My earliest recognition of the odious and oppressive role of racism in American life came in December 1955. No, it was not in response to the arrest of Rosa Parks for refusing to give up her seat on a bus in Montgomery, Alabama and the subsequent mobilization and bus boycott by the black community of that city. Unaware of those developments, I was, instead, attuned to the controversy surrounding the efforts by Southerners, from the governor of Georgia to the residents of New Orleans, to exclude the University of Pittsburgh’s black fullback and linebacker, Bobby Grier, from playing in the Sugar Bowl game against Georgia Tech.
Growing up in western Pennsylvania where football was integral to masculine rites-of-passage, I was outraged that racial discrimination could bar a talented athlete from performing on the gridiron. I was also a naïve 10 year-old, living in a predominantly white suburb of Pittsburgh and sheltered in so many ways within a racial order that provided certain advantages to whites while denying them to blacks. When I got to junior high school, I was eager to join the football team even though my skinny frame limited my eventual playing time. Although I transitioned from football to cross-country and track in high school, I remained an avid fan of the game and continued to take part in pick-up touch football matches.
Around this time, the dramatic events in the South, especially in Birmingham, during the spring of 1963, my graduating year from high school, drew my attention once more to the injustices of racial discrimination. When I was offered a track scholarship to Duke University, I asked the recruiter whether any blacks attended Duke. Not wanting to be part of such a whites-only college environment, I, instead gladly accepted an athletic scholarship to the University of Pittsburgh. It was at Pitt that I gained a solid understanding of the historical roots and contemporary offshoots of racism while also becoming a civil rights activist. I, also, remained a fervent football fan, rooting on the Pitt Panthers and the Pittsburgh Steelers.
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Even though there was still evidence of racial discrimination in professional football (from the absence of black coaches and quarterbacks), I believed that this was an arena where racial barriers could be broken. I knew nothing of the fact that from 1920-1933, blacks, including Paul Robeson, played professional football. Nor was I aware that segregation was introduced into professional football in 1933 at the insistence of the Washington “Redskins” owner, George Marshall. After WWII, professional football and baseball were desegregated.
Rooting for John Henry Johnson of the Steelers and dreading Jim Brown of the Cleveland Browns during the 1960s seemed just part of being a Pittsburgh fan.
The great Steeler teams of the 1970s provided even more opportunity to cheer on the standout black players, from Franco Harris to Lynn Swann to “Mean” Joe Greene. Somehow, I managed to separate football from its larger social-cultural setting, minimizing its violence and the persistence of racist practices.
Over the last few years, I have become particularly disillusioned with and alienated from football with constant reports of player violence and damaging injuries, especially concussions. But, it has taken the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri to bring into sharp relief the contradiction of cheering for interracial mayhem on the football field while young black men continue to be gunned down by white police and vigilantes.
Violence against blacks has a long history in this country from slavery to Jim Crow to struggles over desegregation. However, as Michelle Alexander points out in The New Jim Crow, the school-to-prison pipeline and the prison industrial system have established new and pernicious forms of racial oppression that especially penalize black youth. Added to this is the abysmal black employment picture where over a quarter of blacks under 25 are without gainful employment. Moreover, according to data from the 2013 Bureau of Labor Statistics, black youth unemployment for the ages of 16-19 is 393 percent higher than the national unemployment average.
Ironically, black youth who demonstrate both the physical prowess and agility to play college and then professional football are granted a pass (excuse the pun) when it comes to engaging in aggression for the entertainment of majority white audiences. In the culturally and socially sanctioned violence of football, white fans root for their favorite black players to pound opposing teams. While admiring the massive and muscular black bodies that predominate on the football field, many of these same white fans can justify the extrajudicial killing of the hulking Michael Brown. That they can do this is a consequence of the pathologizing of black youth.
As clinical professor of law and director of the Civil Rights and Police Accountability Project at the Edwin F. Mandel Legal Aid Clinic, Craig Futterman notes: “For all too many people out there, when people think of the words ‘criminal’, ‘drug dealer’ or ‘gangbanger’, images of Black and Brown folks come to mind and that’s equal with respect to police.” As Futterman’s research concerning police perceptions of young Black and Brown men shows, police see those young men as a “potential criminal or a potential danger, and that also makes that police officer far more likely to feel threatened and far more likely to shoot.”
While the exact sequence of events that led to the killing of Michael Brown is still in dispute, what is indisputable, based on the independent autopsy report by Dr. Michael Baden, former chief medical examiner of New York City, is that Brown was a defenseless victim of police violence. Instead of immediately arresting Darren Wilson, the Ferguson police department put him on paid leave. Even now, these same police and political forces are selectively releasing information about Brown intended to cast aspersions on his innocence, as if any such information could justify his extrajudicial murder.
According to Brigitt Keller, executive director of the National Police Accountability Project, “excessive force by police…is getting worse.” She identifies possible causes as the militarization of the police, ongoing police impunity, and an exaggerated sense of what police confront, no doubt reinforced by the spread of Homeland Security horror stories. Yet, there remains a deep racial divide when it comes to assessing the inequities of police violence. A recent Pew Research poll reported that 80 percent of blacks thought Michael Brown’s death raised “important issues about race that need to be addressed” against only 37 percent of whites who agreed with that sentiment.
I certainly choose to be with the 37 percent of whites who believe that the killing of Michael Brown requires some serious interrogation about the persistence of racism in American culture. Beyond raising fundamental questions about the racial inequities built into our criminal justice, economic, and cultural systems, it is time to ask whether professional football has become equivalent to the gladiatorial games during the Roman Empire, an empire which existed for the benefit of a ruling order that exploited and oppressed its colonized peoples. I also choose not to be a spectator at our modern day Coliseums, watching football follies either in person or electronically, while the praetorian guards outside gun down the young sons of slaves of yore.