The Heritage Explores Black Athletes, Activism, Money, and Fake Patriotism

The Heritage: Black Athletes, A Divided America, and the Politics of Patriotism
By Howard Bryant (2018)
Beacon Press, 238 pages +index, etc. 

Once upon a time, black athletes were acutely aware of the "Heritage." That is, they recognized that sports were inseparable from the quest for racial equality and social justice. ESPN analyst Howard Bryant sees Paul Robeson as the "original conscience and soul" of the Heritage, and Jackie Robinson as "its godfather" (39). Bryant capitalizes Heritage throughout his book to call attention to how black athletes after Robinson saw themselves as his (metaphorical) sons and daughters.

Earlier figures such as Jesse Owens and Joe Louis certainly brought pride to the black community, but they were also co-opted. Owens exploded the myth of Aryan superiority with his feet and Louis with his fists, but both were used as symbols of the "Good American" (33) in the war against fascism. Never mind that American society was nearly as racially closed as Hitler's Germany.

Robinson was different. He (re) integrated* Major League Baseball in 1947, but at a great personal cost. The title of his autobiography says it all: I Never Had it Made. Singularity is a heavier burden than honor; everywhere he went Robinson faced bigotry, discrimination, and hatred. When he signed with Brooklyn Dodgers, General Manager Branch Rickey advised Robinson to have the courage "not to fight back." Or so hagiographies report. Robinson was a proud man who eventually earned the right to strike back. That too was a burden. New York Post sportswriter Jimmy Cannon once dubbed Robinson, "the loneliest man I've ever seen."

Activism was a key component of the Heritage—as was the fallout that came with it. Robinson died at just 53, but he looked decades older. Nonetheless, by the 1960s numerous black sports heroes embraced the Heritage and paid the tab: Bill Russell, Muhammad Ali, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Jim Brown, Curt Flood, Bob Gibson, John Carlos, Tommie Smith…. Some did well despite their activism; others (Flood, Carlos, Smith) did not. Each left a lot of money on the table because they refused to ignore race prejudice and felt it their duty to uphold the Heritage.

So how did we get to the point where quarterback Colin Kaepernick can't get a job in the National Football League because he knelt during the National Anthem? How did he become the household name, not those for whom he kneeled—Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Freddie Gray, Trayvon Martin, Tamir Rice, Alton Sterling…? Why does the NFL uphold the rants of racist owners such as Jerry Jones and threaten to make another Kaepernick of future kneelers? Bryant bluntly asserts that it's because black bodies only matter on the playing field.

He doesn't stop there. In passages certain to ruffle feathers, Bryant also blames money and the militarization of American society. His cast of villains will surprise: O.J. Simpson, Michael Jordan, and Tiger Woods. Although he understands the allure of big money, he sees those three as having undermined the Heritage. Whereas Owens and Louis became (literal) posters for the Good American, Simpson, Jordan, and Woods became corporate shills. Bryant doesn't invoke this example, but those who've seen Spike Lee's Do the Right Thing (1989) will recall a scene in which Pino (John Turturro), an Italian American, launches N-bombs in front of his erstwhile black friend Mookie (Lee). An incredulous Mookie asks him how he can do that when his favorite player, Michael Jordan, is black. Pino responds that he doesn't see Jordan as a [expletive]. Exactly! That's the problem, as Bryant sees it. Jordan was part of a generation of black athletes who made millions by not being black. The Good American gave way to a green-washed myth of a post-racial society. Woods went so far as to call himself a multiethnic "Cablinasian" (39-41).

Would that it were true. Bryant is (mildly) sympathetic to how hard it would be for any young black athlete to turn away from the millions that come their way by setting aside politics. He's crystal clear, though, of what that entails: repudiating the Heritage. But Bryant isn't letting anyone off the hook. It would be comforting for white society to construct a narrative in which black people sold out their own. Whites have been doing that for years to absolve any responsibility for black poverty, drug-infested neighborhoods, or the existence of gangs.

If you think The Heritage is just another sports book, think again. Howard Bryant is also a keen observer of American history and sociology. What happened to the Heritage is only partly explained by greenbacks. Bryant places the decline of the Heritage within a broader context of what happened to protest across American society. It has been on the wane since Ronald Reagan's beat-down of labor unions and feminism. What began in the 1980s went into hyper drive after 9/11. Look at what happened to the Dixie Chicks in 2003, when singer Natalie Maines expressed displeasure with George W. Bush. To dissent in a nation founded by revolutionaries has become, paradoxically, un-American.

Bryant calls attention to the "collision" (ix) that occurred between sports and the military—one that wrestles over the question of "who's the patriot" (203)? If you think all the military pageantry you see in sports venues is heartfelt and spontaneous, you are na├»ve; it's as orchestrated as a symphony and as fake as a World Wrestling Federation match. Don't be fooled by the Roger Goodells of the sports world. Every time you see a flyover, a vet singing "God Bless America," or some tearful reunion between veterans and their families, the U.S. Armed Forces paid for these to be staged. You read that right; owners of pro sports teams cash Department of Defense checks funded by your tax dollars for scripted melodrama. The military sees these things as recruitment tools for an all-volunteer military that's having trouble filling out its ranks. Jerry Jones' outrage isn't that of the wounded patriot; it's the complaint of a man whose cash cow is in the slaughter line.

In many ways, Howard Bryant's book is the sports version of what Noam Chomsky and Edward S. Herman called "manufacturing consent." His remarks will anger sunshine patriots, but their outrage would be better directed at the hokum, not kneeling players.

You'd better get used to the latter. Not all sports are on board with NFL-style authoritarianism. The National Basketball League has begun to embrace black activism—as well a sport in which 75 percent of the players are black should. LeBron James is part of a new generation that wants to reclaim the Heritage, and he's taking his activism to the big stage of Los Angeles. Or did you think he went to the Lakers because he was dying to have Lonzo Ball as a teammate?

Of the Heritage, Bryant writes, "It is a responsibility the black player will carry until America values the black brain over the black body, and the black people, like all others, rise through education and not touchdowns. Then sports for black people can finally be reduced to what it should have always been in the first place—just a game" (238).    

Rob Weir

*Jackie Robinson was not the first black player in the Major Leagues. The American Association, then a professional league on par with the National League, had black players until 1887. It was pressured to ban them by the National League.

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