Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Cousin Kamal and Ridin' with Jim Brown

Just last week I got into one of my now ritual "discussions" with Cousin Kamal about the civic responsibility of Black athletes, namely Michael Jordan and Tiger Woods.  So imagine my sense of irony when I found out during my daily viewing of Pardon the Interruption (PTI) that legendary running back and community activist, Jim Brown, has again called out an athlete (first major target was Michael Jordan) for not going all out to be agents for social change.  This has been a war cry of Jim Brown's for a long time, and everytime he takes aim, the pot gets stirred.  Given my current position, and the argument I had just had with Cousin Kamal, I was particularly interested in the insights of  folks whom I respect.  With my new thinking space now functioning, I couldn't wait to get home and take a big swing at this pinata.

To lay the background, Cousin Kamal went so far as to say that when folks like Tiger, MJ and any other ridiculously rich and powerful athlete do not actively involve themselves in the improvement of the lives of the underprivileged, then they are less BLACK.  We disagreed on that, and I'll get into that later.  First let me address the main reasons I'm ridin' with Jim Brown on this issue everytime.

Athletics is one  of the few areas where Blacks, particularly men, have been able to access an opportunity structure where they can reap handsome financial rewards for their physical gifts.  Those with a sense of history would point out that this system is no different than the chattle slavery of 400 years ago, except that the wage is higher.  While athletes get paid well compared to your local garbage man, it pales in comparison to the team owner who rakes in revenue from numerous streams off of the labor of his "laborers".  Many athletes do not have great motivation to rock the boat because they have the financial resources  to purchase all the material symbols of privilege of which  they were often deprived growing up.  Meanwhile it is the rare athlete who seeks to use his good fortune to create meaningful change for his community like David Robinson (built a school), Dikembe Mutombo (built a hospital), and Derrick Coleman (purchased a strip mall in financially stricken Detroit).  Listening to today's banter on the sports talk radio shows that I frequent, it just seemed that many were missing the point of what Jim Brown was really trying to say, and when I heard him speak on a local radio show this evening, I was even more convinced that his message is not sinking in properly.

I got particularly heated during the verbal backlash against Jim Brown when Keyshawn Johnson, former NFLer, and by all accounts a socially active person in his South LA community, kept ranting "What are they (Tiger & MJ) supposed to do?" referring to the notion that because of Tiger's foundational work and Michael Jordan's charitable work, that they have done enough.  Gone are the days when an athlete could take a political stand like Brown, Bill Russell, and Muhammad Ali did during the 1960s.  The other part that struck me was that Keyshawn kept giving Tiger a pass on being able to affect social change because he grew up in the OC (Orange County, CA).   So since I didn't have time to call into the show and wait forever to get cut off after a minute, I'll give two examples of the type of social change Jim Brown is calling out athletes for not pursuing.

It is known that when Tiger is in a tournament and near the top of the leaderboard on Sunday, the ratings are much higher than when he is out of contention or not even competing.  Tournaments where Tiger is playing do much better financially than the ones where he doesn't so he literally has the ability to make or break an event by his mere entry.  One PGA tour event founder, Jack Vickers, indirectly blamed Tiger for the extinction of his event in Denver because he hadn't played it in years.  Another, speculated that giving proceeds from tournaments to Tiger's foundation is the only way to get him to certain events.  So if event creators know this, and Tiger is already using his drawing power to support his foundation, then why not take it a step further and ensure that the places where he does play are clubs that have a have a half decent membership policy and track record when it comes to minorities and women?  For years the great tennis legend, Arthur Ashe, railed against South Africa being part of the Davis Cup competition because of it's Apartheid practices.  He did not singly crumble the institution, but he brought awareness to the plight of Black South Africans struggling for equality in their country.  Instead of just hosting clinics at clubs, Tiger could be making sure that policies change at each country club green he sets foot on.  Keyshawn rhetorically asked today, "What do you want him to do, buy up a whole block of homes?" YES, that would be a start.  Buy a whole development in Long Beach, or the OC, or wherever and stipulate that the housing be affordable for minority homeowners in the same way that Warrick Dunn has done for single mothers in Florida.  So does Tiger have to walk the streets of South Central and facilitate gang truces like Jim Brown?  No, but he can go beyond, charity, which is a form of civic engagement that allows him to continue to craft a safe, marketable image, and take the types of stances that will ensure that those he is helping with scholarship dollars will not only go to college, but thrive.

Long ago (1992), Brown first called out Jordan for his aloof response to the report that sweatshop labor was being used to create his Jordan brand sneakers, which are never priced below $100.  Had Jordan ever sought to make a change in the world (which he said he couldn't), this is one possible way:  Following his retirement and increased involvement with the Jordan brand, he could have actually taken the trip to Asia to see what the labor conditions were actually like, and reported back, that would have been a story in and of itself, but what would have been transcendent would have been to demand that the manufacturing of his personal brand be based in the US, perhaps Chicago, or some other midwest city that depended on manufacturing jobs, which continue to be outsourced overseas.  This would have brought jobs and commerce back to the States and would have turned the business on it's ear.  Institutional change is what Jim Brown is talking about, not just status quo living.  I refuse to believe that both Tiger and MJ are ignorant of racism and the way it prevents minorities from gaining access to quality education, jobs, living spaces and health care.  They can do better, and if Jim Brown wants to call them out until they finally get it, I have not problem with that.  Don't try to discredit him with talk of his past legal troubles, and don't say that athletes in the position of Michael and Tiger don't have to do better than what they're already doing because they should.  Watch Black Magic and see what players had to go through to gain equal footing in the pro basketball leagues, and then read up on Charlie Sifford, the first black member of the PGA, to understand how there's even the possibility of a Tiger Woods.

One last thing that got misconstrued and I heard clarified today is the notion of Tiger Woods' blackness.  We know that Tiger famously identifies himself as "Cablanasian", and that was a sore spot for Cousin Kamal because he took the position that Tiger is saying he's not black, which isn't the case.  He's identifying himself based on all of the ethnic heritage he draws from his parents (Chinese, Thai, African American, Native American, Dutch).  I have no problem with him supporting all of these groups, and it does not make him less Black.  The African diaspora is rich with ethnic blends, and we have to move past grading each other on some "Blackness" scale that we didn't even create.  I will say, that Tiger must realize, that many see him as a Black man, so he should be less reticent to discuss his ethnic heritage.  It could go a long way to helping people move past singular notions of color in the same way that President Obama identifies himself as a Black man, but is quick to note the ethnic history in his family, particularly his White grandmother, the late Ann Dunham.  I'll stop there for now because I know that this will keep coming up as long as Jim Brown is still breathing and athletes are content to have their civic engagement come in the form of a tax write off donation instead of trying to change institutions that adversely affect their communities.

Reaching Lap 16...

As an age group swimmer, I often had to swim the 500 yard freestyle.  I wasn't quick at all, and I was skinny, so I had to swim the distance events.  Initially, I hated this as distance events are way less glamorous than the sprint events, but the harder I trained, the better I got, and eventually I started to embrace the 
20-lap race as my "event" and the training that went with it.  Whenever I would swim the 500, I would take it out hard and get to the front as that was the mantra of my coach.  Around lap ten the lactic acid pain would set in, and I'd have to face the mental challenge of having ten more laps to go.  Once I got to lap 16, however, no matter how bad I was feeling, I could always pick up the pace and finish the race strong as Lap 16 was the point at which I could see the end.  The Lap Sixteen mindset has stayed with me long after I competed in my last 500 freestyle. 

Three years ago, I started another kind of distance event: A Ph.D. in Urban Education at UCLA.  In the same way that my physical attributes led me to the distance events in the pool, my mental attributes have led me to education.  As of the writing of this post, I'm about to submit my dissertation proposal, which to me has become the Lap 16 marker.  I can not only see the finish line, but I can feel it.  I went to UCLA's graduation to see a few friends get their hoods, and I welled up just watching.  so now it's time to pick up the pace and finish.  The creation of this blog is part of that process.

For the last three years, I've sat in classrooms learning new theories, gone to conferences and digested lectures, and have still managed to hang on to a wife, raise a son and coach a swim team.  This blog will be my space to explore where all of that information intersects, understand what it means to me and ultimately the children I want to serve when my Ph.D is done.  One day it might be the merits of public schools, another it might be asking how our most privileged can better serve the poor.  I hope you visit often and enjoy the race to the finish of my Ph.D program and beyond.