2016). A critical cultural perspective challenges power structures and its oppressive nature suggesting that mass media perpetuates a system that promotes dominate powers as well as the acknowledgement that meaning attributed to a message is dependent upon the societal circumstances one finds themselves. As a Black woman, the researcher recognizes the biases that inform her research approach, specifically as it relates to this particular study and her synthesis of racially charged issues impacting the Black experience.
This study serves as a foundation to further explore the counternarratives pertaining to race and racial justice in mainstream media. This study contributes to an absence in literature and further exploration into the realities of the Black experience, which is necessary to achieve a better perspective into the systemic processes in place that hinder their authentic perspectives. Exploration of these counternarratives reveals the importance of scholarship in the Black experience.
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Appendix I. Excerpts from Narratives (N=29)
Sam Acho (NFL player)- Upstairs and Downstairs: “All I’m asking for is a fair chance. The same opportunity that some of these other guys get,” (Acho, 2020).
Akim Aliu (Hockey player)- Hockey is not for Everyone: “For every vocal racist, there’s a thousand silent ones,” (Aliu, 2020).
Chris Bosh (Retired NBA player)- Let them Vote: “My parents, God bless them … they did everything in their power to make sure that, from a very young age, I knew our right to vote should be held sacred,” (Bosh, 2020).
Sterling Brown (NBA player)- Your Money Can't Silence Me: “The cop who tased me had initially pulled his gun,” (Brown, 2020).
Caron Butler (NBA coach/ Retired NBA player)- This Is a We Thing: “It’s a fight for ALL of us. I’m all in. I been in,” (Butler, 2020).
Misty Copeland (Ballerina)- Technique Has No Color: “As a Black woman, there are certain moments that define how you see the world,” (Copeland, 2020).
Layshia Clarendon (WNBA player)- It's Time to Think Bigger: “All marginalized people know the experience of being out just running some errands, and having to worry about their safety,” (Clarendon, 2020).
Mark Fraser (Hockey player)- Silence Is Violence: “This is not a black-only fight. This is not a fight that solely belongs to people of color,” (Fraser, 2020).
Chris Harris, Jr. (NFL player)- A Letter to My Black Daughters: “Someday soon, you’re going to see a video of a police officer kneeling on a helpless man’s neck for nine minutes, and that man crying out for his mother, and it’s going to change the way you view the world,” (Harris, 2020).
Tobias Harris (NBA player)- Y'all Hear Us, But You Ain't Listening: “Last month, armed men took over the steps of Michigan’s capitol building. To protest the QUARANTINE. And what did the President call them? ‘Good people.’ But we go out and protest that another black life has been taken senselessly, and we’re ‘THUGS.’ Come on. This is why Black Americans are angry,” (Harris, 2020).
Justin Holiday (NBA player)- Back with a Purpose: “I was worried about speaking out and losing my job. But I fear that no more,” (Holiday, 2020).
Kareem Jackson (NFL player)- It's Time to Get Uncomfortable: “It’s a topic that I am sick of sweeping under the rug. I’m tired of being afraid to address it,” (Jackson, 2020).
Aaron Jones (NFL player)- Two Fathers: “Why do black fathers still have to have this conversation with their sons? Just because of the color of someone’s skin,” (Jones, 2020).
Kyle Kuzma (NBA player)- Ain't No Sticking to Sports: “Everybody is marching together across the country because we actually want to see shit CHANGE. But first you have to understand the problem before you can change it,” (Kuzma, 2020).
Lisa Leslie (Retired WNBA player)- Dear America: “Black people have had enough of you destroying our very existence,” (Leslie, 2020).
Renee Montgomery (WNBA player)- When the W Comes Back, I Won't be There: “All it takes is a single moment, a single choice to create momentum. All you need is a second to change everything. And suddenly, I just find myself standing in this moment,” (Montgomery, 2020).
Deveraux Peters (WNBA player)- You Don’t Live Like We Do: “A lot of white people think that the only way you can be racist is if you’re calling Black people n*****s or are part of the Klan,” (Peters, 2020).
Lloyd Pierce (NBA coach)- The Day I Became an Activist: “I am an activist because Atlanta is special. I am an activist because of the young men I coach. I am an activist because of my daughter, Maya Joy,” (Pierce, 2020).
Bill Russell (Retired NBA player)- Racism Is Not a Historical Footnote: “In 2020, Black and Brown people are still fighting for justice,” (Russell, 2020).
Gary Sheffield (Retired MLB player)- Do You Believe Me Now?: “…I could’ve been killed. They proceeded to beat all of us unmercifully,” (Sheffield, 2020).
Marcus Smart (NBA player)- This Article Is Not About Basketball: “Me and discrimination, me and racial profiling … we go way back. We’ve got history. As a kid back home in Texas, I was followed by sales associates in stores and called derogatory names more times than I can count,” (Smart, 2020).
Dawn Staley (NCAA Coach/ Retired WNBA player)- Black People Are Tired: “And I hope, if anything good can come out of George Floyd’s senseless death, it is people going out to vote to change what’s happening in our country,” (Staley, 2020).
Taylor Trammell (MLB player)- Baseball Is Not Black Enough: “That’s a generation of kids who are never gonna want to call the police in their life at ALL. Because they’ve seen what could happen if anything goes wrong,” (Trammell 2020).
James Wade (WNBA coach)- I Want You to See the Story Through My Eyes: “Racism has long been viewed as a Black problem … but I hope people are finally beginning to understand that it’s not. It’s not. It’s an American problem. It’s a world problem,” (Wade, 2020).
Bubba Wallace (NASCAR driver)- Come Ride With Me: “I love racing. I love NASCAR. But sometimes change is good,” (Wallace, 2020).
A’ja Wilson (WNBA player)- Dear Black Girls: “…it was the first time that I realized, Oh, O.K., you’re not just a girl. You’re a Black girl. And some people don’t like you because of that,” (Wilson, 2020).
Usama Young (Retired NFL player) We're Just Trying to Get Home: “Being 12 years old, I was just … shook. Helpless. That’s the only word for how you feel in that situation,” (Young, 2020).