At the start of the 2014 National Football League season, the Baltimore Ravens unveiled a statue of their star linebacker Ray Lewis outside the team’s stadium. During his 17-year career, Lewis had been named All-Pro seven times, made the Pro Bowl a dozen times, and led the Ravens to two Super Bowl titles. For maximum dramatic effect, the last one took place on February 4, 2013, in Lewis’s final game.
“Baltimore is my forever city,” Lewis said at the unveiling ceremony. Indeed, not only had the Ravens’ fans celebrated his passion, ferocity, and intelligence as a middle linebacker, but they had forgiven Lewis for a serious transgression early in his career. He was implicated in a fatal shooting outside an Atlanta nightclub and had to cooperate with prosecutors in a deal to plead guilty to a lesser charge of obstruction of justice.
Yet no sooner did Ray Lewis drop to both knees in prayer before the Ravens’ game against Jacksonville two Sundays ago – part of a wave of player protests against both police brutality and President Donald Trump’s profane attacks on NFL activists – then cries emerged for his statue to be removed.
A grassroots, online petition had drawn nearly 75,000 signatures as of October 1, part of the second weekend of pro games since Trump’s demand that any “son of a bitch” who does not stand for the national anthem be fired.
One could ascribe the sudden transformation of Lewis from hero to villain, and the broader criticism of protesting NFL players, coaches, and even owners, to a genuine disagreement over the meaning of patriotism.
One could attribute it to a sincere misunderstanding that the protests, begun in August 2016 by Colin Kaepernick, always were directed at rogue police officers and the court system that exonerates them, not at the military or first responders, as President Trump has claimed.
If those explanations are not entirely wrong, however, they conveniently
ignore the overarching reason for the backlash: the morally corrupt contract between white fans and black athletes.
This provides the African-American sports star with provisional, symbolic whiteness – in the forms of adulation, affluence, product endorsements, social acceptance. As one notorious example said of himself, “I’m not black, I’m OJ.”
In return, however, the black athlete must surrender his or her political voice as a black person. Obstructing justice in a murder case, fine; seeking justice for fellow blacks, intolerable.
So when President Trump tweeted that the NFL protestors should be grateful for the “privilege” of playing in the league – as if they had not earned it by brain and brawn, as if their gridiron efforts from high school onward have not enriched other, mostly white stakeholders in the football industry – he was channeling the aggrieved voice of sports talk-radio and newspaper columns going back decades. No wonder that his white working-class base has responded so enthusiastically.
“There are multiple reasons for the backlash, but one of the most common ones is that sports is ‘not the right place,’” said Douglas Hartmann, a sociologist at the University of Minnesota and the author of Race, Culture, and the Revolt of the Black Athlete.” “You’ve had that pattern since the late 1960s. People try to protect this sacred space of sport. What doesn’t happen is engaging the protestors’ actual ideas about race and racism.”
The reality is that modern American sports have always been political. Segregation was reified by all-white baseball and football leagues. The Department of Defense paid the NFL to hold tributes to the military at games. On the other side, the athletic triumphs of Paul Robeson, Jesse Owens, Joe Louis, and Jackie Robinson leveraged the cultural power of sports for the cause of racial equality.
The friction now on view in the NFL can be most directly dated to the late 1960s, when a number of prominent African-American athletes were politicized by civil rights, black nationalism, and the anti-Vietnam War movement. And all suffered vicious retribution in return.
The most famous example, Muhammad Ali, lost three vital years from his boxing career for his refusal to be inducted into army. Bill Russell, who brought the Boston Celtics 11 NBA championships, had his home vandalized, even his bed defecated upon, by intruders incensed by his support for civil rights.
In 1966, the recently retired NFL star Jim Brown began forming major athletes into an economic-development group called the Negro Industrial and Economic Union (and later the Black Economic Union). At a 1967 meeting, such prominent athletic activists as Russell and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (still known then, before his conversion to Islam, as Lew Alcindor) met with Ali and endorsed his draft resistance.
“We were black athletes and we lived in the black community,” recalled John Wooten, a Cleveland Brown player and member of the union then and now chairman of the Fritz Pollard Alliance, which works with the NFL on hiring and promoting minority coaches and executives. “We had to push the government. When you have been blessed to have played sports, gotten an education because of your ability, you owe it to pay back. Knowing the situation that exists in the inner city, you owe it to reach back.”
About the same time, a sociology professor at San Jose State University, Harry Edwards, started mobilizing black athletes to boycott the 1968 American Olympic team. The greatest impact came from two runners who did participate in the Olympics, Tommie Smith and John Carlos, who gave a head-bowed, clenched-fist salute from the medal stand.
The response all of those activists received anticipated much of the backlash against current figures like Kaepernick and Lebron James. The sportswriter Brent Musberger, later a major television broadcaster, maligned Smith and Carlos as “a pair of black-skinned stormtroopers.”
“The public response was vitriolic,” said Prof. Hartmann about the 1968 activists. “They got threats from the beginning. They reported death threats, hate mail. The attitude of a lot of the sportswriters, especially before the Olympics, was ‘How dare you, in this arena that’s treated you so well.’ That they were enemies of America.”
So if Ray Lewis’s statue gets formally removed, or more likely if it is stealthily defaced or toppled some night, he will at least have the satisfaction of being in a very particular Hall of Fame: one for the sporting idealists who refuse to be intimidated.
- Samuel G Freedman is the author of eight books, including Breaking The Line, about black college football and civil rights.