Middle School Assembly

Last Friday, I was able to speak to the 5th and 6th grade students over in the Intermediate School to celebrate Black History Month. I started off by telling them a little bit about my senior project and how sports have impacted the civil rights movement. Then, I spoke about five different African American athletes: Arthur Ashe, Tommie Smith, Wilma Rudolph, Jackie Robinson, and Jesse Owens. The students seemed to really enjoy hearing about these figures, especially those they hadn’t heard of before, and were great about participating and answering any questions that I asked them.

I think it’s very important to teach these kids about some of the key athletes who played a role in civil rights so that they can understand the impact these brave individuals had on our country. This also allows them to understand the history of discrimination in our country and how wrong some of these prejudiced actions and beliefs really were. I’ve heard from several of the students that they really enjoyed learning about these people, and I know it was a great way for them to celebrate Black History Month.

Michael Jordan: Did He Transcend Race, Or Just Ignore It?

Forget LeBron James or Kobe Bryant. Michael Jordan is without a doubt the greatest basketball player the sport has ever seen. In fact, he stands today as one of the most enduring and prominent sports figures of all time, a man whose competitive drive and unparalleled excellence has shaped him into a global brand of success. Ever since his emergence as a star for the Chicago Bulls, kids have been striving to become “like Mike,” clamoring to Nike stores to buy his shoes or other gear if necessary. He was a superstar in its entirety, not simply an emblem for the black community but for the nation as a whole. But the question stands: did he overcome the barriers of race to promote a colorblind society, or did he simply ignore his race and abandon the black community he represented?

Michael Jordan was drafted by the Chicago Bulls in 1984, a time removed from the turmoil of the Civil Rights Movement that nevertheless still bore its scars. His agent began pursuing a shoe deal with an athletic company, and eventually the partnership between Jordan and Nike began. It was at this time that Michael Jordan’s “image” was born. After all, when it comes to retail and marketing, the only thing that matters is the image. Who’s promoting these shoes? Who will I emulate if I buy them? Just how cool/new/like me is this guy? I would argue that it was this point in Jordan’s career, the instance in which he and his influence moved beyond the basketball court and into media and society, that he began to blur the lines of race.

Michael Jordan 2

Meanwhile, on the court, Jordan’s stock was soaring. He was dunking on power forwards, hitting game-winning shots, and proving himself superior to any and all competition. As he became more and more popular on the basketball court, his image in the media did as well, and soon “Michael Jordan”, with his expensive shoes and multiple endorsements, became a bonafide brand. And, like any brand, his image and public depiction had to be maintained in order to sustain and promote his sales. This is when the issue of race begins to come in play.

Michael Jordan was able to become a superstar for everybody, not just blacks. He showed what hard work and natural talent could accomplish for the entire population, instead of merely the African American community. White kids wanted to be “like Mike” just as much as everyone else. Suddenly, it didn’t matter that he was black, just that he was a great basketball player. In a way, Michael Jordan was able to transcend race and make it irrelevant to his public depiction, becoming arguably the first and most prominent African American major athlete ever to do so. Could he even have been one of the final steps toward an equal and colorblind society?

Michael Jordan

The other side of the equation is that even if a lot of the public didn’t put an emphasis on his race, Michael Jordan was still black and still a member of the African American community. Unlike Muhammad Ali, Arthur Ashe, and many other black athletes who came before him, Jordan did not become a vocal advocate or racial symbol; instead, he merely remained a basketball player. This is not meant as a criticism; after all, no one ever asked him to represent the grievances of an entire race, nor was he necessarily expected to. That being said, Jordan took a step in a different direction from his predecessors and forged a new black athlete- one who no longer needed to become a racial symbol to be idolized or recognized.

Michael Jordan Promotion Tour Jordan Classic Camp

This silent attitude and focus on public perception was perhaps never more prominent than in 1990, when Michael Jordan was asked by his former UNC college coach Dean Smith to endorse Senate candidate Harvey Gantt, a black civil rights activist running against the segregationist and racist Jesse Helms in North Carolina. Jordan, one of the most high profile figures in the country, refused, saying “Republicans buy sneakers, too.”

As previously mentioned, Jordan was never compelled or expected to give a political endorsement. Most professional athletes don’t. This decision does, however, mark a separation that he subtly defined between activism in the black community and economic interests. By refusing to endorse Hantt and support civil rights in order to preserve his image, Jordan showed that he wanted to be a business man, not an advocate. Beyond this, he did little to engage himself in the African American community throughout his career, effectively distancing himself. So now one must ask: did he ignore his race and heritage?

Michael Jordan 4

In a way, Michael Jordan was a whole new kind of black athlete. Instead of exceeding despite his race, like Jackie Robinson, or demonstrating it proudly, like Muhammad Ali, he made it a non-issue. When people saw Michael Jordan, they didn’t think “black man in sports”; what they saw was simply an incredible basketball player. Ultimately, Jordan was able to transcend race, to move beyond its duties and labels. Whether this was a move toward equality and a colorblind society or an abandonment of his roots is a question that could be debated continuously. The answer could be both. There might not even be an answer. Regardless, Michael Jordan redefined the role of African American athletes, moving beyond the labels of a race to focus more on a brand and media depiction.

 

Works Cited:

Merlino, Doug. “How Michael Jordan Became the First Modern African-American Superstar Athlete.” Bleacher Report. Bleacher Report, 20 May 2011. Web. 20 Feb. 2013.

Granderson, LZ. “The Political Michael Jordan.” ESPN. ESPN Internet Ventures, 14 Aug. 2012. Web. 20 Feb. 2013.

What’s My Name Fool? Sports and Resistance in the United States

What's My Name FoolWhat’s My Name Fool? by Dave Zirin is a groundbreaking and somewhat controversial book detailing the relationship between activism, discrimination, and sports. Its focus on the use of sports as a platform for social change and public protest ties in perfectly with my project, and the examples it uses and history it calls upon echo many of the figures that I have studied. It even included commentary from John Carlos, the man who launched the Black Power Salute at the 1968 Olympics alongside Tommie Smith.

Overall, this book uses historical basis as a way of challenging current athletes and sports figures to become involved in social activism to better combat the injustices of today’s society. Sound familiar? That’s because it was this ideology that spurred Muhammad Ali to protest the Vietnam War in the 60’s, that inspired Arthur Ashe to become involved in so many humanitarian aid projects, and that gave Branch Rickey the idea to challenge segregation through baseball. Ultimately, sports are a method with which athletes, coaches, and managers can promote social change, both historically and currently.

Like in 40 Million Dollar SlavesDave Zirin argues that today’s sports world has become so clouded with aims of profit and fame that it has begun to hurt its own players, forming a corrupt and immoral system. While this idea may be a bit dramatic, it holds some credit. With that viewpoint in mind, it is up to today’s athletes to take a stand for fundamental beliefs of equality and freedom, both on the court and off. That’s what black athletes did in the past century, and it’s what all athletes need to do now. As one former NFL linebacker said in What’s My Name, “How we do sport, how we play our games, is a window to see and a format through which to express that vision of a better world.”

Quick Update

Just a quick update here to say that I just received confirmation that my first official visit to Meeting Street Academy will be on Wednesday, February 27th. As previously mentioned, this will just be a quick introductory session to get to know the kids and introduce myself to them. I’m super excited to get started, and can’t wait until the 27th!

More Progress…

This past Wednesday, I visited Meeting Street Academy to meet with Lori LaFevre, the Director of Special Programs, about Project Playbook. Ms. LaFevre was extremely kind and accommodating, and she helped me nail down most of the loose ends of my project. She’s very excited about this after school program, and I should be able to have my first session in the coming weeks! Ms. Lafevre told me that with the many after school clubs and instructors at the school, it would probably be best if I had an initial introductory session of sorts, in which I introduce myself to the kids and allow them to get to know a little bit more about me and about the club. I am currently working on setting a date for this meeting, and after that everything should get rolling.

Meeting Street Academy

Meeting Street Academy

When I was at Meeting Street Academy, I was so impressed with both the students and the school itself. While walking around, one little girl approached me, held out her hand to shake, introduced herself, and welcomed me to the school. Then later, another little boy offered me an eraser as a special prize. All of the children were adorable and responsible, and it was truly a testament to the quality of the program at Meeting Street. As far as resources go, the school was equipped with both a gated grassy area and an open field beyond that which I should have access to for sports. There is also a small paved area with a few basketball goals that I should be able to use as well. It was definitely a relief to see that the school at proper areas in which we’ll be able to play sports.

The two things I’m going to need to provide for each meeting are equipment and volunteers. I plan on using the PE department’s various sporting equipment to take to the school and use, bringing items such as baseball gloves and soccer balls. These things shouldn’t pose any sort of problem. In regards to people, I made an announcement the other day inquiring as to available volunteers who may be interested in helping me out. I’m happy to say that many people approached me, saying they wanted to help, and I’m sure there will be plenty more people willing to volunteer as the May deadline for community credits approaches :) So now that I have these hurdles out of the way, the final step will be to establish a set calendar of dates in which I plan on going to Meeting Street. Then, I can hold my first introductory session and get started!

Breaking a Stereotype: Celebrating the 25th Anniversary of Doug Williams’ Super Bowl Victory

The Super Bowl two days ago was celebrated across the country, with families and friends gathering around bowls of salsa and bean dip to watch the Baltimore Ravens beat the San Francisco 49ers’. There were dozens of headlines surrounding the game: two head coaches that were also brothers, Ray Lewis’ final NFL game, the jubilant atmosphere in the hosting city of New Orleans. One aspect of the game, however, was only mentioned in passing because to analysts and fans alike, it seemed unimportant and unremarkable- the starting quarterback for the 49ers’, Colin Kaepernick, was black. It just didn’t seem that big of a deal. Twenty five years ago, however, that was not the case.

Doug Williams

January 31st, 1988, was the day the Denver Broncos faced the Washington Redskins in Super Bowl XXII. On one side of the ball was the Bronco’s famed quarterback, John Elway. On the other was a man who was more known for the color of his skin than his skill on the field. His name was Doug Williams, and after a turbulent career that had seen its fair share of highs and lows, he had emerged to become the starting quarterback of the Washington Redskins. The fact that he was a black quarterback about to play in the sport’s biggest game did not go unnoticed, as he was surrounded by fan fair and media attention. It wasn’t until his team emerged victorious, however, and his stellar play earned him MVP honors, that Doug Williams truly broke the stereotype surrounding African Americans in the quarterback position.

Doug Williams 2

Before he even made it to the Super Bowl, black quarterbacks in the NFL were something of a rarity. It was felt that coaches and GM’s suffered from the misguided notion that they couldn’t read the defense or make smart passing decisions. Williams’ outstanding play on football’s biggest stage finally put an end to that belief. As Charles Ross, author of Outside the Lines, said, “Doug Williams really shattered that unwritten belief system that was prevalent in NFL. What he did could not be downplayed.” Ultimately, he was able to change the perceptions of African Americans in the game of football, proving that they had just as much skill in more cerebral positions as athletic ones. He showed that black quarterbacks could lead their teams to victory and represented the struggles that so many before him faced in being denied opportunities in the sport of football. Thanks to Doug Williams’ ground breaking achievement, African Americans are no longer hindered by positions or excluded from being quarterbacks. His victory on January 31st, 1988, was truly a victory for an entire race.

 

Works Cited:

Keys, Perryn. “25 Years Later, Doug Williams’ Win Still Resonates.” The Advocate. The Advocate, 31 Jan. 2013. Web. 05 Feb. 2013.
Harris, Terrance. “Doug Williams Broke down Barriers with Super Bowl XXII MVP Run.” Greater New Orleans. The Times-Picayune, 30 Jan. 2013. Web. 05 Feb. 2013.

Black History Month

Today, February 1st, marks the first day of Black History Month. In order to commemorate this occasion, I had decided to conduct an assembly for the student body. Eventually, however, I decided that it would work best if I gave a brief biographical overview of a figure I have studied this year during our morning assemblies instead. After the eye-opening results of my survey, I know that many of my classmates are unfamiliar with some of the most influential African American athletes of the past century. In order to help solve this problem, I’m going to briefly cover each of the athletes featured in my survey during one morning meeting every week, detailing their accomplishments and overall contributions to the civil rights movement. Hopefully, this will get our students thinking about the importance of black history in the foundation of our country and will allow them to become more familiar with some of the heroic accomplishments of black athletes in the past hundred years.