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Black Athletes Have Been Involved in the Political Struggle From the Beginning

A CounterSpin interview with Howard Bryant on Black athletes and activism.

A statue of Jackie Robinson in Coney Island, New York.

Janine Jackson: When Colin Kaepernick wanted to join thousands of other Americans in expressing his outrage and sorrow at the killing of black people by police, the San Francisco 49er spoke with — among others — Nate Boyer, another football player for the Seattle Seahawks, who was a Green Beret. Boyer suggested that rather than sit out the national anthem, Kaepernick take a knee — the way, he said, soldiers take a knee in front of a fallen brother’s grave, as a way to express dissent without disrespect for the military or veterans.

That critics, including in the press, would describe Kaepernick’s gesture as a refusal to stand, an insolent refusal to act rather than an action consciously chosen, is telling; much as many people still believe Rosa Parks refused to move to the back of the bus because her feet were tired. Like Parks, Kaepernick is in fact engaged in thoughtful, political action — in his case, the particular expression of political action that African-American athletes have engaged for decades, known informally as “the Heritage.”

That history and its meaning in the present moment is the subject of a new book, The Heritage: Black Athletes, a Divided America and the Politics of Patriotism, out now from Beacon Press. Our next guest is its author. Howard Bryant is a senior writer for and ESPN the Magazine, and sports correspondent for NPR’s Weekend Edition Saturday. He’s also author of, among other titles, Shut Out: A Story of Race and Baseball in Boston and The Last Hero: A Life of Henry Aaron. He joins us now by phone from Massachusetts. Welcome to CounterSpin, Howard Bryant.

Howard Bryant: Thank you, Janine. How are you?

I’m well, thanks. Well, I appreciate the way that the book enmeshes sports history in social history: Three days after Michael Jordan’s NBA debut in 1984 was the day the NYPD killed Eleanor Bumpurs, a 66-year-old black woman with mental illness, for instance. Generally, the media separate sports, literally and figuratively, from everything else that’s happening. It’s an escape, it’s a different world, and — key to the story you tell — sports, Americans tell themselves, is a meritocracy: We may have racial injustice in society, but by golly, on the field all that matters is, Can you run, or throw, or hit?

This idea that the job of the black athlete is, in some ways, to advertise US equality, that’s there from the beginning of the history of the Heritage, isn’t it?

It sure has been. And I think one of the things that’s been really interesting in trying to figure out how to tell this type of story — because there’s so much to it — is, where do you start and how do you put this together? And for me, the genesis of this had been this revival of this Heritage. If you’re of a certain age, you remember Muhammad Ali, and you remember the memories, of course, of Jackie Robinson, and you remember Bill Russell and all of these athletes, John Carlos, Tommie Smith, in the ’68 Olympics; you remember these players being very prominent, and you remember them being advocates for African-Americans.

If you’re of a different generation, if you were, say, born in the ’80s or even the ’90s, this revival — the appearance of athletes taking a political stance, being involved in their community, being involved in social issues on a national level — is completely foreign, because you grew up with the Michael Jordans and Tiger Woods being the model. So for me, what I thought was interesting and important was to remind people that the black athlete has been involved in the political struggle from the beginning, and that these players have had a very special place in American history.

The argument that I make in the book is that the black athlete is the most important and most influential and most visible black employee in the 20th century, because they’re the ones who were allowed to integrate the society, whether it was the military, whether it was education, whether it was swimming pools, it was the ball players who came first. And because of that, they’ve had a responsibility to stand up and to advocate. So we recognize it when they’re not there, and we remember them when they are.

And with that comes this bind, this visibility as a real representation of integration, and yet still being a black American. And in terms of the history and the beginning, I think a lot of folks would be very, very surprised to hear that it starts with Paul Robeson.

Absolutely, it starts with Paul Robeson, and of course people don’t realize that he played in the National Football League. He played football before he was the great baritone, before he was the great singer and the great actor and the great activist. And one of the only reasons that he left professional football was because the National Football League was integrated, and then it chose segregation until 1946.

So when he played in 1921 and 1922, football was integrated, and then by 1923, no blacks were allowed to play in the NFL for another quarter century.

It wasn’t just Robeson to me that I gravitated toward when tracing this Heritage, it was also the fact that the African-American athletes’ political roots did not start with black issues. It started with Jewish issues. It started with World War II. It started with American athletes being asked to defend America against Nazism, and Jewish athletes asking for solidarity against the Berlin Olympics in 1936, and also, of course, asking Jackie Robinson to denounce Paul Robeson in 1949, in support of America during the Cold War.

So it wasn’t until much later, it wasn’t until you had Robinson in that testimony, receiving all of the attention for his denouncing Paul Robeson, but also inside of that testimony, he talked about inequality and police brutality and mistreatment of African-Americans and fairness, and all of these things that would become the foundations of this Heritage. It started with Robinson, but not along racial lines to begin with; it started with defending America.

I find Robinson’s HUAC testimony to be maybe the most moving part of the book, and such a clear — first of all, a thing that’s so misremembered.

Completely. We chose to emphasize the parts that made America feel good. Which was, “See, Jackie Robinson is a real American, because he denounced Paul Robeson, the bad Negro Communist.” I don’t even think we misremembered everything; we just chose to ignore it. And when I started to read that testimony, when I was doing the research, I was wondering, “Did I know this?” I think I kind of knew this, but maybe I really didn’t, either.


And that’s what we do. We decide to omit. One of the great favorite colleagues and the great writer David Maraniss once said to me that, “History writes people out of the story, and it’s our job to write them back in,” and I think that Robinson testimony is something that needed to be written back in.


Well, history’s moving along, and owners and teams are aware that integration is happening, but I like how you note that this idea that became popular, and still holds sway, that, “Oh, they’re only looking for the best players,” that that was fiction, always. And there’s this note that Earl Wilson, when Earl Wilson was signed to the Boston Red Sox, the scouting report described him as a “well-mannered colored boy, not too black, pleasant to talk to.”

So you have this story of integration. But then, black athletes are making money — and some of them are making a tremendous amount of money — and so that gives them a bigger megaphone, and at the same time, more calls not to use it.

For caution, absolutely, and I think that’s this tension that the black athlete has that even other black entertainers don’t have. Why are we now talking about Oprah Winfrey as a potential presidential candidate? Because she has money. We talk about Mark Cuban as a presidential candidate or Donald Trump as president or Michael Bloomberg as the mayor of New York, because they were all rich. When it comes to the black athlete, though, what we want from them in exchange for the money is silence.

We don’t want to hear from them. We want them to be quiet. We want them to shut up and play, or shut up and dribble, and this is the one area where money is not affording you a bigger voice. And that goes back to this very interesting relationship that we tend to have with our sports figures. That there’s an ownership to them, that they don’t necessarily get to be citizens. Their job is to entertain us.

And I think that’s one of the areas where this Heritage has become so polarizing in a lot of ways, is this feeling of ownership is now colliding with the fact that you have this new generation of black athletes — post–Trayvon Martin, post-Ferguson, post–Eric Garner and Sandra Bland — who are now citizens, especially thanks to the prevalence of social media. They’re watching these viral videos, just like the rest of us are, on YouTube, and they’re looking at this dashcam footage.

And one of the things that one of the players, Tavon Austin, had said, who played for the St. Louis Rams, when he came out in 2014 with the “hands up don’t shoot gesture” before a game, was:

It’s hard for me to go back to my community knowing that this is going on, knowing that I’ve got a platform, and all my friends and family are looking at me, going, “People listen to you and you’re not saying anything.”

That’s the Heritage.

One of the things that happens in between the ’60s, obviously and the present moment, a big thing that happens is September 11, 2001.

Absolutely. 9/11 is the key to me, and once again, we talk about generations. If you are of a certain generation, if you’re from my generation (I was born in 1968), if you are of my generation, you were shaped by the Cold War. The Olympics were charged, obviously, because of the United States and the USSR. Everything was Cold War–based, whether it was an arms race, whether it was sports, no matter what it was, you were shaped along the framework of the United States and the Russians.

If you were born in 1985 or 1990, you were 10 or 11 years old, or 15–16 years old, on September 11. So therefore, the packaging of sports, this is what you know, this is all you know. If you’re my son, who was born in 2004, this is how he sees the society being sold, packaged through flags and flyovers and soldiers and nationalism and support of the troops, and the conflation of police with military.

And so now when you watch a sporting event, on the one hand, you see flags and you see police singing the national anthem, and you see camera shots of all of this law enforcement, and you have dozens of law enforcement appreciation nights at the ballpark. And at the same time, you have LeBron James talkingabout police brutality, and Carmelo Anthony walking arm-in-arm with his fellow Baltimore natives after Freddie Gray was killed. And so you’ve got this collision between post-9/11 packaging and selling of sports at the ballpark, and the post-Ferguson black athlete, and that’s really at its core what this book is about.

And when we talk about selling, as you make clear in the book, immediately post–September 11, a lot of it really was selling, it really was the Defense Department using these sporting events to recruit.

Absolutely. One hundred percent. I had a conversation with a three-star general, Russel Honoré, who was tremendous in trying to get the clean-up and the restoration after Hurricane Katrina back on track after all of that disaster.

And the general and I had a very long conversation about this, about the Pentagon using sports as a recruiting tool, and the sports leagues themselves charging the National Guards and the Department of Defense to put on these inauthentic displays of patriotism — whether it was the surprise homecomings or the flags or the singing of “God Bless America” — that all of these different acts were being charged as services by the sports teams to the National Guards across the country, and they didn’t tell anybody. It was a deception. It wasn’t until John McCain and Jeff Flake, the two Arizona Republican senators, came out with their report talking about how inauthentic and what a deception this was, that taxpayer dollars were being used for these sort of phony displays.

And I asked the general, and I said, “Well, you know, maybe I just want my 12-year-old to be a kid. Maybe when he goes to a Red Sox game, I just want him to enjoy the game and that’s it. I don’t want him to be surreptitiously recruited by the Army.”

General Honoré said, “Well, that’s too bad. I tell the parents, hold on to those little SOBs as long as you can, because we need them to man the force. And maybe there’s going to be some kid who goes to a Dallas Cowboys game and looks up and sees an F-14 flying over before the game, that’s going to motivate him to join the service.” That’s where we are right now.

And so one of the interesting reactions that I’ve gotten from this has been twofold. One is, “Well, yeah, the Army should do this, this is what we need to do, this is where we are.” Another response has been, “Well, OK, paid patriotism is a deception. There’s no question about that, that it’s not organic. We know that, that these teams are taking money, but it’s a harmless deception, because it’s for the right reasons.” And I find that to be so incongruous; if it’s for the right reasons, if it’s supposed to be noble, then why are we deceiving the public? It’s a really interesting place we’re in right now.

And who is getting to decide that that is the right reason?

And who gets to decide, and that’s the other thing I very much enjoyed in the book, especially in the middle chapters. The original title of this book was War Games, it was not The Heritage; it was War Games. I think the subtitle was The Players, The Flag and Protest in a Militarized America. That was the original title, but as we started to go back, I began to realize, I didn’t want to assume how much of this Heritage people knew. I realized that I had to keep it to the ballplayers, and I put the war games section of the book in the middle.

And one of the things that I really enjoyed about this section was talking to veterans and hearing veterans say, “We don’t want to be treated as props.” And chapter 7 of the book is titled “Props,” where veterans talk about not wanting to be used by these sports teams to sell camo jerseys and to sell their sports teams and to make billionaires even richer. The players themselves, some of them have issues with it, but the veterans are the ones who to me are really the conscience of those sections, because they know better. They don’t want to be used by these billion-dollar sports teams to sell a product.

Well, yes, this is social history. I hope folks won’t pick it up looking for play-by-plays.

There’s no play-by-play in this book.

But then, as you’ve said, there is this conflation that happens, of the military with the police, and that brings us to today. But then this funny idea that folks like Kaepernick, that folks who take a knee, that when LeBron wears an “I Can’t Breathe” shirt, that that is introducing politics into sports.

That’s right. And that is a very interesting dance that people have negotiated with themselves. That when you see Colin Kaepernick…. In fact, ESPN hired a focus group with the Republican pollster Frank Luntz, and Luntz went and asked these people in this focus group, because the ratings went down dramatically when there were images of Colin Kaepernick on the field, and he would ask them why was the reaction to Kaepernick so visceral and so strong, and their reaction was, “Well, we don’t want politics in our sports.”

And then Luntz said to the focus group, “Well, that’s a little disingenuous, isn’t it? Because the ratings went very high when we showed you flags and we showed you soldiers and you saw jets and things at the ballpark.” And the reaction from the focus group was, “Well, that’s not politics; that’s patriotism.” So the sports fan has made a negotiation; they’ve actually partitioned politics from patriotism, and they believe this, even though I don’t think there’s anything more political than a country’s flag.

I guess as a critic I do lay some of this at media’s feet. I always remember a quote from USA Today, which I wish I had in front of me, but it was about people demonstrating about trade agreements. And they said that these agreements, although they haven’t interested “the public,” they’ve galvanized “activists” around the world. And I loved that sort of linguistic sleight-of-hand that, as the public, fine, you can have an opinion, but once you get together with others, once you go out into the street, once you demonstrate an opinion, well, you’re an activist.

You’re still a citizen. You’re still the public. It’s the same thing.

I want to highlight how many stories in the book are not Colin Kaepernick. There’s Toni Smith-Thompson, the college basketball player who turned her back on the anthem in 2002; there’s the Detroit Piston, whose name is escaping me, who went on a hunger strike in ‘93.

Olden Polynice.

Olden Polynice, exactly. But in a way, The Heritage is about, the bigger the spotlight, in a way, on the athlete, and what do they do with it? So now we’re in 2018. The NFL’s response to Kaep versus Trump is to say, you have to stand for the anthem or stay in the locker room or otherwise you’re fined, and the Eagles are disinvited to the White House, where they weren’t going anyway. It’s not that we haven’t come forward, or that things haven’t changed, but so much of the push and pull feels very familiar.

It does. I think the tension in the book, to me, has always been “black body over black brain.” This tension in and of itself is, in a lot of ways, the book. Because the reason why we still look to these athletes is because the black brain is not being respected and being exploited and being encouraged nearly as much as the black body. We still look to these athletes and we still look to these entertainers and we still look to these singers and everyone, even at a time when this entire notion of a Heritage, and this entire notion of athletics, was supposed to open the door to education, and to open the door to these other pursuits.

So you didn’t have to look at a Jackie Robinson as your leader. You could look at a doctor, a lawyer, a senator, the same way you do with other races. At a time when you’re looking at these athletes, who are making incredible amounts of money, more than they ever have, but at the same time, they’re coming out of college less and less and less educated. So that tension leaves you with the players still; we still look to LeBron James to be the peacemaker, and we look to Dwyane Wade, and we look to these players to, now, because they’re so tied with these mega-corporations, we look to them to sort of be the bridge between black and white, which is very different than the Muhammad Ali days, where they were straight advocates for African-Americans.

So at the same time when you have “shut up and dribble,” you have player prominence becoming greater and greater and greater, and you just wonder if that time is going to come when the player recedes and then the intellectual, the black intellectual, can take over, where I think they always should have been in the first place.

Let me ask you what kind of reaction you’re getting. I think you’re pretty early in taking this book around, but what kind of reaction do you expect to get, and what sorts of conversations are you looking to spur here?

The reaction that I get has been very similar to the reactions that I always tend to get when I do these projects. One is there’s the immediate shouting: “Oh, well, you’re attacking the police,” and “Oh, this is going to be controversial,” and “Oh, you’re never going to work again, and no one’s going to take an interest in this.” That’s always the initial reaction.

And then the book comes out and then people start reading, and then we start discussing. We start discussing how we feel about patriotism. We start discussing the president essentially trying to deny citizenship of Americans for protesting. We discuss how we feel about our civil liberties being attacked, or essentially turning sporting events into nationalistic pep rallies.

And now all of a sudden, you get a different response, and that response is, you’ve got good-thinking citizens of all stripes, and they’re saying, “It’s about time. It’s about time we actually talk about this.” And so that’s always been the rewarding thing, and I think to me, the conversations that I always try to spur when I do any project, is to think about who we are and to think about where we are in this country, and to always consider the accountability factor of the people who are pulling the strings here. The power of the corporation, whether it’s a sports league or whether it’s the military and the Department of Defense, that the power that these institutions have, is steering us in ways, and we’re not even paying attention.

The one thing, Janine, that I’ve been fascinated and somewhat disappointed about, but also encouraged, because maybe we can think about these things more, is the number of people, almost 20 years post-9/11, who devour sports and see the flag at the 50-yard line, and they see the Law Enforcement Appreciation Days, and they know the paid patriotism story, that this was a deception. But then when it all gets put together, they say, “I never thought of it that way.” So hopefully, we’ll do a little bit more thinking, and we’ll see what some of these institutions are doing to us, and how they’re trying to manipulate us.

We’ve been speaking with Howard Bryant. The new book is The Heritage: Black Athletes, a Divided America and the Politics of Patriotism. It’s out now from Beacon Press. Howard Bryant, thank you so much for joining us this week on CounterSpin.

Oh, my pleasure. Thank you.

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