All Articles Tagged "politics and athletes"
by Mark Anthony Neal
Like many Americans, professional football player Rashard Mendenhall was moved by the announcement that Osama bin Laden had been killed by US military personnel. Yet what moved Mendenhall to speak out in the hours after the announcement was his disgust with the celebratory antics of folk who gathered across from the White House and at Ground Zero in New York City. On his Twitter feed Mendenhall wrote “What kind of person celebrates death? It’s amazing how people can HATE a man they have never even heard speak. We’ve only heard one side…” Mendenhall, who plays for the Pittsburgh Steelers, also expressed some concern that many who were celebrating in the streets didn’t really know the full story.
Reaction to Mendenhall’s comments was swift, most notably by Steelers team president Art Rooney II, who quickly distanced the team from Mendenhall’s comments. “The entire Steelers organization is very proud of the job our military personnel have done and we can only hope this leads to our troops coming home soon,” he announced. And just recently, Mendenhall was dropped as a spokesman for the sports apparel company Champion.
On Sports talk radio—never a bastion of thoughtful commentary—the reactions were to be expected: athletes should keep their opinions about anything other than the game, to themselves. As Thabiti Lewis observes in his book Ballers of the New School: Race and Sports in America, sports are intended to “divert us from conversations of political, economic, or social criticisms and analysis, while cultivating jingoists—intense patriots.” Yet, underlying even those nominal responses is the belief that Black athletes, in particular, should shut-up and, to quote rapper and activist Jasiri X, “just run the ball boy.”
Mendenhall, of course, has every right to express his opinion. His willingness to offer such commentary, however it’s perceived, is laudable in an era when many athletes are too concerned with alienating advertisers and damaging their own brands, to speak out on anything that might be viewed as controversial. This creates a context in which Black professional athletes, save a few examples, are generally silent on issues of concern to Black communities. Instructive was the negative response to Minnesota Vikings running back Adrian Peterson, who suggested earlier this year that the labor dispute in his sport was like “modern day slavery,” as if the idea that professional athletes were treated like chattel was some sort of radical concept.
Historically, Black professional athletes have often faced challenges with regards to speaking out, if only because there had been clear limits on how outspoken Black people could be in general, well into the 20th Century. Yet the very idea of the Black athlete-as-activist was born in the early 20th century, literally at the same moment that the concept of the Black athlete was invented from “the repertoire of colonial fantasies about Blackness” as sociologist Ben Carrington writes in his book Race, Sport and Politics: The Sporting Black Diaspora.
Heavyweight boxer Jack Johnson never considered himself a political figure, but there was arguably, nothing more political for a Black athlete in the first decade of the 1900s than pummeling White men for a living. More to the point, Johnson rarely held his tongue, often conscious of how scurrilous his comments were, while also flaunting his desire for White women.