Can Our Athletes Ever Be Men Again? Don’t Count On It

By Boyce Watkins
Updated: September 16, 2006

NEW YORK—I am speaking this week for the NAACP. The topic:The black male athlete and their role in American society. Exactly what that role is, I am still not sure.All I can say with certainty is that they are not fulfilling it.

I happen to be a second cousin to Muhammad Ali, who fought bravely to defy authority and become his own man. He loved children, cared for the poor and fought through the public backlash. He spoke truth to power, especially when it came to the Vietnam War, and the world hated him for it.

Years later, he is immortalized in ways that no other athlete will ever achieve. Even without having been the greatest fighter whoever lived, he became the greatest fighter whoever lived…..If you know what I mean.

After Ali, number two on the Sports Illustrated list of most influential athletes is Michael Jordan.He is not just second, but a DISTANT second. Comparing him to Ali is like comparing The Lion King to Tony the Tiger.

Sure Jordan was an amazing player, but like many other athletes, he became so socially castrated that he was never able to do anything of significance outside of dribbling a basketball. He will live and die, and most of the world will forget him:especially outside of the U.S.

Catholic Priests, Kings, nuns and clock makers will remember Ali, for he outgrew his gym shorts and showed the world that he had something more than a great right hook.

Any challenge athletes pose to the status of our racist society, any efforts to protect the interests of the poor people dying in New Orleans, or any defense of the millions of black men enslaved in the prison system leads to quick abandonment and dismantlement by the athlete’s sources of financial support.

Our most powerful gladiators have been reduced to mindless little boys at a time when their community most needs their leadership. I am not sure why Kanye West is the only case in which a black male celebrity has put his butt on the line to shake up the system to call attention to poor black people.

All of these guys are also influenced by the drunk uncle, the brother in prison, the cousin who just got shot or the mother who can’t pay the rent. What in the hell is wrong with you? What in the hell is wrong with us?

Solving the problem of the black male athlete is nothing more than solving the problem of the black male, period. Educational empowerment is one solution, so that the guy with the mike in front of him is taught to articulate statements other than “I felt good out there in the offense…”Economic empowerment might be another solution, in which the athlete is taught to use his money to buy something other than a new Rolls Royce on 24 inch rims.

Social empowerment and consciousness might be another solution, in which players actually care about something other than salary caps and points per game. It is sad when your strongest voices in sports are Terrell Owens and Chad Johnson, and their issue of the day is who will be allowed to dance in the end zone.

While I am hard on the athletes, I can’t blame them for wanting to escape these negative realities by engrossing themselves in a fantasy where all is right with the world, and everyone wears a Lakers uniform.

The black male athlete is the sleeping dragon, and when he wakes up, he’s going to bring fury. It is my hope that one day, the revolution will be televised, and the channel on which they show it will be ESPN.