Changing the Guard
A discussion of race and the African-American athlete.
Track-and-field legend Michael Johnson is widely regarded as one of the greatest long-distance sprinters of all time. His myriad of achievements include four Olympic gold medals and numerous world records en route to his current legendary status. Now retired, Johnson has taken the analyst’s chair and recently offered these comments to the Daily Mail in the UK, where he will be covering the 30th Olympiad for the BBC:
“All my life I believed I became an athlete through my own determination, but it’s impossible to think that being descended from slaves hasn’t left an imprint through the generations. Difficult as it was to hear, slavery has benefited descendants like me—I believe there is a superior athletic gene in us.”
In a word: Whoa.
Michael Johnson has—hopefully—opened the Pandora’s box that houses our perplexed ideologies on the role of race in sports. Judging by the outcry of befuddlement and over-rationalizing by public responders and sports pundits, Johnson has pinched a nerve in the sports-industrial complex. When considering the sport of basketball, especially as our Olympians prepare to take flight, perhaps MJ is spot on in his belief of black athletic superiority.
Genetics are out of this discussion for me, because there is only one race. All humans are created equally and differences have emerged due to divergent life experiences. Such that, there is no question that centuries of enslavement have negatively impacted the lives of every member of the African diaspora (all peoples of African descent throughout the world).
Within the United States, people of African descent have always started the game in the fourth quarter, down 40. At one point, we were officially quantified within this nation’s law of as three-fifths of a human being. That this same segment of sub-humans have soared to dominate the game of basketball and thereby risen within the society is a profound achievement. That the United States now depends on these black men to defend the its honor in elite international competition is stunning and laughable dramatic irony.
All of the players on the 2008 “Redeem Team” have been affected by slavery and colonialism. This is no broad swath; each member bears some modicum of African descent. Barring any last-minute changes, Kevin Love will be the lone white athlete on the 2012 USA Men’s Senior National Team. The United States is still shining its gold off the strength and prowess of (mostly) black labor.
America is not our native land, and the black presence here is directly related to the unnatural horrors of the trans-Atlantic slave trade. Maintaining this ownership paradigm, the public will slather black athletes with adulation when they are performing up to snuff, relating to the player on the basis of his talent and success. This vicarious living is dangerous because the tides turn ruthlessly when an athlete deviates from what is expected of him—ask LeBron, circa July 2010.
Today’s athletes are commodities, bought, sold and owned by a bevy of external entities. Professional teams, corporate endorsers, mass-media systems and the general public all hold stakes in the athletic labor force. But players are progressively understanding their own worth and establishing their power.
Keep watching the curious case of Dwight Howard, who, if Johnson is right, certainly possesses the most superior athletic gene. Howard has been working tirelessly to exercise his power to flee Orlando to no avail as of yet; within his predicament, we can understand the concept of confinement that NBA players must deal with on a daily basis.
Certainly there are much worse predicaments to be confined to than an NBA contract for beaucoup millions of dollars. The men who have found success in this League are those who have fully committed themselves to the task of basketball, for every day of their life. As their fame and success increases, as does scrutiny, pressure, expectations, demands and discomfort. More money, more problems. We forget too easily that the athletes we admire or excoriate through the television and message boards are actually human beings, regardless of whether or not their athletic genes are superior.
Johnson’s comments will either further the polarization on race relations within the sports world or open up a very necessary, albeit uncomfortable, dialogue on race and sport. I want to move forward, away from racial discussions, but there are obvious, inextricable truths within professional sports that we must grapple with. In what should be an athletic meritocracy, there will always be a stench of oppression until there are more owners, executives, managers, journalists, commentators and power brokers of color.
That marathon is the only race worth mentioning.
Christian Wise is a member of the Black Market Collective, an urban think tank for social change. Their educational non-profit, Sneakers for Success, will begin its first full-scale program at the High School of Sports Management in Brooklyn this fall.