From Ali to LeBron James: Howard Bryant on Revolt of the Black Athlete
Listen to the interview in the player above and read the transcript below. Find past episodes of “Scheer Intelligence” here.
Robert Scheer: Hi, this is Robert Scheer with another edition of Scheer Intelligence, an arrogant-sounding title, but the intelligence comes from my guests. In this case, Howard “Howie” Bryant. Many people know him through ESPN; he’s been a well-known sports journalist writing for the Washington Post, the Oakland Tribune, the Bergen Record. He is involved with the Weekend Edition on National Public Radio. And the reason I’m excited about doing this interview is I read what I think is one of the best books I’ve ever read about the role of sports in America. It’s called “The Heritage: Black Athletes, a Divided America, and the Politics of Patriotism.” And it’s a grand sweep, from the days when I was a kid and I was rooting for the St. Louis Cardinals in the World Series against the Boston Red Sox, and no Negro could play. And the next year Jackie Robinson came in, and my hero Enos Slaughter spiked Jackie Robinson going around first base, and the Cardinals turned out to be one of the most racist teams. And this book takes us from those days through a period in which black athletes could rise to their potential, become actually quite prosperous and wealthy. And there was something called the black heritage that was manifested. And then we went through a rough period of the OJs and the Michael Jordans, where there was a deliberate avoidance of controversy and any concern for your own people. And now, in the post-Ferguson, post-9/11 era, there’s a whole new revitalized consciousness. Is that a good summary of what the book is, basically, the trajectory of the book?
Howard Bryant: Yeah, absolutely. And I think that the only part that I would add to that is simply the collision of this heritage coming from, or stemming from the deaths of Michael Brown and the problems in Ferguson, colliding with this uber patriotism and nationalism that we see at the ballpark post-9/11.
RS: You talk about the fans, mostly white; and you talk about the athletes who are, can be very highly paid, way beyond what they were in the past, as the workers. And then you have the owners. And as someone who sits up there in Row 15 at the Lakers games [laughs], you know, and what used to be a $35 ticket now is a $50 ticket, I greet the news this morning as we’re doing this recording, LeBron James is coming to the Lakers, and I think that’s great, great for the home team. But, you know, it’s hard to think of him as a worker, exploited worker; he’s being paid $154 million for a four-year contract. And you know, reading your book, though, LeBron James comes out as a really major figure in your story. He picks up after Jackie Robinson, or going way back to Paul Robeson, who’s a great singer and a great athlete, all-American, at Rutgers football and so forth, but then a victim of McCarthyism. Then you have Jackie Robinson, and you describe him really as a complex but basically very heroic, progressive figure. And then you take us up through the O.J. Simpson, and you know, days where you wanted to run away from all that. And then, as you say, in the post-Ferguson period, you have black athletes speaking up and taking the knee and what have you. And the hero, the modern hero in your book—and correct me if I’m wrong—is really LeBron James. Can you be a heroic, progressive figure and be making $154 million on a four-year contract?
HB: Well, exactly, and I think that’s the question. I think the other question in that is, too, is do you join this heritage? Do you join the pantheon of Paul Robeson and Jackie Robinson and Muhammad Ali and John Carlos and Tommy Smith, simply by wearing a T-shirt, when you have your corporate backers doing commercials, such as Nike, wearing T-shirts that say “equality” when you’re really battling the type of capitalism that puts these guys at risk in the first place? Is it possible if you’re LeBron James to be connected with this corporate world at the highest levels, and also still be a protester? It’s a very delicate balance, it’s a very difficult balance, and I think that’s going to inform where we go, going forward. I think that that’s going to be the question for these super rich athletes. You saw Carmelo Anthony, after Freddy Gray’s death in Baltimore, walking arm-in-arm with the people. The question, when you see that, also is, OK, well, where is the next front in this battle? And I think that when you look at what LeBron James has done and where he’s been, I think that that next battle is going to be incorporating player power into management. As we know, the players don’t choose the commissioners; the players, and especially in the National Football League, they don’t have guaranteed contracts. Their safety is very much at risk. They don’t have the power that goes with the glamour and the money as much as we would think that it does. So I think that that next step is going to be, what do the players do with this newfound wealth? What do they do with this power? And also, how do they balance being the super rich and then also being expected to maintain fidelity to the streets and to the workers, to the people?
RS: You know, your book raises so many contradictions about the role of sports, and indeed the role of celebrity, in American culture. Because I mean, the fact of the matter is, we basically have two images of black life. We have an imprisoned population, and incredible disproportionate jailing of black people, association with violence, and you know, unemployment and what have you. And then we have the celebrity blacks, whether it’s Oprah, whether it’s Michael Jordan or what have you. And your book deals with the limits of that celebrity. On the one hand, it’s a false message of how you can succeed; I mean, you have to be particularly good to succeed in that world, and there’s many people left behind. And also, generally, it’s at the cost of denying who you are. In the case of Carmelo Anthony, he went back to Baltimore; that’s his home neighborhood, and he felt this connection. But most people want to break that connection.
HB: Yeah, there’s no question. And I think one of the issues in the book for me, when I was conceptualizing it, was this entire notion of black body over black brain. And this question of, what do we do with all of this money, and what do we do with all of this celebrity with these black athletes? If they’re still uneducated, if they go to college and come out with no education, the argument that I make in the book is that the black athlete, because of his role and her role in integrating the community, the society in general—before the military, before schools, before neighborhoods—is that the black athlete is the most important, most influential, and most visible black employee this country’s ever produced. They’re the ones who made it, and because they’re the ones who made it, we have this expectation of them. We want them to speak for us because of that great disparity, because of how much the young look up to them, because they are the ones who have the influence. What’s been interesting to me, especially when you talk about that dichotomy, is the capitalism of it and the commerce of it. It’s very difficult when you look at the LeBron Jameses and some of these other athletes who make money off their anger in a way. You see them dunk and snarl and show that physicality and profit off of that physicality; there’s a lot of currency in that sort of black athleticism. But at the same time that is happening, at the same time we’re selling that sort of black masculinity, it’s also being used as justification for shooting young black men. “Oh, I feared for my life,” that seems to be the, that is the excuse or the justification du jour as to why police officers pull the trigger. So at the same time this massive sort of physicality is being glorified in sports, it’s also the reason, one of the reasons why you find these players out there protesting as well.
RS: Patriotism is a profit-making center—
HB: No, that’s right, yeah.
RS: —for these leagues. And as is other good causes, whether it’s wearing pink, you know, for breast cancer or what have you. These are paid activities that are profit, but they also send a message—no, authority is good, the cops are good, military intervention is good, patriotism is good, we should all rally around the flag. And then we should discuss the most recent taking the knee, objecting to that. But it goes back to the Olympics of ’68, right, when you had two track stars having a clenched fist in the air. So give us some sense of why it persists, why there is rebellion, why there is an issue.
HB: Well, I don’t think that you can have this conversation in 2018 without talking about 9/11. To me, the demarcating line in all of this is 9/11. When you look at what you’re seeing in sports today, when you watch a sporting event and you see the flags and the flyovers and the policing and the national anthem, and every, every other shot has an American flag somewhere, the players have American flags stitched to their jerseys. If you watch the NBA finals, there’s the NBA logo of Jerry West on one side of the backboard, on the left side; and on the right side, there’s an American flag. I think that all of this is, these are all byproducts of 9/11. And I think that the issue for me had been how 9/11 has completely changed how we package, market, sell sports to the public. And that provided, as you said, an opportunity for marketers, an opportunity for the Department of Defense, for the military, to sell—to sell war, essentially, at the ballpark. To recruit soldiers at the ballpark, potential soldiers. And to do all of these things surreptitiously, under the guise of an organic supporting of the troops, when actually these are business transactions taking place. One of the responses to this book so far has been “I didn’t know that,” when you go into the sections, that the flags the size of the 50-yard line and the surprise homecomings and the “God Bless America” at the ballpark—all of those things are being paid for by the Department of Defense. People don’t know these things. And I think that was the one stunning revelation for me. As I’ve said before, on the one hand whenever you do a project it’s gratifying that somebody would tell you that you gave them information they didn’t know. And then on the other hand, there’s a part of me that says, well, this has been going on for almost 20 years; how come we don’t know this? Why don’t we know these things? Shouldn’t we know these things? The fact that the Milwaukee Brewers charged the Wisconsin National Guard $49,000 to sing “God Bless America”—these are not organic displays of support of the military. This is a business opportunity. And I think as that collides with this heritage, what you find, especially with a contested and a very contentious election in 2016, now you have a president who’s involved who is taking protest and using it to challenge one’s citizenship, and one’s fitness to be an American, and one’s patriotism. All of these things are taking place in an arena where you’re supposed to go to get away from your problems. Sports was supposed to be the place where, OK, you were a Lakers fan, I’m a Celtics fan, and we’re going to battle it out for three hours, but at the end of the day, it really doesn’t matter. These concepts actually matter; these themes matter. And to the point where sports is now one of the most politicized, if not the most politicized, place of entertainment in America.
RS: Yeah, you know, you have really startling examples of that in your book. But I mean, one that people don’t even notice, you fly a B-2 bomber over a game, a stealth bomber, and it would degrade the very quality of the plane that made it stealthy. And so they would have to spend an enormous amount of money in a very short period of time to compensate for having flown over the game. And yet, our military budget paid for that.
HB: That’s right.
RS: And there’s a great deal of expenditure. So it becomes, you know, if you want the analogy, in any totalitarian society, the celebration of war. And you know, it was our first president, general turned president, George Washington, who in his farewell address warned the American people to beware the impostures of pretended patriotism.
HB: No question.
RS: And you have in your book the example of Pat Tillman, for instance. Somebody who was a, you know, Arizona Cardinals professional, walks away from, you know, a couple of million bucks in his contract. And with his brother Kevin, who was playing for, you know, the farm team of, I guess, St. Louis. And they joined the Rangers, and then his death, which was by friendly fire, is turned by the military into an occasion for whipping up war feeling. And that’s the context in which, then, some football players take a knee. Why? Because they say: your propaganda is basically concealing a lie about our country.
HB: Absolutely. And I think one of the things that had surprised me, Robert, about this the most, was when I brought this up to some people and we talked about these displays, and we talked about, well, this is a deception—this whole thing has been a deception in so many different ways. One of the responses that I got, and I put it in the book, is well, was well: maybe it is a deception, but because it’s for the troops, it’s a harmless deception. And I was thinking to myself, what is a harmless deception? And if this is an organic display, and if these are displays that should be respected, then why are we lying? Why would you have to conceal something that you would be proud of? And so there’s no question that where we are today, that there’s a battleground that’s not just the Red Sox and Yankees battling it out on the scoreboard. You’re also fighting on some level for, to use the old Iraq War phrase, the “hearts and minds of the people.” And you’re using sports as that place where we’re going to try and question people’s patriotism or solidify the patriotism of our citizens, when at the same time what’s also happening is you’re also getting pushback because of the disappointment in the fact, on the part of veterans. That was one of my favorite parts of the book, was actually talking to veterans themselves and asking them, how do you feel about this? This is why Chapter 7 is titled “Props.” They don’t want to be commodified. They don’t want to be used by billionaires to sell products and camouflage jerseys and alternate jerseys, and all of the different things that come with the selling of sports. But that’s what it’s become.
RS: [omission for station break] I want to get back to your point about patriotism, because that’s always been the gloss over things. You’re right, at one point sports was supposed to be a place where you could escape, go have a beer, get a hot dog, and so forth. But there’s always been this sort of macho thing, and our team, USA, USA. And yet sports were actually, throughout their history in this country, a disguise, a coverup of a harsh reality. I mean, you go in your book to the fact that there were the Negro leagues, and that sports were segregated, and the, you know, I mentioned that World Series in ‘46, the Cardinals were the southernmost team, and they were racist, and they let out a black cat from their dugout, and they mocked Jackie Robinson, and so forth. You know, then we had a different kind of black athlete who becomes—he’s not black. You know, Michael Jordan; O.J. Simpson is somebody you deal with quite a bit in your book. And they are—Tiger Woods. They are sanitized. What was the word that Tiger Woods uses to describe his identity?
HB: Cablinasian. That he was some composite of Asian, Caucasian and clack.
RS: Yeah. And that’s sort of the ideal. Or Michael Jordan; you don’t say anything offensive, you may give some money to charity on the side. And that is what makes LeBron James refreshing in your book. That he lets people know that there’s a there there. That he can feel anger. And–
HB: Well, absolutely. And not just anger, but advocacy. That you don’t have to be mad about it, but he is the first athlete—which is why I believe he’s so significant—who since the mid-70s, since Muhammad Ali, who really has attached his black identity to his public persona. He doesn’t run from it, he’s not afraid of it, he’s not ashamed of it, he’s not—he’s not trying to be “greenwashed” is a term that I use, which is to have money amputate your identity. He doesn’t do that, he takes his identity with him. And that provides a great deal of cover and pride for fellow athletes, and also for the kids looking up to him; that you don’t have to run from this part of you. You do have this amputation that takes place, where advocating for your own people, or something that is important to you, or a part of your identity, has suddenly become a negative in a sport where your blackness and your physicality is being profited from. Why is this such a bad thing? And it’s not just the players. It’s also baked into our language, when you have these conversations about race, and people will say to you–well, to me as an African American–oh, when I look at you, I don’t see color. Well, why not? Or are we moving toward a colorblind society? Well, why must it be colorblind? And obviously, there’s nuance within those words. But those are the words that we use, and each one of those words is essentially saying, “I don’t want you to be who you are. I can’t handle who you are.” At least, the country hasn’t been able to handle you being you; we need to find some other way to negotiate you. The players bought into this completely. I remember, there’s one anecdote I think in Chapter 5 or 6, they all sort of roll in together now, where Chris Webber was telling me about how when he was a rookie, the black veterans in the NBA told him not to have a black agent because of the message that it sent to white owners, that you were being militant. And he was like, well, I wasn’t being militant, I just want to give people jobs who I think deserve them, who may not have access to this industry, and are qualified to have access to this industry. So it just shows you how deep the racial elements go. And that is in a league that’s 80 percent black. So what could it possibly be like in baseball or in other parts of our country?
RS: What I think is particularly gutsy about this book, and getting into stuff that people don’t want to talk about, is examining this phenomenon of patriotism. And law and order, and the cops, and so forth; the display of authority. And you give these people their due. You talk about their bravery, you talk about, you know, the real damage to people in war, and the risks that firemen take and policemen take; you know, 9/11 and what have you. But you get at a kind of propaganda element here, which is don’t question authority. Don’t challenge it. That to my mind—and the last third of the book is really strong on that, what has happened to our culture. And the interesting thing is, going back to the figure of Muhammad Ali, you know, I remember—because I’m old enough to remember intimately—this guy was vilified.
HB: Yeah, he was hated. Very much so.
RS: You know, we should talk a little bit about that, because he actually was an incredibly courageous figure. And he turned out to be a, you know, a very smart, perceptive figure. But I remember at the time, they just wanted to vilify, destroy this guy.
HB: Yeah. Well, one of the areas that I think is really important when we talk about this sort of byproduct of 9/11 has been this notion of authority, and of patriotism, and the conflation of police and the military. One of the interesting responses I got from a column where I talked about, I think it was in 2014 or 2015 I had written a column about Memorial Day, and how I didn’t like the fact that the networks were showing images of the police on Memorial Day. And they were conflating all of these different images of authority, which is a byproduct of 9/11. Because let’s not forget, as much as we talk about the military, you had so many of those police officers and Port Authority run into those buildings, and it cost them their lives. And Fire, of course. And I received a letter from someone who said, how dare you criticize the police on Memorial Day. That’s a day where we honor the fallen. And I sent him a message back saying, dear sir, thank you for your good letter, but the police have nothing to do with Memorial Day. And that’s how far we’ve gone in terms of even understanding what these days are, because these symbols and these institutions have been conflated. One of the areas that had concerned me the most, in terms of authority, was after 9/11, the outpouring of T-shirts that said “NYPD” on them. And “FBI” and “CIA.” And these weren’t hipster, you know, punk kids being ironic, like they used to in the seventies, wearing the CCCP, USSR jerseys. These are people who are supporting the CIA and the FBI and the DEA. If you walk around New York or D.C., you see these being sold as souvenirs. And on the one hand you might look at that and say, well, it’s kind of harmless, or maybe it’s just respect for what happened on 9/11—these citizens are also your juries. So if you walk around treating the police like your favorite ball club, why would you convict an officer? They’re the good guys. They’re supposed to be the good guys. It makes it even more difficult to look at these authoritarian symbols and view any sort of wrongdoing.
RS: You know, this whole idea that somehow the sacrifice is always worth it, that they did the right thing–no. No. The government screwed up. First he went to Iraq, and he didn’t believe in that war, and it was a phony war, and it was a lie, and then he said–
HB: That’s right, Robert. And that goes to what you were saying about Ali, and I didn’t mean to lose track of that part of your question. Was, that’s the reason—to me, there are two reasons why we talk about Ali. And one of the hard things about Muhammad that is so difficult is that we criticized and vilified Colin Kaepernick for taking his knee in September of 2016–Muhammad Ali had just passed away less than two months before. Just before that, we were celebrating this man for his courage. And we made that disconnect. And part of the reason we made the disconnect that Ali could be a hero and Colin Kaepernick was a villain, was because Ali was harmless. One, he was dead; two, he hadn’t spoken, because of the Parkinson’s; he hadn’t been a dangerous figure to public life in 30 years. He had been rehabilitated. He had won his championship back, too, which is one of the reasons that separates him from this heritage of Smith and Carlos and Robinson and the rest of them, because a lot of those guys had been destroyed. And Ali was the one who got his title back; he actually won. And then the third part of that was that he was also, when you look at this country that was so tired coming out of the 1960s, and weary finishing with Watergate in Vietnam, that he was vindicated; he was right. And so why wouldn’t you celebrate him being right? And that’s one of the questions that people have said to me: are we going to do the same thing to Colin Kaepernick 15, 20 years from now? And I say, maybe, maybe not; but why can’t we do it now?
RS: Let’s take it back finally to Ferguson. Because that, for you in your book, “The Heritage,” is really a decisive moment. And I don’t want to put words in your mouth, but it seems to me what you’re saying is, you can be a famous black athlete making enormous amounts of money, but you can also be stopped by a cop. And you have, you have—
HB: Well, that’s right. Well, and Ferguson is important, because Ferguson was what activated the player. When you go back and look at this lineage, and you say OK—you go Smith, Carlos, 1968, they raised the black fist. And then all of a sudden you start to see this heritage begin to disappear as players began to make more money and people were tired going into the 1970s. And then you don’t see anything else for years—O.J., Michael, Tiger run the show; you know, Magic Johnson, Charles Barkley—none of these great players really got involved. And then all of a sudden they’re back. Ferguson is the moment. Obviously, Trayvon Martin two years earlier activated LeBron James and Dwyane Wade with the Miami Heat. But Ferguson, beginning in Ferguson, then Eric Garner, and Tamir Rice, Sandra Bland—and all of a sudden you had this tidal wave of shootings that were taking place, very high-profile and captured on video. That to me is the moment where the heritage was revived. And in a lot of ways, when you talk to the players, that was where they began to essentially repudiate the Michael Jordan attitude that ballplayers weren’t supposed to get involved, or that they shouldn’t get involved, or that because he didn’t get involved they shouldn’t either. Ferguson is that moment. So that is really, when I thought about conceptualizing this book, two things hit me that made me really think about it. One, 9/11, what was happening in 9/11, and two, the black athlete waking up after Ferguson.
RS: Let’s talk about O.J. Simpson. I happen to teach at the University of Southern California, where I wonder, what education did he get there? What was it, this role model? And in your book you spend quite a bit of time on that. And it was a role model, first of all, that for a young kid in the ghetto, if you get the right sneakers and you buy the product, you’re going to be O.J. And that’s a lie; you’re not. And you better, you know, find another way, and the schools better be improved, and jobs better be there. So that’s the first thing. And secondly, that you’re going to not pay a price for your previous history. And that the society is really going to welcome you, where in fact, in the case of O.J., there also was a lot of excitement that he fell from the pedestal.
HB: Well, absolutely right. And I think the point that I was trying to make there was, one, obviously, the player began making more money. And the players began to distance themselves from the general public. When Hank Aaron was playing, and Willie Mays and those guys were playing, their kids went to public schools. Jackie Robinson’s kid went to public school. That’s not the case when you’re making $25 million a year, it’s all very different. But the other thing that struck me was this entire notion of integration, and it’s one of the conversations that we talk about a little bit in Chapter 9. If the player is going to conclude at this late date that without sports they would be dead or in jail, then we have failed. We have failed miserably. And you sit and you listen to these players talk about this, that without their jump shot or without their 40-yard dash time they would be dead or in jail. And I just begin to ask the question, how people who went to the University of Kentucky or North Carolina or UCLA or USC, how you could be a byproduct of these schools and conclude that your margin is that thin. What does that say about where we are today? That it has been a failure, and that this athletic story that was once so heroic, maybe isn’t that heroic if the players are uneducated. And you’re starting to see this sort of–I don’t want to call it a surrender, but you’re seeing an alternate solution, which is now paying the players. It’s almost a surrender, in a way, or an acknowledgment that we are simply going to use you for your body; that the black brain is not going to overcome the value of the black body in this culture, so we might as well just give you the money too, in college.
RS: Your book gives a really wonderful sense of an ignored history. And I want to just get to two figures: Paul Robeson and Jackie Robinson. Paul Robeson, for many people who don’t know, first of all did get, have a great education at Rutgers. He had a real sense of the world, he traveled very widely in the world. He also was a very, you know, a great singer; he understood classical music and everything, he understood different cultures around the world. And he rejected a kind of an American-centric, white American-centric view of the world at a time when the American military was segregated. You know, it wasn’t just in the Deep South, and he experienced segregation. Jackie Robinson was another product of a good education at UCLA. And in your book, you describe how Jackie Robinson was used to try to destroy Paul Robeson. And then you develop a very complex view of Jackie Robinson, that he then later regrets that he was used, and he gets—he’s embittered by how he was used. And you provide, you know, I know there’s the movie and all that, but you provide actually a more sympathetic view of Jackie Robinson, and a more respectful view, I think, than I’ve seen in a long time.
HB: Well, there’s no question that McCarthyism destroyed Paul Robeson, not just in his time but also in the later retellings of who he was. If you view Paul Robeson only through the lens of the Cold War, you’ll never get the true Paul Robeson. And that has been the lens through which he’s been viewed. And in terms of Jackie, I give Jackie his credit for his growth; Jackie Robinson made a lot of mistakes. Jackie Robinson made a lot of missteps. But Jackie Robinson always stayed on the front lines in terms of being committed to what he thought was required for the liberation of his people, to push us forward. He was used by the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1949, when he was asked to denounce Paul Robeson. But during that testimony, he also recognized that he used that platform for something that didn’t get discussed that day in the newspapers, but is in the testimony. And that’s what I refer to as the beginning of this heritage, where he talks about just because a communist says police brutality is a problem doesn’t mean it’s not true. And lynchings, and poor education, and mistreatment by the culture. When he talks about these things, that’s the responsibility; that’s where the responsibility was born, in my opinion. Where Jackie was not going to be quiet. And after that he criticized the New York Yankees for not [being] integrated, and he went to the Deep South and took a young Curt Flood with him down to Alabama and Mississippi on tours during the Civil Rights Movement, to show just what was taking place in some of those, the violence with the voting rights campaigns and everything. And so what you have here is someone who remained committed. People have asked me this question: what does it take to be part of this heritage? Is a player who gets involved in criminal justice reform, like the Philadelphia Eagles have done—does that put them in this pantheon? And to me, the answer is no. To me, the answer is you have to, you have to be in the street. You have to literally be arm-in-arm and take risk and recognize that this is something that is required of you, is being asked of you. It’s not something that your shoe company can protect you from with a commercial. You have to do it yourself.
RS: The book is called “The Heritage: Black Athletes, a Divided America, and the Politics of Patriotism.” The author is Howard “Howie” Bryant. So thanks again for coming. That’s it for this edition of Scheer Intelligence. Our producers are Joshua Scheer and Rebecca Mooney. Our engineers here at KCRW are Kat Yore and Mario Diaz. And we had a good assist from New England Public Radio at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.
Your support matters…
Independent journalism is under threat and overshadowed by heavily funded mainstream media.
You can help level the playing field. Become a member.
Your tax-deductible contribution keeps us digging beneath the headlines to give you thought-provoking, investigative reporting and analysis that unearths what's really happening- without compromise.
Give today to support our courageous, independent journalists.