2007: A Bad Year For Black Athletes

By William Blackburn
Updated: December 30, 2007

CHARLOTTE — It started a few hours into the new year when NFL player Darrent Williams was gunned down in Denver. It has ended, I hope, with the recent death of another NFL player, Sean Taylor.

In between their deaths, two more NFL players died, another one suffered paralysis, baseball’s all-time leading home run hitter was indicted for possible cheating and an Olympic track and field great confessed to cheating, thus tainting her entire career. Numerous other crimes, tragedies and misfortunes occurred.

Throw in a dose of Michael Vick and it’s not stretch to say that the character of black athletes has taken a mind-boggling hit in 2007. You’d be hard-pressed to find me another year where four active NFL players died and all were black.

Since the days of Jack Johnson, Jesse Owens and Joe Louis, sports have played a significant role in the black community. Its elite athletes were treated like heroes. Owens’ 1936 Olympic victory in Germany was not just about a gold medal but was also a statement about racial equality.

You could say the same about the weight Jackie Robinson, Bill Russell, Venus and Serena Williams and countless other black athletes have carried through the years. Willingly or unwillingly, they were made advocates for the social and economic injustices that plagued our communities.

Competition for respect

Throughout the years, many black athletes have accepted the responsibility and become social activists for their community. Muhammad Ali, as well as Tommie Smith and John Carlos at the 1968 Olympics, might be the most famous faces of protest by black athletes.

For many, athletics is about wins and losses — but many times in the black community it’s also about a right to be respected and championed.NBA players are respected because they put the ball in the basket better than any of us, and they get paid millions to do it.

Same goes for other athletes in other sports, but in the black community basketball and football usually get the biggest amount of esteem and reverence. Vick was arguably the most popular black athlete in the NFL, and his downward spiral all the way to a Virginia jail cell was a shock. And yet other cases rival its magnitude.

Cheaters as role models

Marion Jones was the face of track and field during the last decade, and she shattered every record in her way. A black woman dominating her sport in record fashion was historic and awe-inspiring, and we embraced her in every way. Now we find out the hero was cheating the whole time.

The year just couldn’t get any worse for big-name black athletes. But it did. After chasing Barry Bonds for years, the Feds finally ran him down. Now he’s indicted and charged with lying about cheating. He breaks one of the most sacred records in baseball, and he’s rewarded with federal charges.

Charles Barkley said some years ago that athletes shouldn’t be looked at as role models. Obviously Barkley was out of touch with his community, because the posters that hang in many young black males’ bedrooms are not of presidential candidates, doctors, lawyers or parents.

They are posters of black athletes, and the young spend many a night dreaming of one day becoming one. They proudly wear jerseys with the names of their favorite ball players on them because they have a high level of admiration for them.

Black athletes rank at or near the top of the list of icons in our communities, and the significance they carry is enormous. Their appeal to such a broad segment of the black community provides them with an opportunity to influence that most are not afforded.

Bigger burden for blacks

People will buy a pair of expensive shoes because LeBron James, Kobe Bryant or Allen Iverson says so. Their faces and images are used to influence our buying habits in such a tremendous way that it would only seem natural that they would achieve a surreal status.

Is it fair? Depends on how you look at it. Our spending habits produce the million-dollar salaries that athletes receive, and so it’s like one hand washing the other. You get to wear products endorsed by your favorite player, and they get paid handsomely for your fanatical respect.

Except for the black athlete, the equation is a little different.

Because history has long tied their existence to the struggle for political, economic and social equality, black athletes carry a bigger burden. Their bulls-eye is bigger and the expectations for them even greater. The media will showcase and exploit their every move, good or bad, and will destroy their image as easily as it has built them up. ESPN is as naughty as it is nice.

Today’s black athlete is paid more than at any other time in history, and with such increase in fame and wealth comes increased scrutiny. Expectations are higher, and failure — inside and outside the arena — is not looked upon lightly.

A large percentage of black athletes understand and appreciate their importance to their profession and their community. Unfortunately, in 2007 they were overshadowed.