The Power of Doing the Ordinary: What We Learn at the Intersection of Politics, Sports, Race and Money

NCAA College Basketball second half game action during the college basketball game between the USC Trojans vs UCLA Bruins at Pauley Pavilion, Westwood, CA. (Photo by Jevone Moore/Full Image 360)

Every year during March Madness, I think about an article I wrote as a 19-year-old sophomore at UCLA examining the role of race and politics in college sports.

Over the past couple of years, the article has been forefront in my mind as the debate over paying college athletes has grown.  Additionally, there is the controversy provoked by professional athletes like Colin Kaepernick whose decision to observe “The Star-Spangled Banner” in protest of the highly-publicized spate of police killings of unarmed Black people; Quarterback Tom Brady’s boycott of former President Obama; and the current boycott of President Trump being organized by New England Patriot players Devin McCourty and Martellus Bennett.

Politics and sports have long held a close association, so much so that it is beyond laughable when commentators—professional or otherwise—suggest athletes ought to keep their opinions to themselves.

December 24, 2016 Los Angeles, CA.
NFL San Francisco vs Los Angeles Rams at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum in Los Angeles, Ca on December 24, 2016. (Photo by Jevone Moore/Full Image 360)

In an era when the media and the public obsess over the most vapid and inane aspects of an athlete’s professional and personal life, their views on political and social issues are just as relevant as their preference for a breakfast cereal, pain reliever, timepiece or burger joint.

I won’t spend much time restating the argument of my Daily Bruin op-ed (you can read it for yourself), but I will provide a bit of context given that we are nearly a quarter of a century from the social, cultural and political milieu prompting me to pen this piece.

The year 1994 was book-ended by two international trips which left an indelible impression on my life to this day. At the opening of the year, I traveled to Cuba on a 10-day student exchange organized by the United States Student Association, and I closed the year with a month-long visit to the Nigerian homeland of the Igbo father who raised me. We also visited Benin and Togo.

While I took away many important lessons from each journey, overall I was left with a profound understanding that the way race, class and economics functioned in America were far from global standards. There is much that I liked about both countries—the absence of the daily indignities and micro-aggressions I experienced as a young Black man in America—but I was deeply uncomfortable with my elevated status as an American, which afforded me an elevated class distinction and accordant privileges that would never be afforded me in my native land.

For the first time, but not the last, this child of the working-class got a chance to taste what it was like to live life among the haves, instead of the have-nots desperately wanting a little more. To this day I have never sipped orange juice with a more perfect balance of sour and sweet than I did in Cuba, or tasted chicken more flavorful then the one I killed hours before on a street in Aba.

It was while I was in Nigeria that I first learned of plans by then University of California Regent Ward Connerly to spearhead an effort to abolish race as a factor in admissions at California’s flagship institutions of higher-learning. Full disclosure: by the prevailing “objective” standards I would not have been considered a top-tier student and benefited from the most inclusive consideration of as many factors possible. Obviously, I considered Connerly’s plans a direct assault on my presence at the University of California at Los Angeles. I committed myself to doing all that I could to halt his efforts—including cultivating a relationship with Connerly, including personally leading him around campus and curating meetings with students, faculty, alumni and administrators.

All people can develop a value system and independence of thought to express a worldview and the principles they hold dear.

NCAA College Basketball second half game action basketball game between the UCLA Bruins vs USC Trojans at Galen Center in Los Angeles, CA. (Photo by Jevone Moore/Full Image 360)

When I returned from Nigeria to begin the Winter Quarter, basketball season was in full swing and the Bruins were marching toward an eventual National Championship. Overseen by a mostly white coaching staff, the mostly Black team was led by Forward Ed O’Bannon, who would go on to be named the NCAA Tournament Most Outstanding Player. Although O’Bannon was one of the best college players of his era, his two years in the NBA were lackluster and he spent the next seven years playing ball overseas and one year with the startup American Basketball Association.

Years later while working as a car salesman, O’Bannon recognized his likeness, used in a video game without his consent or compensation. He eventually filed an antitrust class action lawsuit against the NCAA, EA Sports, a video game maker, and the Collegiate Licensing Company, which handles licensing right for many universities. EA Sports and Collegiate Licensing settled for $40 million. The NCAA took the case to the Supreme Court and lost.

While much of the focus surrounding O’Bannon v. NCAA centered on the economics of college athletics, the contest was very much rooted in a power struggle over resources, the essence of politics.

NCAA College Basketball second half game action basketball game between the UCLA Bruins vs USC Trojans at Galen Center in Los Angeles, CA. (Photo by Jevone Moore/Full Image 360)

Politics and sports have long held a close association, so much so that it is beyond laughable when commentators—professional or otherwise—suggest athletes ought to keep their opinions to themselves.

From the “Fight of the Century” between Jack Johnson and James Jeffries, Jesse Owens disproving Adolph Hitler’s notions of Aryan superiority, Jackie Robinson breaking the color line in Major League Baseball, Ali vs. Frazier, The Miracle on Ice, Michael Jordan’s apolitical stance, and right up to Jim Brown’s visit to Trump Tower, politics and sports (sometimes with a racial tinge, but not always) are seldom far apart.

Even the tradition of playing the “Star Spangled Banner” at baseball games has its origins in politics (and public relations). In 1918, the nation was at war, yet America’s pastime endured with abled-bodied men in the prime of their lives running around a baseball diamond rather than a battlefield.

With time, we often see the pitched political battles of one era washed away in another. Take Muhammad Ali who was vilified and stripped of his championship title for expressing moral objections to the Vietnam War and deemed unpatriotic—if that ain’t political I don’t know what is—to him lighting the Olympic flame at the 1996 Atlanta Games.

In an era when the media and the public obsess over the most vapid and inane aspects of an athlete’s professional and personal life, their views on political and social issues are just as relevant as their preference for a breakfast cereal, pain reliever, timepiece or burger joint. (Feel free to substitute the word “athlete” with politician or entertainer as the paradigm of frivolity applies in those realms as well.)

I respect and applaud Kaepernick, Brady, McCourty, Bennett and the many others who aren’t afraid to wade into the political thicket, each for having the strength of conviction to express a view that may not be popular in some quarters, and which may jeopardize financial prospects.

December 24, 2016 Los Angeles, CA.
NFL San Francisco vs Los Angeles Rams at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum in Los Angeles, Ca on December 24, 2016. (Photo by Jevone Moore/Full Image 360)

What is a greater “role model” than someone who has a backbone and stands firm for what they believe? Most people can’t nail a three-pointer, hit a 90-mile-an-hour fast ball, go 12 rounds in a ringt or erase a 25-point deficit to win the Super Bowl. Yet all people can develop a value system and independence of thought to express a worldview and the principles they hold dear.

Most importantly, by articulating their views on the politics and cultural issues of the day, these athletes are refusing to allow themselves to be mere commodities in a system where so many others profit handsomely from their labor.

And that’s my point! These athletes aren’t willing to play “the game” and concede their total humanity for the sake of fame and fortune. This is especially true of those who come from marginalized communities. It is as if after taking the “red pill” they have awakened to realize their power to do what most people can’t, and they can empower others to do what all people can.

Liked it? Take a second to support Thinking Good on Patreon!

One thought on “The Power of Doing the Ordinary: What We Learn at the Intersection of Politics, Sports, Race and Money”

  1. Great article; a lot to learn and think about. Should be part of a critical thinking assignment.

Comments are closed.