Axiomatically, we’re sold sports as a way to bridge differences of class and race, conquer language barriers. We’re sold a level playing field. Realistically speaking, however, billionaires own these playing fields (though taxpayer dollars often fund their construction).
So frequently that it’s one of my hallmark memories of my father (Kareem Abdul-Jabbar), occasionally after games, as we threaded through the hilly part of Sunset Boulevard on our way home, we’d get pulled over for speeding; my father singled out from all of the other motorists going the same speed. Sometimes the cops expressed surprise that the black man they targeted happened to be famous. Once we left the parking lot of the Fabulous Forum, it was back to Black.
Likewise, just beyond Levi’s Stadium, the citadel of privilege where cheap tickets average around $45, lies the Bay Area where Oscar Grant, Alan Blueford, Andy Lopez, Mario Woods and Amilcar Perez-Lopez died by the hands of police— the area where the Black Panther Party was born.
By all appearances, the National Football League has collectively player-hated Colin Kaepernick right out of a job as quarterback for protesting racism and police violence. It would be easy to buy the breezy comments some of his colleagues have made about his mediocre skills if he didn’t formerly occupy a key position at the professional level. He is part of a pool of talent skimmed from hundreds of thousands of phenomenally talented high school and college hopefuls.
Curious to know what became of the man blacklisted from the NFL, I ventured to Kaepernick’s website to find a photo of him seated defiantly in front of a wall that reads “Black women make the movement move!” Those words provided a welcome counterpoint to the male-dominated news cycle set in motion by Donald Trump’s testosterone-fueled bluster. Women, despite comprising 45 percent of football fans and making increasing inroads as scouts, reporters and coaches, don’t move anything in football as much as they seek to secure legitimacy in an overwhelmingly conservative establishment. Fans feel conflicted about their love of the game after learning that the machine that runs the sport continued to hum softly throughout sexual assault and domestic violence scandals. In a class action suit earlier this year, NFL cheerleaders sued for hundreds of millions of dollars, citing unfair wages and unpaid hours of practice. It speaks volumes that football, the highest grossing sport in sports-crazed America, generated over thirteen billion dollars last year but pays its cheerleaders $125 a game. Women of color, including black women, show up in politically correct numbers on these cheerleading squads, checkmarks to fulfil a quota.
While intersectionality (a term coined by Kimberlé Crenshaw to acknowledge the complex patterns of privilege and oppression that mark the lives of every individual) has fallen into flaccid overuse by the left (much like #takeaknee) and dismissed as the most neo of Marxist fanaticism by the right, it has practical applications that speak to me directly, offering a pathway out of what seems like a clusterfuck of oppression.
In his eye-opening book, The Slave Side of Sunday, former defensive back Anthony Prior invites readers to ask themselves big-picture questions, like why we applaud when the NFL bestows fantastic riches upon successive generations of men cherry-picked from neighborhoods that remain impoverished and oppressed. How is it that these men end up estranged from their communities and co-opted for the use of agents, managers and corporations? He discusses the mind-games played with professional caliber black athletes, who compete, sacrifice and discipline themselves to reach the highest level of ability, only to discover what it means to be owned by people like Dan Snyder and Jerry Jones.
Groused Wilt Chamberlain in his auto-biography, Wilt:
“Stereotypes? Try being a black athlete traded to a new team. The first thing everyone wants to know is whether you plan to help the black underprivileged kids in that city. I got asked that question every time I was traded or my team moved ― in San Francisco, in Philadelphia and in Los Angeles. What do you want to bet that no white player gets asked if he plans to work with underprivileged white kids?”
These days, theres a lot of money to be made as a pundit who speaks out against racism. And yet I can testify that the Dyckman Projects, where my father spent part of his childhood, have not benefited from any of my father’s time or money as the neighborhood of Inwood gentrifies inexorably around them.
Prior writes of attacks on his manhood by coaches and owners. So frequently, the solution to having one’s manhood challenged, for men like Wilt Chamberlain and my father, has been the obsessive pursuit and acquisition of status symbols, especially women, almost definitively anything but black, who serve as talismans to ward away fears of genetic inferiority, deadbolts on the door between “success” and the routine humiliations and haphazard dangers of affiliation with African-America.
The distance so many black athletes, rappers and other “success stories” seek to put between themselves and other black people, especially black women, makes up part of the same space that lies between me and my father. Across that great divide, it’s difficult for someone like me to hear or understand him when he rallies against racism. It’s a protest that invisibly, yet so palpably, excludes me. I have felt my womanhood challenged, so I can relate to my dad, but not in any unifying way. Intersectionality is the only term that explains how my father and I can be so profoundly alienated from each other by a shared experience, and why my experience doesn’t count as one because “womanhood” doesn’t have a value.
Audre Lorde famously wrote that “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house,” only “temporarily beat him at his own game.” Bearing this in mind, it’s easy to see why one man’s respectful protest of the national anthem in uniform, on the astroturf of Levi’s Stadium and across television channels, allowed Colin Kaepernick to beat the NFL at its own game, temporarily, but ultimately led to the destruction of his career and his banishment from this platform. It encourages me that Kaepernick appears to recognize a world beyond the so-called wide world of sports and embraces the value of black women as integral partners in a movement towards liberty and justice for all, not just for those superhumans paid enough to keep the forces of systemic oppression at bay.