I've wanted to write this open letter to all of you for a long time. That is because I am not only a huge admirer of what you do as sportsmen but also because I care, and I am deeply concerned about the state of Black male athletes in America today. You see, like many of you, I grew up with a single mother and an absent father in an impoverished ghetto environment with sports as one of the few outlets for my hopes and dreams, and my anger and frustrations, too. I played baseball, Little League through high school, and I also ran track all four years. On top of that, my interest in writing and reading had begun as a preteen and the very first books I absorbed were exciting histories of figures from baseball, football and basketball. So you could say that sports is in my blood, so much so that even when I worked at Vibe magazine years ago, I made it a point to step away from my writings on Tupac Shakur and other hip-hop stars to pen stories on ballplayers such as Chris Webber, Penny Hardaway and the Dream Team II. And I certainly have a number of friends who are professional athletes today, as I have advised quite a few on matters from current decisions to future possibilities once their careers are over.
So I come to you not simply as a fan, but also as someone who knows well the inner workings of sports and entertainment; as someone who has seen far too many famous Black males, including 'Pac, get into trouble time and again with the law; and as someone who wants to see you live up to your full potential, not just as elite athletes, but as men.
That means I need to be blunt: There is a serious problem with the modern Black male athlete, which has become a sad and tragic scene, week to week, month after month, as one of you gets into trouble for infractions ranging from sexual assault and domestic violence accusations to allegations of drunk driving or drunken tirades at parties or strip clubs.
I am very clear that many of you were never given a blueprint for life, nor healthy, proactive definitions of manhood, nor practical advice on how to handle fame and millions of dollars so young and so suddenly. I am also very clear that not all Black male athletes get into trouble, that many of you are doing great work in your communities, adhering to your religious tenets, and that a number of you not only mentor young people but have taken it upon yourselves to support your extended families. Some of you are even rebuilding parts of the communities from which you came. But there are also so many of you who have multiple children by multiple women in multiple cities, thereby creating another generation of young people who, like many of us, barely know or see our fathers.
The problem, brothers, is that we still live in an America where, despite Barack Obama being in the White House, and despite the great racial progress made since the days of Muhammad Ali, Arthur Ashe and Jim Brown, sensationalistic and negative images of Black males are more likely to make the news than a positive story.
Moreover, if you, as a professional athlete, have little or no connection to the world at large, your reality gets warped, and you truly will begin to believe the hype that you can do anything you want on any given day. Life simply does not work like that, as both Michael Vick and Plaxico Burress learned with their prison terms. For no one cares if you are a $100-million-dollar athlete or caught the game-winning touchdown in the Super Bowl; you are still a Black man in America with a target on your back. Just ask the average young Black male in any 'hood in America. What you have in common is that if you give this society the rope to hang you with, it will be used. Period. The difference is that you have a career and a life option those boys back in the 'hood would love to have. Throwing it away mindlessly is the worst kind of self-sabotage.
The fact is, brothers, because of the hip-hop and professional sports explosion of the Black male image across the American pop-culture landscape, you are more loved and more hated than ever before. Loved because people of all backgrounds live through your unbelievable athletic prowess, hated because you are a Black male with the audacity to strut and flaunt without shame. I think some of you have forgotten or are clueless to the history of racism in America as it relates to us. I understand your cool pose; I get it, because I am a Black male, and I know the historical and present-day need for us to feel powerful and validated. But if you neither know about nor can recall Jack Johnson, the first Black heavyweight champion of the world, I suggest you google his story, and see the steep price he paid for his over-the-top behavior, especially with regard to women.
Now, I am certainly not suggesting you should be anything other than who you are or that you should ever bow to anyone. But what I am saying is, if you are going to be over-the-top and audacious, why not be Paul Robeson, the often-forgotten all-American athlete who went on to become a world-class concert singer, actor and human rights activist? Why not be Muhammad Ali, not just one of the greatest fighters of all time, but a man who had the bottomless courage to say he was not going fight in the Vietnam War, even though he knew he would be stripped of his heavyweight championship as a result? Why not be Jim Brown, arguably the best football player ever, who walked away from the game in his prime, and who has been a consistent voice and force in our communities, especially his work with gang members? Why not be Curt Flood, a Gold Glove-winning baseball player who, in the late 1960s, dared to challenge the St. Louis Cardinals when they decided to trade him without his consent (and despite his long tenure with the team), and his Supreme Court case literally became the foundation for the free-agent system so many athletes benefit from today? Or why not be Arthur Ashe, to this day, the first and only Black man to win tennis championships at the U.S. Open and Wimbledon? Ashe protested apartheid in South Africa, fought for integration in America and became the personification of the Black male athlete as active citizen right up to his death.
Yes, brothers, I know the 21st century is very different from those days. But that does not mean you cannot do what those who came before you did. As Arthur Ashe documented in his important work, A Hard Road to Glory: A History of the African-American Athlete, you are a part of a grand tradition of Black male athletes who represented greatness on and off the field, who understood they were carrying the weight of an entire race on their backs, that their very behavior would reflect, positively or negatively, on their people.
In our times, I think often of two men who manifest this, Super Bowl-winning coach Tony Dungy and basketball legend Magic Johnson. I've had opportunities to speak with both. Mr. Dungy is retired and could easily just do his television commentary and call it a day. But he is a man in constant motion, speaking at prisons and elsewhere, and advising many athletes, including Vick and Burress, on ways to turn their lives around for the better. In our private dialogue, Mr. Dungy has talked about the fact that so many of you have not had consistent father figures in your own lives. That is why, Black male athletes, some of you truly struggle to be the men and role models we desperately need: Because you just do not know what to do, what to be, despite your fame and money. There are many men out here, like Mr. Dungy and me, who care about you. But you must be willing to ask for help, for direction, especially since so many of our young Black men look up to you and follow what you do--the good, the bad and the ugly.
Magic Johnson, likewise, is a model. He was wise enough, while still playing for the Los Angeles Lakers, to network with the wealthy business owners who frequented games and pick their brains. Thus began Magic's second career as one of the most successful Black male entrepreneurs in America. And Magic hit me with something in our phone conversation that I will never forget: more than 70 percent of football and basketball players will be broke at some point after their careers are over because of a lack of vision and proper planning. In other words, not all of you are going to get a job on ESPN or elsewhere doing commentary. If you are only living in the moment, you will get caught out there as an ex-athlete. But my hope is that most of you will wind up like NBA great Dave Bing, currently the mayor of Detroit and a long-time successful business owner in his community. We don't need any more tales of postpro careers riddled with drug and alcohol abuse, of players confessing, as Dennis Rodman recently did at his Basketball Hall of Fame induction, that they have not been good fathers, husbands, sons and men, or that they don't know how much longer they will live because their lives are in ruins.
So the ball is in your court, brothers, literally and figuratively. If you do not know what to do, I point you toward an example such as the Atlanta Hawks' Etan Thomas, who has not been afraid to use his voice to speak out against American wars overseas, to condemn Donald Trump for his attacks on President Obama, and more. I salute any ballplayer who has a charity or foundation, or has clinics for youth, no question. But what is needed now, more than ever, is a new generation of Muhammad Alis, of Jim Browns, of Arthur Ashes, of Paul Robesons and Curt Floods, sportsmen who dare to defy the odds not just when competing, but in this game we call life.
That means the headlines about you posing with guns in magazines, or punching fans in the face at summer league games must end. And it means that more of you have got to say, with conviction, "I am a man, and I want to be a man who represents the best of us with humility and honor, not the worst of who we are, fathers in our lives or not."
This blog also appears in the October 2011 issue of Ebony magazine
Kevin Powell is an activist and public speaker based in Brooklyn, New York. A nationally acclaimed writer, Kevin is also the author or editor of 10 books. His 11th, Barack Obama, Ronald Reagan, and The Ghost of Dr. King: And Other Blogs and Essays, will be published January 2012. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org, or follow him on Twitter @kevin_powell