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Etan Thomas on the black athlete in America

Etan Thomas says painting all current black athletes with the same brush is just wrong.

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.

By Dan Steinberg  |  October 6, 2006; 10:50 AM ET
Categories:  Wizards  
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What's with the gratuitous slam of the Bush Administration? Not that I necessarily disagree, but it has nothing to do with the subject matter.

Posted by: Zonker | October 6, 2006 10:58 AM | Report abuse

Well argued. It is a shame that players should have to advertise or publicize their community service to change the perception of some well-positioned critics.

It would be interesting to compare the charitable efforts of athletes with comparably wealthy Americans to see what the difference actually is. I think we might be surprised.

Posted by: Tim | October 6, 2006 11:03 AM | Report abuse

Wow, that is well done. Though I agree that the political swipe wasn't needed.

But Etan's right in that you can't polarize the issue and make generalizations.

Posted by: Kim | October 6, 2006 11:06 AM | Report abuse

It is a reasoned argument, and well structured. The problem is a larger one that is a much about society's stereotypes on black men in general as it is black athletes. Sadly, while this is appearing in a lightly read blog, last night's adventures of four Pacer players is likely on the front page of this web site. There something about late night, strip clubs and guns that isn't likely to lead to a happy outcome. We all would be better served if Etan was able to advance his agrument among his contemporaries and attack the problem from the inside. Headlines like the Pacers gave us and the recent Bengals activities aren't being made up and are quite frankly going to dominate the debate.

Posted by: CW | October 6, 2006 1:29 PM | Report abuse


"Headlines like the Pacers gave us and the recent Bengals activities aren't being made up and are quite frankly going to dominate the debate."

your post is what is wrong with people's perceptions of pro athletes in general and black athletes in particular: nuance.

want to know about something? (example: black athletes & charity)
do some research

by the way: NONE of the Pacers got arrested following the incident you quoted.

Posted by: Someone who Reads | October 6, 2006 2:10 PM | Report abuse

Folks referring to Mr. Thomas piece as "well reasoned" is patronizing. The implication is that it is surprizing that a black man can reason. Sam thing when sports announcers refer to a black athelete as "atriculate." Mr. Thomas: Ok maybe not all balck athletes have abdicated their responsibility to society but let's be honest: As a group you all are falling far short of where you should be. To evaluate players contributions in terms of dollars is missing the point and by the way 18K to Gil is chump change. And anyway so many of these charitable things are really photo ops orchestrated by savvy agents. It really comes down to being leaders something which has nothing to do with money. Most black men in America grow up without effective male role models. Athletes (white ones too) are in a unique position to help offset the damage to us as a people this situation is causing. This is such a grave situation none of us can contribute enough but the balck athletes must bear more than their share of the burden because our tradition of nobless oblige demands it. You time and reasoning would have been better spent, and done more benefit to society, calling out your peirs rather than defending them.
See you in the playoffs

Posted by: Ken | October 6, 2006 2:20 PM | Report abuse

The importance of donating money, resources, time and star power should not be underestimated, and the efforts Thomas writes about should certainly be commended. But I'd also be interested to hear more about how Thomas and other prominent Black athletes do (and don't) work to build long-term relationships with specific communities, do (and don't) advocate for policy changes and electoral results that matter in these communities, and do (and don't) seek to influence the popular culture over which they have so much sway.

Posted by: Ben from Philly | October 6, 2006 2:27 PM | Report abuse

There are absolutely injustices in the world. Definately. But there always has been. And people are bound to get their facts wrong. I can't think of many instances where anger has helped. But I can think of a few where tolerance, inclusiveness, kindness, forgiveness, love have made those injustices, perceived or real, dissolve. It doesn't avenge the injustice. But it heals the hurt. I don't necessarily disagree with Etan. I almost always agree. But he always seems so angry. At least to me.

Posted by: sting | October 6, 2006 3:38 PM | Report abuse

To poster "Ken"'re an idiot...and no better then the author Etan is criticizing. Obviously you didn't read Etan's essay close enough because you would have chosen your statements such as "so many of these charitable things are really photo ops orchestrated by savvy agents" and "As a group you all are falling far short of where you should be" a little bit wiser. I know many pro athletes and for you to make generalizations that because they make more money then the common man that they should be held to a higher standard to help in times of crisis is ludicrous. I did not see one athlete deliberatly hog the spotlight while assisting during the aftermath of Katrina like many celebrities did (i.e. Sean Penn - who hired his own photographer to take pictures of him helping out the Katrina victims in New Orleans.) If anything, the came together on their own to help out. While pro athletes should be known for the great philanthropic deeds that are done throughout the year, most sports fan only care about the stats and plays the see on the court. Etan and the rest of the players in the NBA are wonderful people when it comes to helping out communities, both domestic and international. Maybe you should go to a community event this season and see how these guys give back to the community. Additionally, please go back to junior high and learn how to're an embarrassment.

Posted by: JS | October 6, 2006 3:41 PM | Report abuse

I may well be an idiot sir and my spelling sure could use some polish but look me straight in the keyboard and tell me I'm wrong that no black athletes really are pulling their weight in our society and gee everything is fine with our young men. Me thinks thou doth protest too much

Posted by: Ken | October 6, 2006 5:47 PM | Report abuse

Thanks for sharin this Etan. I very much enjoyed and this should be more widely read,

Posted by: Pablo | October 7, 2006 3:48 PM | Report abuse

nothing makes me smile quite like somebody butchering Billy Shakespeare in Blog comment sections.

God bless thee; and put meekness in thy mind, love, charity, obedience, and true duty!

Posted by: Unsilent Majority | October 7, 2006 8:58 PM | Report abuse

I think this speaks to the larger question of how the media defines perception.

Ken, you are hilarious.... but not in a very good way.

It seems entirely reasonable to me for a reader to comment the they feel Etan's comments were not self serving, but rational and well thought out. There is not a patronizing tone in that.

However, it seems that your discomfort with the idea of agreeing with Etan, gross generalizations, and overall vitriol (with regards to this subject) speaks to your own prejudices.
Ignorance is not a building block, and I think if this makes you uncomfortable you should address the problem head-on. Rather than spending time defending yourself on the web.

In the end the idea that any of us know exactly what each of the NBA players has done for society is pretty silly. And I would pose another question, what have the white players given back to the community? Are they lost too?


Posted by: greg | October 8, 2006 12:58 PM | Report abuse


BTW, while slamming Ken's spelling, maybe you should consider returning to JHS, too.
Try better grammar, as in "[Y]ou would have chosen your statements...a little bit [more]wisely." - NOT "a little bit wiser", as you incorrectly wrote.

If you are going to state that someone is an embarrassment and offer as evidence that person's writing in a blog, you should at least be able to not embarass yourself...because then you are the idiot, JS.

And Ken makes some good arguments, too. Most black athletes, and many white ones, too, don't use their higer positions in American society to help their communities. They're just in it for the money, the women, and the stature they enjoy.

Posted by: NL | October 9, 2006 3:34 PM | Report abuse

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