A good friend of mine in Seattle — an Eritrean immigrant who helped pen that country’s as yet unratified constitution — once pointed out that, should I really want to understand the collision of race and politics in the U.S., read the sports pages. I figured he was being coy, but the more I think about it, the more I comprehend sports as a microcosm of society, where all sorts of racial and social tensions play out, often in the subterranean codes of privilege, ability and competition.
It’s tempting to view the Jan. 1, 2015, playoff game featuring the UO Ducks and the Florida State Seminoles as a gladiatorial pitting of Good Guys vs. Bad Guys. Certainly, Florida State’s program is embroiled in some ugly controversy, due in large part to an Oct. 10 front-page piece in The New York Times detailing repeated instances among players of alleged domestic abuse, rape, vandalism and theft — instances mostly brushed aside or ignored by fawning cops who often are paid directly by Seminole boosters for the game-day shifts they work.
The Ducks, on the other hand, are enjoying a squeaky-clean image right now thanks to golden-boy quarterback Marcus Mariota, a phenomenal athlete and All-American nice guy whose direst infraction is a speeding ticket that, according to reports, he received very politely. At the barbershop this morning, I got into a conversation with a fan who suggested that the upcoming Rose Bowl game was a chance for the Ducks to humble Florida State’s Heisman-winning quarterback Jameis Winston, an accused rapist who is perceived by many to be an unrepentant “thug” — the new code word for “uppity Negro.”
I know less than nothing about what it really feels like to be a young black man in this society, but from where I stand it looks to be a pretty hellish double bind. On the one side, we celebrate the vitality and abilities of the black athlete, creating an environment of hero-worship and vicarious expectations that leads to a culture of hypocritical entitlement that only gets shut down when the abuses go public.
Make no mistake: If the allegations against Winston are true, his actions were reprehensible and should be dealt with to the full extent of the law. But, in a very devious way, he is also a victim of a system created by wealthy white men whose bottom line is money and victory. Don’t miss the forest for the trees.
And on the other side of this bind, then, is the undeniable evidence that young black men are endangered by a racist system in which law enforcement often acts with impunity. When NBA superstar LeBron James wore an “I Can’t Breathe” warm-up T-shirt before a game — a reference to the death in July of an unarmed black man who was put in a chokehold by a Staten Island cop — he perfectly embodied the grotesque Catch-22 of our racial politics.