The Heritage: Black Athletes, A Divided America, and the Politics of Patriotism, Howard Bryant. Boston: Beacon Press, 2018.
Summary: An account of black athletes in professional sports, from the path-breakers whose very presence was political, to the athletes of the ’70’s onward whose success tempted them to just play the game, to the recent clash of patriotism and protest that has led to a new generation of athlete-activists.
When Colin Kaepernick took a knee during the national anthem to protest of the numbers of blacks dying in police-involved shooting, his act was the latest of a long line of black athletes whose presence, and whose advocacy asserted that they were far more than mere bodies, employed for the pleasure of largely white audiences and the profit of white team owners. When Kaepernick could not get another position when his contract expired, he joined “the Heritage”–a long line of black athlete activists who could not settle for simply “playing the game” in the face of the injustices faced by his people, and often suffered the consequences from acting as people with voices and minds, and not merely bodies to be employed for sport.
Howard Bryant, a senior writer for ESPN, chronicles this history in The Heritage. He traces the beginnings of the Heritage in the lives of Paul Robeson, Jesse Owens (who went from US Olympic glory in Hitler’s Germany to poverty and bankruptcy), Jackie Robinson who broke the color barrier in baseball, Jim Brown, Muhammad Ali who lost three years in the ring for his refusal to be drafted on religious principle, the 1968 raised fist protests of Tommie Smith and John Carlos, and Curt Flood, whose refusal to accept a trade led to free agency, but also resulted in his being blackballed from baseball.
Things changed in the 1970’s in what Bryant calls the “greenwashing” of professional athletes. Beginning with stars like O.J. Simpson, who received huge contracts and endorsement deals, a new generation of black athlete came on the scene who “just played the game” and took the money. Perhaps they invested it quietly in causes that uplifted the communities in which they played, or grew up. Bryant focuses on three as representative of this period: Simpson, Michael Jordan, and Tiger Woods, who in an interview described himself as “Cablinasian.”
In sports as so much of American life, everything changed on 9/11. The citizenship rite of the national anthem was replaced by elaborate patriotic displays: singing police officers, fly-overs and veterans salutes, huge flags on the fifty yard lines. First responders and those in the armed services became heroes who were recognized in some form at every game. A kind of undifferentiated hero worship failed to grapple with a more nuanced reality of some real heroes, many decent, hard-working people, and some bad apples–just like in most of society. Bryant also cites evidence that this was staged by the military, rather than being simply an honest, spontaneous gesture of sports team. Teams profited by tax money spent for these displays, which were seen as good recruiting tools. An American public indulged these displays, perhaps guilty over treatment of returning Vietnam vets and the fact that most of us were at the mall while a small percent were fighting our wars in far off places.
Bryant argues that this set up the clash between black athletes protesting injustices in policing, and a wider American public. What began as an effort to call attention to ways a country wasn’t living up to the values represented by the flag clashed with the patriotism displays that had become commonplace in the nearly twenty years since 9/11. Some efforts were effectual. When players at the University of Missouri threatened to refuse to play because of issues of systemic racism, a university president was ousted. LeBron James could wear “I can’t breathe” jerseys with impunity, being at the top of his game and flush with endorsement deals. But a quarterback at the end of his contract was blackballed because he took a knee, a respectful symbol of praying usually reserved for locker rooms or end zones and his action was characterized as unpatriotic and an insult to soldiers. People who wanted Kaepernick to just play the game failed to observe that the game itself had been co-opted for political purposes in an unqualified endorsement of both police and military (and unspoken in all this were the ongoing wars in which the military was engaged).
This is an uncomfortable book perhaps most of all because it raises the issue that black athletes’ value continues to be their bodies, and that while they may be rewarded well when they excel in physical feats, the powers that be will continue the attempt to silence them when they use their voices and minds to speak for those who do not share their fame and expose the ways as a nation we fail to live up to our principles.
It also raises the issue of the ways we’ve changed as a country since 9/11. A simple citizenship rite at the beginning of a game has become wrapped in a celebration of both safety and military forces, and the use of their power to keep a fearful nation safe. Instead of celebrating the shared liberties of an empowered people, we’ve come to celebrate the power of the state. We’ve traded “peanuts and cracker jacks” for “shock and awe.”
I suspect I’ve probably made some people mad simply because I reviewed this book and haven’t done the white thing of pushing back with all that is wrong with it. I guess I’ve come to a place where I want to understand why a talented quarterback chooses to throw it all away by a simple gesture (actually unnoticed for several games) that for the life of me looks like prayer. I find myself wondering why such a humble gesture is so threatening that despite the fact that no law was broken, a combination of media, public opinion and even presidential power was brought to bear to suppress it. I find myself wondering what this gesture threatens. I wonder…
Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher via LibraryThing’s Early Reviewers Program in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.