By Aaron Leibowitz
Jeff Curry/USA Today Sports via Reuters
As a sports fan and a journalist, perhaps the most important thing I did this week was to watch the video, on loop, of five St. Louis Rams football players performing the “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot” gesture as they walked onto the field last Sunday. I watched it over and over again, each time trying to remind myself of a fundamental truth: those five men are human beings. Football players, black Americans, and human beings.
With their act, those men — Stedman Bailey, Tavon Austin, Jared Cook, Chris Givens and Kenny Britt — joined a national movement demanding justice for Mike Brown, Eric Garner and hundreds of other black people slain by police in the United States. They dared to suggest that black lives matter, something you might not ascertain from observing the actions of law enforcement in recent weeks, or from flipping through an American history textbook.
They also reminded us that athletes are people, too.
As many Americans awaken to the realities of state-sanctioned violence committed against black people, now is as good a time as any to examine not only how police officers and prosecutors devalue black life, but also how citizens, consumers and fans can devalue the lives of black entertainers, from musicians to artists to athletes. When we are taught to see black people as less than human, and when we are trained to view entertainers as being there for our entertainment and nothing more, then any display of humanity from a black entertainer simply does not compute.
That’s why, in response to the Rams’ pre-game gesture, the impulse of many media pundits — and of the St. Louis Police Officers Association — was to condemn the act and tell the Rams to just “shut up and play.” It’s the same reason John Carlos and Tommie Smith faced massive, career-altering backlash for raising their fists at the 1968 Olympics; the same reason people get so offended every time Richard Sherman opens his mouth. Black athletes are asking to be seen as more than entertainers or corporate cogs. That makes people uncomfortable.
Thanks to thousands of protestors pouring into the streets from coast to coast, the public conversation will now turn toward changing a system that fails to indict, let alone convict, cops who kill unarmed black people. But those of us with our eyes, hearts and pocketbooks invested in the sports world should also seize this moment to have conversations about the same root question — do black lives matter? — as it relates to sports. Can we continue to consume March Madness without telling the NCAA to stop leeching off the unpaid labor of disproportionately black athletes? Can we watch the NFL each Sunday without challenging the integrity of a league that has deliberately concealed the game’s long-term injury risks? Can we accept the maniacal attempts of the NBA to ban “hip-hop culture” in an effort to appeal to whiter audiences?
The answers depend on whether we view entertainers as full human beings. For black athletes, that basic humanity can be stripped away by fans and media who employ the language of centuries-old racist stereotypes. As sociologist Ben Carrington writes: “The sports media in particular have played a central role in biologising black performance via their constant use of animalistic similes to describe black athletes. Black athletes — female and male — are invariably described as being strong, powerful and quick but with unpredictable and ‘wild’ moments when they supposedly lack the cognitive capabilities — unlike their white peers — to have ‘composure’ at critical moments.”
Terry Bradshaw once described Reggie Bush as “chasing a bucket of chicken.” Gus Johnson said Chris Johnson displayed “getting-away-from-the-cops speed.” When sprinter Michael Johnson broke the 400-meter world record at the 1996 Olympics, commentator David Coleman proclaimed: “This man is surely not human!”
The line between admiration and fear is razor thin. The grand jury testimony of Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson serves as a tragic case in point. “It looks like a demon, that’s how angry he looked,” Wilson said of Mike Brown. “He was almost bulking up to run through the shots. … The face that he had was looking straight through me, like I wasn’t even there, I wasn’t even anything in his way.”
If I didn’t know better, I’d say Wilson was describing a running back.
“Consumers can now enjoy the spectacle of blackness 24-7, in a way which is no longer threatening by its mere presence,” Carrington writes. “Yet the material and ideological effects of racial inequality, discrimination and violence continue to brutally manifest themselves … The binary structure of contemporary stereotypes means that the black body becomes either sub-human or super-human. Never just common, never ordinary, never defined by its unspectacular humanity.”
On Sunday, by raising their hands in the air, Bailey, Austin, Cook, Givens and Britt put their unspectacular humanity on global display.