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The Avenue

Black athletes can teach us about more than just sports

Andre M. Perry
Editor's Note:

This post was updated on 9/26 to include a link to the newly released YouthTruth study. This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Read more about education in New Orleans.

Racism — and bullying — is best defeated as a team

Bullying is not a newly discovered problem. But there is no denying it has been exacerbated by the President of the United States, Donald Trump. His singling out of sports heroes Steph Curry, Jemele Hill and Colin Kaepernick for their stands against bigotry is more evidence that Trump takes a literal interpretation of the bully pulpit idea. How these black sportsmen and women form a team against racism offer tormented youth a playbook on how to deal with bullies.

One in four children are bullied. That’s the main finding of a new study conducted by YouthTruth, a national nonprofit that conducts student surveys on educational issues. The results repeated last year’s findings.

When I shared the one-in-four stat with a father of two, he told me, “Power plays happen in all kinds of social settings. Schools aren’t different.” He went on to say, “Part of an education is learning how to deal with mean people.”

He could have been referring to President Trump, who this past weekend “dis-invited” the basketball star, two-time former Most Valuable Player of the NBA, Steph Curry from a not-yet scheduled visit to the White House with a tweet — after the Golden State Warriors’ point guard already said he wouldn’t go to the White House if his team asked. Dating back to the 1960’s, it has been tradition for champions of major sports teams to take part in a White House ceremony. Another former MVP, LeBron James, chimed in with his own tweet: “U bum @StephenCurry30 already said he ain’t going! So therefore ain’t no invite. Going to White House was a great honor until you showed up!” Curry and James play on rival teams and have played against each other in multiple championships, but they are on the same team against hate.

A week earlier, the White House broke presidential etiquette by calling for the ouster of a private citizen, ESPN broadcaster Jemele Hill, who called Trump a white supremacist—partially based on his racist remarks about immigrants, his likening of Nazis with their counter-protestors, as well as his past discriminatory housing practices and race-baiting campaign against the Central Park Five. Like James did for Curry, Hill’s colleagues created a unified front against harassment. Progressive news site ThinkProgress broke the exclusive that ESPN executives tried to remove Hill from her show three hours after the White House said she should be fired, but her black colleagues refused to replace her, forcing the network brass to keep Hill on the air.

Last Friday, in a political rally in Alabama, Trump attempted to bully NFL players who follow Kaepernick’s lead in taking a knee during the national anthem in protest of police brutality since 2016. “Wouldn’t you love to see one of these NFL owners, when somebody disrespects our flag, to say, ‘Get that son of a b—- off the field right now. Out. He’s fired! He’s fired,’” howled Trump.

In a sports-obsessed country, Americans, particularly young people, admire and emulate black athletes who dominate two of the most revenue generating professional sports, football and basketball, as well as their own sports teams in high school and college. We follow black athletes’ workout habits, styles, relationships, and maybe now, the way they confront racist bullies.

YouthTruth surveyed more than 180,000 students in 37 states in grades five through 12 to learn “how much, in what ways, and why students are being bullied,” according to the report. Among students who were bullied, 44 percent said their appearance was the primary reason.

Seventeen percent cited their race or skin color; 15 percent said it was because others thought they were gay. Socio-economic class, religion, nationality, gender, and disability were also cited as significant factors.

The bullies’ primary weapon of choice was their mouth. The study found verbal bullying to be most prevalent, at 73 percent. Social bullying, which includes deliberately harming someone’s reputation or relationships, according to a government website, followed at 54 percent. Cyber bullying and physical harassment were less frequent at 28 and 23 percent respectively.

Bullying may be ubiquitous, but it doesn’t have to be normalized—especially by the president.

Ironically, Donald and Melania Trump flatly contradicted each other last week. On September 19 at the United Nations General Assembly, President Trump made a pugnacious speech in which he said, “The United States has great strength and patience, but if it is forced to defend itself or its allies, we will have no choice but to totally destroy North Korea.” The following day, at a United Nations’ luncheon, First Lady Melania Trump said, “By our own example we must teach children to be good stewards of the world they will inherit…We must remember that they are watching and listening… As adults we are not merely responsible. We are accountable.”

Trump’s position doesn’t pardon his bullying behaviors. And we need courageous people willing to take on the personal and professional risks of confronting Trump and racist bullies. Individuals can’t take on an administration bereft of moral reasoning. We need a team. Throughout history, athletes who exhibit heroism on the field have joined forces to combat hatred off of it.

Muhammad Ali held the U.S. government accountable for transnational militarism and domestic racism by refusing to be drafted for the Vietnam War in 1967. While the boxing federation and numerous states stripped Ali of his license to box, other black athletes, including fellow boxers and numerous prominent football and basketball players financially and outspokenly supported Ali as the government painted him a traitor.

Sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos gave the black power salute during the 200-meter medal ceremony at the 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico City, in protest of global segregation and human rights violations. Smith and Carlos were stripped of their medals and were sent home in disgrace. But the black community gave them a hero’s welcome. The often-forgotten white athlete in the iconic photo, Australian sprinter Peter Norman, supported Smith and Carlos by wearing a patch that read: “Olympic Project for Human Rights.” But unlike Smith and Carlos, Norman was shunned by his countrymen for his gesture of racial unity.

The significance of Colin Kaepernick protesting police brutality and racial injustice is clear. His teammates in the struggle can show they have his back by exercising their constitutional right and taking a knee in support. Several continue to protest.  Oakland Athletics catcher Bruce Maxwell became the first MLB player to do so on Saturday, September 23, more than a year after Kaepernick’s demonstrations began. The next day, dozens of NFL players followed suit and flexed their cultural might in reaction to Trump’s verbal and cyber threats.

Black athletes are the heart of American culture. Singer/rapper Jidenna made it plain in a tweet: “You can’t make America great again by going after athletes. Sports makes America great. #TakeTheKnee”.

In 2015, the University of Missouri footballers who joined black students in protest of racism on campus offered administrators an ultimatum: University System President Tim Wolfe had to go or the team wouldn’t play. In a matter of days, Wolfe resigned. From Jackie Robinson to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, we have countless examples of athletes using the power of protest and organizing to teach the rest of us how to beat back racism, xenophobia and militarism.

There is an opportunity to learn the deeper values of teamwork. When confronted by a bully we can take lessons from Jemele Hill, Steph Curry, and LeBron James, as well as Ali, Smith, Carlos, and Robinson. The most effective approach to bullying is a collective one.

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