How today's activist athletes reclaimed the Heritage

Brian Stauffer

Excerpted from "The Heritage: Black Athletes, a Divided America, and the Politics of Patriotism," by Howard Bryant, Beacon Press, 2018. Reprinted with permission from Beacon Press.

For a time, Tiger Woods would embrace the destiny his father had forecast for him, paying homage to the history of the sport, to the lonely pioneers such as Lee Elder and Charlie Sifford, black pros who endured the insults and indignities of playing a game in a white world that could not have been more metaphoric of the impediments to the American dream for black people. As with Michael Jordan, the seasoned Nike ad machine was there, choreographing the legend that was being built on the course, the ads voiced over by the father (even after Earl Woods died in 2006), reinforcing his specialness, packaging his destiny. And when it came time for the prophet to spiritually lift the poor and the weak and the despised black people and give them dignity through his talent, as he was destined to, he sat down with Oprah Winfrey, the wealthiest black American in the world, and told her and the world that he was not black. He was a composite. He was Caucasian, black and Asian. He told Winfrey that, growing up, he had coined a term for his multiethnicity. He told Winfrey he was "Cablinasian." Woods did not say, "I'm not black. I'm O.J.," but he gave the equivalent for a multicultural world. The end result was the same: a reinforcement of the O.J. Simpson model but on an even more public stage -- there was no advantage to identifying with being black. That came with responsibility. Take, for example, the time when Woods was hitting supernova status, the most talked-about athlete in America. He had just won the Masters, and now, as his father predicted, he would "move mountains." It was an unsubtle comparison to Ali, a wish to join the Heritage. It was all coming together.

It was also 1997, the 50th anniversary of Jackie Robinson entering the majors. The Jackie Robinson Foundation contacted Woods, asking him to participate in the celebration at a Mets game, side by side with Rachel Robinson. Woods demurred. He said he was busy. He said he had an overwhelming number of commitments to his sponsor, Nike.

Tiger Woods stiffed Rachel Robinson.

Frustrated but undeterred, the foundation looked down the lineup card, went to the bullpen, skipped the eighth-inning setup guy and went straight to the closer. Not Michael Jordan or Arnold Palmer or Jack Nicklaus but the most powerful man in the free world: President Bill Clinton. The president personally called Tiger Woods, and Woods told him the same thing: Thanks for the call, Mr. President, but I'm swamped.

"Tiger," Bill Clinton said, "what commitments? I'm the president of the United States. Who do I have to call? I think I can get you out of them." Tiger held firm, giving President Clinton the stiff-arm as well. The president offered to send an Air Force jet to deliver him to Shea Stadium. Instead, Woods was in Mexico partying on the beach with friends. Tiger said no, not just to the president but to the Heritage. Now he wasn't even black. He was Cablinasian. Even Nike, his risk-averse corporate sponsor, was horrified. Cablinasian? What in the hell was Cablinasian? Nike sold products but did so through storytelling, and here was Tiger Woods telling America that its favorite bedtime story -- the black athlete breaking barriers to entry, and those old white institutions bending to a new day, each meeting in the middle to mutually overcome racism and fulfill the promise that America could overcome its deepest scar after all -- wasn't the story at all. Nike saw the lucrative and eminently sellable narrative of the African-American who conquered the exclusive, white sport of golf go up in flames. "I thought that this was a new form of denial," Al Sharpton said, "and the subtlety that was disturbing to me was it was a subliminal message that our children should feel almost ashamed of being black and we have to find a way to not be that. The message was, 'He's all of this but doesn't want to be that. Therefore, I shouldn't want to be that.'"

"Cablinasian" was an all-around disaster, but it wasn't exactly inaccurate. Woods was biracial, black and Asian, and the rapidly changing world of mixed marriages and biracial children created a collision with the American historical edict of one drop of black blood made a person African-American, and thus less than a full citizen. "It makes sense and it doesn't make sense. My guess is that Tiger, like me, got asked, 'What are you?' A lot. Most mixed people say 'mixed but black,'" said Grand Valley State associate professor of history Louis Moore. "By the time you get asked this, you know you're black. Tiger, I think, tried to run away from that a bit. From my experience, people from our generation who are mixed but go out of their way to not say they're black do it intentionally."

Whether intended, unintended or both, depending on the expediency of the moment, "Cablinasian" represented the ultimate consequence of greenwashing, of decades of selling the idea that identifying with the black identity was the worst thing a person could do. What an irony it was that after the learned behavior of avoiding pride in being African-American, the one time America wanted finally someone to be black, when the corporations actually encouraged it and were hungry to profit from it instead of running for fear of offending the white mainstream, Tiger Woods did not cooperate. "I was troubled by it," sociologist and civil activist Harry Edwards recalled, "not so much because [Woods] seemed to be disassociating himself from African-American roots but because, as a man who has from the outset been perceived and defined by society under the rubric of the 'one-drop rule' as black/African-American, given the inevitability of trials and tribulations ahead, he undercut his support base, left himself no place to turn -- no struggle heritage, no survival heritage to lean on, no identity, no refuge."

At least for the mainstream fan and skittish team management who didn't want their players getting involved in race and social issues, the messy stuff of raised black fists and boycotts, greenwashing solved the issue. By the end of the 20th century, it had been nearly 30 years since a top-shelf, in-his-prime athlete had embraced the Heritage. Jackie Robinson had been dead nearly 30 years. Muhammad Ali had been ravaged by the effects of Parkinson's disease, and he and the country had reconciled. Ali was embraced as a courageous warrior of yesterday's fights, not a living, activist threat.

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, by rights, should have been the standard-bearer, but he was not. The trinity of O.J., Michael and Tiger, and the wealth they tapped, had created a new template for a new generation, which had no personal memory of when athletes took principled stands on issues. The Nike-led machine of commercials and star-making followed -- Derek Jeter, the Williams sisters, Ken Griffey Jr. Players scored touchdowns and sold sneakers, using the fear of offending a potential consumer as a justification for their silence. The greenwashing of the players signaled they had made it, that they identified more with their corporate sponsors and their celebrity neighbors than with the black communities that bought their sneakers.

The Heritage was dead. The paying customer never wanted it, and now the players believed that being a political athlete was either no longer their responsibility or too costly for the wallet. In a sense, the players had won. The black body remained a multimillion-dollar commodity to America, but this time they got to keep the money. They were rich beyond the imagination, and their wealth provided them access to the best Western culture could provide: housing, schools, business opportunities, luxuries. Racism still existed, but the players were considered, because of their money, beyond it. Players not only avoided racial subjects in talking to the press, but as long as they didn't talk about it, they could avoid being black altogether. There was even a phrase for it: Athletes now transcended race. If there was a need for players to make a social statement, it was not done by standing in the streets, physically arm in arm with their people, but by privately sending a few bucks along a back channel, with a slickly produced ad campaign that also showed the shoe company on the right side of a social issue. Sports would now be in balance: abundantly commercial, lucrative for all and without the polarizing sociopolitical component. Sports was now like the music or movie industry, just another form of entertainment.

And then the twin towers fell.

Of all American social institutions, 9/11 most radically altered sports, from the place where fans escaped the world and its problems to the definitive staging ground for the nation's war effort, the restoration of its wounded spirit, of taking back everything Osama bin Laden took from it. Sports would embody the way the United States would view itself and its institutions. If the opportunity for the riches of the good life destroyed the political foundations of the Heritage, Sept. 11 both killed stick to sports and became a patriotic war cry.

The ballpark was the place of defiance and the introduction of a new, post-9/11 character: heroes. On the field, the players had always been the ones celebrated as heroes. Now sports would recognize the off-field citizen in uniform as heroes too: police, fire, military, sometimes emergency services. Two weeks after the towers fell, Arista re-released Whitney Houston's iconic rendition of "The Star-Spangled Banner" from the 1991 Super Bowl. A month later, the same week the Stealth Bomber flew over Bank One Ballpark in Phoenix before Game 1 of the 2001 World Series, the single peaked at No. 6 on the Billboard Hot 100. It went on to sell 1 million copies. Nothing better illustrated the new mood of patriotism that swept the country than this: For the first time in history, the national anthem went platinum.

The ballpark atmosphere made sports the perfect venue for that form of tribute, but it was also the perfect place to bring out the worst elements of our cultural instincts. Political confrontation was never supposed to be the plan. For years, sports was the country's province of political neutrality, of fun and games, of root, root, rooting for the home team. And when the Heritage got involved, when a player wanted to make a political statement, the business of sports backed away, assuaging the public by clarifying that a player's act of political protest was an individual one, not endorsed by the team. Teams knew politics were polarizing. Sept. 11 posed no such risk. Not only did America seem to be in lockstep in honoring the military, but the cultural pressure against dissent was so strong, opponents didn't dare speak out against 50,000 flag-wavers still waiting to get their collective mitts on Osama bin Laden -- and that was the danger. After the initial pain, when fans needed to look fellow Americans in the eye and feel safe, the ballpark brought out the dangerous side. Sports was rooted in conflict, confrontation already in place. Two sides wore different colors, Us against Them, home vs. road, good guy vs. bad, winners and losers and no backing down. It was the province of machismo and competition, of imposing will, and every other sports cliché the broadcasters had ginned up over the past 50 years. The line was delicate, but in the moment, the country felt itself in the fight of its life, and those not on board, even if they were Americans, were not particularly welcome. Fans expected every other fan in the ballpark to go along with the spectacle, to act right. Hand on heart. Sing along or you were the problem.

Fans had no issue with players being vocal. It was dissent from the black athlete the public didn't want. After the Boston Marathon bombings in 2013, Red Sox superstar David Ortiz took the microphone at Fenway Park before Boston's first game back and said memorably, "This is our f---ing city!" to delirious applause. Later that year, as the Red Sox were on their way to overcoming a dismal, last-place 2012 season with a World Series championship, one of the enduring photos of the playoffs was a police officer cheering in the bullpen after an Ortiz grand slam. Before the death of Freddie Gray spawned protests in Baltimore, Orioles center fielder Adam Jones agreed to an ESPN The Magazine cover shoot that showed him taking a selfie with a member of the Baltimore Police Department, and at the ballpark, everybody loved it.

But on Oct. 7, 2014, as the grand jury deliberated over whether to bring formal charges against Darren Wilson for killing Michael Brown, dozens of Black Lives Matter protesters returned to the streets, marching peacefully in St. Louis before Game 4 of the National League Division Series between the Cardinals and Dodgers. To a smattering of cheers from a few fans, the protest passed Busch Stadium. Demonstrators chanted "Justice for Mike Brown!" White fans, beers in hand, responded with a counterchant in support of Darren Wilson. Inside the stadium, one fan taped "I Am Darren Wilson" over the name on the back of his home white Cardinals jersey. A protester, who was also a Marine, captured the exchange between black protesters and white fans on video: "Justice for Mike Brown!" "Let's go, Darren!" As the protesters passed, a white woman with blond hair and a red and white Cardinals jersey confronted the demonstration, shouting at the black protesters, "We're the ones who f---in' gave all y'all the freedom you have!"

Collision was inevitable. Take, for example, that moment in 2016 when on a team flight, some of the white Yankees couldn't understand why protests were occurring. "Why don't they just obey?" CC Sabathia, the star pitcher and elder statesman, recalled a teammate saying uncomprehendingly. Sabathia, who grew up black in the Bay Area in Vallejo, California, told the group gathering about the time he and his friends were in high school driving around when a cop stopped them at gunpoint, put them facedown. They were unsure what they had done, unsure if they would be arrested or shot on the spot. Instead of shock or embarrassment or sympathy, the players, all of them young, white suburban kids, quickly concluded that surely he and his friends had done something to provoke such an extreme response. Cops, they told him, just don't act like that without a reason. "I tried to tell them what it was like for us, and you could tell they weren't even listening," Sabathia recalled. "They were trying to tell me what my life was like. They heard nothing. They didn't want to hear anything, so I said f--- it. I don't even bother anymore."

The players were activated by different events that formed a whole. Killings by police weren't isolated. They were personal. In July 2016, Alton Sterling, an unarmed black man selling music CDs on the sidewalk, was shot and killed at close range by a Baton Rouge officer. Eric Reid, a safety for the 49ers, lived in Baton Rouge as a kid. "When I look back on my life, I don't want it to be as a hypocrite," Reid said. "And when I raise my kids and tell them to do things the right way, I can say I did the same."

The players did not simply find themselves in solidarity with the marchers in the streets but also questioning their place in a sports industry that was selling an image of police that did not often square with their reality. The competing images of black people being killed on dash cam footage and the dozens of law enforcement appreciation nights across the sports calendar forced the players to confront the biggest fractures in their industry: the enormous gap between the business machinery of the game -- the white owners, white coaches, white season-ticket base and white media -- and them, the majority-black workforces that played the games. The players played the game, but black people weren't exactly the target audience -- despite the money they spent on sneakers and jerseys, and despite how, in the NBA's case, its slick ad campaigns used black culture to sell the sport. The players were recognizing that if they remained quiet, they had money but no power, money but no wealth, money but no greater belief that they were making a difference. They were being purchased. A collective light was going on. All the money and the commercials, the houses and the private jets and the fame, had greenwashed them, and when so many players looked in the mirror after watching Eric Garner be choked to death by the state, they realized they had lost themselves.

The puzzle pieces began to interlock, but this time it wasn't the courageous and vulnerable showing their faces while the big boys wrote a check but steered clear of the spotlight. The Minnesota Lynx players, black and white women of the WNBA, came forward to speak about injustice. The Mount Everests of the game -- LeBron James, Derrick Rose, Venus and Serena Williams, Kevin Garnett and Dwyane Wade -- put a face to their politics. The best player, James, being the loudest social voice advocating for black people had not happened since Muhammad Ali in the mid-1970s. "I don't want the people in the community to feel like we turned a blind eye to it," wide receiver Kenny Britt said. "What would I like to see happen? Change in America." After the final breaths of Eric Garner and Michael Brown and Tamir Rice, and after 40 years of rejecting their inheritance -- as Tiger Woods and Michael Jordan had -- the players again believed they were part of a larger American struggle.