On Sport and Race: The Major Opportunity for the NFL, Recommended Reads

Sport and race. There is so much to say on this issue, one that really underscores how context drives the meaning of sports: the sports world has often been a leader in the fight for racial equality, while almost as often providing reminders of the racial work that remains for us to do as a society. At times of great reckoning, my instinct is to listen, learn, and absorb, to consider how I can better serve my students, my community, and the world around me. Thus, for now, I’ll limit my thoughts on the matter, focusing on a critical juncture for our most powerful league. Some books that have shaped my understanding of the intersection of race and sport follow in the second part of this post.

The Opportunity for the NFL

Moments of great unrest bring with them the potential for great change. The NFL, arguably the business (sport or otherwise) with most visible black labor force is now presented with a major opportunity to counter years of racial baggage and emerge as a leader in the national conversation on race. To the league’s credit, they were already focused on the issue in the week’s before George Floyd’s death, working on revisions to the Rooney Rule that would produce greater equity in high-level hiring. But the world is radically different now. Axios has a nice chronicle of how a group of NFL players took to social media, essentially forcing commissioner Roger Goodell to confront racial issues that have long been brewing within the league. The specter of Colin Kaepernick looms large.

Simply put, the league is at a crossroads. The commissioner and owners can follow their previous path, bide their time, claim apolitical neutrality, and hope that things mellow out in time. Or, they can do the right thing, and support their athletes’ right to free expression and a powerful platform for advancing meaningful conversations. Where almost every company has put out some platitudinal statement of equitable values, the NFL has the visibility and reach to be an actual force for necessary conversations and social change. And they should lean in to the opportunity. Is there some market risk? Of course there is: some older fans, mostly white, will be turned off. But is there not also market opportunity to emerge as a progressive league, one more in sync with the worldview of younger fans? I think yes. Plus, let’s not ignore the simple fact that the American appetite for football remains insatiable. The XFL experiment proved that fans will tune in to an inferior football product. No amount of political activism from players will change the fact that NFL product is the pinnacle of the game. There will be still be fans and there will still be plenty of dollars to go around.

There’s another layer to this, in the ongoing health risks absorbed 100% by those who play the game. While the league has not appeared to suffer much given all that we now know about the connections between football chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), that doesn’t mean it is not legitimate health concern. And, as the pandemic has shown, our minority communities remain disproportionally affected by public health crises. Thus, given the racial makeup of the league, the reality is that football related CTE will be another long-term health issue that hits harder along racial lines. This will only be exacerbated as current trends continue, with young white athletes opting for other sports.

As a society, we seem to have deferred to the principle of adult agency and liberty when it comes to the risks of playing professional football: the burden is on the players to accept the incumbent financial and health related tradeoffs. But if we defer to agency to justify risk to the brain, do we not need to uphold the same agency when it comes to a free mind? I think we must.

Finally, there’s a much simpler take on all of this: the NFL has the rare opportunity to be on the right side of history. This is first and goal from the one-yard line, against an exhausted defense. Just punch it in.

Recommend Books on Race and Sport

There is a massive literature on this subject. What follows are some of my favorite books on race and sport, in no particular order, with minimal comment. Most offer a historical perspective, which remains invaluable in understanding our current moment.

The seminal text, one that still holds up after five decades, is professor Harry Edwards’ The Revolt of the Black Athlete

Two by Louis Moore, professor of history at Grand Valley State University: We Will Win the Day: The Civil Rights Movement, the Black Athlete, and the Quest for Equality and I Fight for a Living: Boxing and the Battle for Black Manhood, 1880-1915

Journalist Howard Bryant is great voice on the issue and he has written much on the subject. Two to start with: Full Dissidence: Notes from an Uneven Playing Field and The Heritage: Black Athletes, a Divided America, and the Politics of Patriotism 

Another great take on the black athlete, is William C. Rhoden’s Forty Million Dollar Slaves: The Rise, Fall, and Redemption of the Black Athlete

Of course, matters of race and sport don’t end with the plight of African-Americans. Asians and Asian-Americans are often sidelined in sport conversations, so Sayuri Guthrie-Shimizu’s Transpacific Field of Dreams: How Baseball Linked the United States and Japan in Peace and War is a valuable corrective. Sticking with baseball, I’m proud to call professor Samuel Regalado a friend and mentor, and his work on minorities in baseball is some of the best. VIVA BASEBALL!: Latin Major Leaguers and Their Special Hunger is a great one, as is his Nikkei Baseball: Japanese American Players from Immigration and Internment to the Major Leagues

Finally, I’ll once again endorse Eric Nusbaum’s Stealing Home: Los Angeles, the Dodgers, and the Lives Caught in Between and Asher Price’s Earl Campbell: Yards after Contact as essential reads. I wrote about both at some length in an earlier blog.

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