Athletic Activism: On Howard Bryant’s The Heritage

The 2018 NFL season has just begun, and Howard Bryant’s latest book, The Heritage: Black Athletes, A Divided America, and the Politics of Patriotism, could not be more timely. Bryant addresses today’s controversy head on: in light of the criticism football players have received for kneeling during the national anthem before football games, Bryant, staff writer for ESPN Magazine, has done a great service in illuminating all aspects of this complicated topic. He explores the reasons athletes are taking a knee, and shares the long history of black athletes protesting in the sports world. Bryant defines this as the “Heritage”: a peaceful, symbolic response to racism and mistreatment of members of the black community by the police. Not only, Bryant asserts, does the athlete speak out about societal injustice — he also feels a responsibility to pave the way for new members, and help them become acclimated to an environment that merely tolerates their presence. Bryant further suggests that Paul Robeson (who played in the NFL in 1921, before the league barred black players between 1933-1946) and Jackie Robinson are the two men who began the Heritage, as they spoke out against inequities in black America. The author provides a comprehensive walk through American history, filtered through the lens of sports. History lovers will delight in the care with which Heritage details the events leading up to today’s impasse between players who speak out against injustice and those who prefer that they remain silent and “play the game.”

Bryant begins the book by insightfully depicting a snapshot of the issue from one segment of the fan base: the notion that the athletes should “stick to sports.” He asserts that “the typical American sports fan” feels like the “good guy,” and only sees things from his own perspective. According to these fans, there “is no other side.” Moreover, Bryant elucidates fans’ resentment toward the black players who speak out against racism and oppression in America. “To [those fans], politics is irrelevant, or so they think. They don’t care about Greenpeace or black lives mattering, or the teach-ins for the youth Kaepernick donates his money to.” Clearly, Bryant’s “typical American sports fan” also has no interest in “athlete activism.” According to Bryant, society values the black athlete only for his body and physical attributes, and not for his mind. This is one of the central themes of Heritage: that black athletes who speak out about problems facing black Americans, such as systematic racism, educational and economic inequity, and police brutality, will pay the price with their livelihood.

The book asserts that fans “don’t see the ubiquitous deference to the military…the police officers, or the 50-foot American flag in the middle of a football field as politics at all.” Bryant states that “fans think political describes an individual act of dissidence, not a collective one perpetrated against the public by the state, the mainstream media or your local sports team.” This illusion was shattered in 2015, when, as the book mentions, a report entitled Tackling Paid Patriotism was released by US Senators John McCain and Jeff Flake. It provided details behind the rituals Americans had seen at ballparks after September 11, such as large American flags displayed on the field, alongside first responders and US Servicemen and women during the national anthem. The military tributes before and during games were not organic support for the troops. The 150-page report states, “sports teams had been charging the military to stage events at their ballparks and the Pentagon had been paying the teams millions in taxpayer money — at least $6.8 million dollars.” The report also revealed that “they were all in on it: NASCAR, MLB, the NFL, the NBA, NHL, MLS, and the NCAA. The military was using sports to sell the business of war.”

America’s history of chattel slavery and Jim Crow laws is reflected in the gulfs that remain between people of different ethnicities in 2018. Bryant suggests that sports are not a unifier, but that they instead reflect “the great divide between the labor, leisure and ruling classes.” He cites specific events that underscore the divide between black and white players in sport. One particularly powerful example is that of Yankees pitcher CC Sabathia, who realizes during a conversation with his white teammates that they are not able to recognize or understand his lifelong experiences of racial bias. Sabathia remembers feeling disappointed, and gives up the attempt to engage them on the topic.

Bryant’s book contains a fascinating prologue and epilogue that encourage a deeper appreciation of his work. Heritage is divided into three parts. Part one details the history of the Heritage, and explains its historical importance. Part two describes the complications that arise when players take a stand against injustice. Part three examines the disconnect between most modern day athletes and the tradition of the Heritage. The book closes with the observation that the Heritage has been revived, and that the highest-paid athletes, such as LeBron James, are its new advocates.

The author shares examples of athletes who have taken on the mantle of the Heritage throughout history, such as Paul Robeson (who later, during his career as an actor and a singer, continued to speak out about social injustice), Jackie Robinson, Muhammad Ali, Tommie Smith, John Carlos, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and examines the ways in which their careers were affected by speaking out. He also tells the stories of athletes who chose not to participate in the Heritage, including Tiger Woods, Michael Jordan, and O. J. Simpson. This book will surprise, enlighten, and provide readers food for thought. Heritage lingers in the consciousness — readers will find themselves revisiting its pages long after completing it.

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