Etan Thomas on the black athlete in America
What follows is an essay by Etan Thomas, who previously sparked much interest with his comments on the war in Iraq. Etan clearly writes better than many sportswriters, and he's seeking a larger platform for his work, so this might be the last we see of him in this space. Regardless, enjoy, and please let us know what you think about his argument.
Recently, I had the pleasure of participating in a panel discussion on the role of the black athlete. It was a lively talk and the participants included Bill Rhoden, the author of "Forty Million Dollar Slaves;" Dave Zirin, who writes for both Slam and The Nation magazines (and author of "What's My Name, Fool?"); and former NFL Director of Player Programs Guy Troupe. The impression I got was that a majority of the audience agreed with Mr. Rhoden's overall generalization of the current black athlete.
Let me first say that I enjoyed the discussion and found Mr. Rhoden's book to be a very informative history of the black athlete in America. It touched on the unfortunate paths and states of mind that have overtaken the realities of some black athletes of today. I agree with his position that "making the evolution to be a completely free man is realizing that racism is more virulent and determined than ever before." In fact, I think the book is a must-read for all athletes -- if only to serve as an example of what not to become. That being said, I respectfully disagree with the overall notion that the black athlete today is simply "lost," as Mr. Rhoden labels us in his book. In his words:
Now that they occupy a position where they can be more than symbols of achievement, where they can actually serve their communities in vital and tangible ways, while also addressing the power imbalance within their own from a position of greater strength, they seem most at a loss, lacking purpose and drive....The Black Athlete has abdicated their responsibility to the community with treasonous vigor.
This couldn't be further from the truth. And painting the entire, illustrious roster of current black athletes with this broad brush of ridicule, one that leaves no room for exceptions, is just wrong. If he would have said "some" black athletes of today, I wouldn't have had an objection. But to say "the contemporary tribe," as he calls us, "with access to unprecedented wealth is lost," is completely inaccurate.
I can scroll down the list, player by player, and name a host of good deeds done by
these athletes, deeds that go unnoted in a media that is far more focused on the negative aspects of their lives. Don't get me wrong, all that athletic talent doesn't make for perfect human beings. It's just that, apparently, good deeds don't make for good ratings. Bad boys sell more papers. One shining case in point is the heartfelt reaction of many of my colleagues after Hurricane Katrina. A host of unheralded players responded to this tragedy with passion, urgency and dedication, qualities the Bush Administration doesn't seem to know about.
--Kenny Smith, for example, quickly put together a charity game in Houston with 29 NBA stars, including LeBron James, Kevin Garnett, Tracy McGrady and Amare Stoudemire. Prior to the game, players visited temporary housing for displaced hurricane victims. The game, televised on TNT, raised more than $1 million.
--Stephon Marbury personally donated nearly $1 million to Katrina victims, and broke into tears as he made the announcement.
--Michael Jordan auctioned off some of his personal memorabilia and donated the proceeds to the hurricane relief efforts of Habitat for Humanity.
--Chris Duhon, who hails from Slidell, La., donated money and is still working to help his hometown recover.
--Shaq coordinated the loading of several 18-wheelers with water, diapers, personal items and clothing, even refrigerators and beds. The refrigerators and beds went into the 400 apartments Shaq and his wife rented for evacuees.
--Gilbert Arenas met evacuees who were relocated to the Washington, D.C. area and gave out $18,000 worth of clothes, shoes, toiletries, diapers and baby formula.
Perplexing enough, Mr. Rhoden even touched upon some of these good efforts in the epilogue of his book. He mentions when Samuel Dalembert, Erick Dampier, Shareef Abdur-Rahim, Allan Houston, Justin Reed and others teamed up with the NBA Player's Association and traveled to Mississippi to view personally the devastation and to gauge how best they could be of assistance. Unfortunately, Mr. Rhoden minimized this as merely "a good gesture."
Marcus Camby recently journeyed to South Africa with Basketball Without Borders, which works to end conflict through the friendly competition of sports. In Marcus's words, "Going over there and seeing your people suffer, that's the worst part about it. Just to see the conditions they're living in, it really hits home." These are not the words of a generation with no connection to its own history or culture. Camby, along with Dikembe Mutombo, Jim Jackson, Jerome Williams and other players spoke to the youth of South Africa, filling them with hope; showing them that someone cares.
When Hurricane Katrina devastated Grenada, the island of my heritage, I personally called Tim Duncan, Brian Grant, and Adonal Foyle, the players I knew with some type of connection to the Caribbean, to assist me in teaming with UNICEF by contributing their donations to help rebuild the country, and they immediately responded. They were proud to help.
These are only a few examples of the acts of charity undertaken by players. None would have happened had there been no connection to the community as a whole. None of these athletes would have taken the time or felt the need to give of themselves if they were truly "lost."
My overall objection is this: there are a lot of positive things that athletes are doing, but they are never known, and a false conclusion that they don't happen arises. This results in a false accusation of our being a "lost generation with no sense of direction." Although I would recommend Mr. Rhoden's book, I wish he would have avoided making sweeping generalizations, and I would have liked him to include a chapter on the media and their role in shaping the public opinion of athletes, in addition an entire chapter highlighting the many exceptions to his generalization. These exceptions could have served as worthy examples to those athletes who do not give enough back.
October 6, 2006; 10:50 AM ET
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