CHICAGO - The panel was 11 strong, the moderator an erudite sports columnist from the Washington Post. They met Saturday at the National Association of Black Journalists convention for a long overdue discussion of a controversial subject.
"Are professional sports bad for black America?" was the topic. The discussion was inspired by a U.S. News and World Report article of the same title. The moderator was Michael Wilbon. The panelists included Don McPherson and Craig Hodges, former professional athletes; William Sanders, father of Detroit Lions running back Barry Sanders; author Nathan McCall; and Terry Washington, director of media services for the National Basketball Association.
Also on the panel was the Rev. Jesse Jackson, proving once again that there is no end to the suffering of black folks. In lieu of Jackson, the NABJ would have done well to invite author John Hoberman to sit on the panel, if for no other reason than to join the only token white person thereon, Professor Allen Sanderson of the University of Chicago.
Hoberman recently wrote "Darwin's Athletes," a book controversially subtitled "How Sport Has Damaged Black America and Preserved the Myth of Race." Briefly summarized, Hoberman's book alleges that blacks are preoccupied with sports as a means to success, that white conservatives use black athleticism to promote the notion that African-Americans are intellectually inferior and that the black intelligentsia hasn't the guts to speak out about it.
But of the 11 panelists, only McPherson had bothered to read Hoberman's book. But moderator Wilbon was more than an adequate substitute for Hoberman. The columnist said it's time to question whether "having 5 million black boys obsess over 25 new jobs in the NBA is good for us."
"We can't debate," Wilbon continued, "that black America is leading the country's obsession with sports."
Jackson was, for his part, well, Jackson. He pilloried U.S. News and World Report for being a "right-wing" magazine, as if being a right-winger precludes being right. What Jackson should have done was explain why a "right-wing" magazine and a white University of Texas professor - Hoberman - had to initiate a discussion black Americans should have started at least 10 years ago.
When Jackson tried to imply that boxing promoter Don King was an aggressive and a successful black entrepreneur hounded by racist whites itching to get him, Wilbon pulled the good reverend up on the remark.
"I know at least 10 black boxers who say Don King hasn't done a thing for them," Wilbon said. "I can cite you chapter and verse."
McCall chimed in with the idea that the problem may lie with
advertisers, who send the message to young black men that the only time they would be appreciated is when they are playing basketball. During the question-and-answer period, a Washington Post reporter charged that Nike had blood on its hands because black youths are killing each other for the company's shoes.
So just who is responsible for instilling values in black youths anyway? Is it Nike and other advertisers? Or is it the national black community? Whose children are these anyway - ours or Nike's?
The fault is with us, the formerly Negro/formerly black/now African-American community. No one on the panel dared utter this truth, of course. No need to blame ourselves when there's a white villain handy for lampooning.
But when a black youth murders for a pair of Nikes, it's obvious that someone black in his life failed to instill the notion that you don't murder for any reason, much less a pair of athletic shoes. Black parents who refuse to say to their teen-age black sons, "You don't get a pair of Nikes until you bring home straight A's on your report card," are guilty of reinforcing the idea that what these youths wear on their feet is more important than what's in their heads.
A representative for Nike - which sponsored the panel discussion - tried to explain his company's position. He was quite the diplomat, saying the purpose was to stimulate debate and discussion. He was every bit the ambassador, an occupation Ambrose Bierce defined as "the fine art of lying for one's country." In this case, the country was a company.
But were there truth in ambassadorship, the Nike rep would have told the gathering that his company has the minds of black youths for the length of a 30-second commercial while the rest of us have them 24 hours a day. If our values aren't getting through, that's our fault, not Nike's.
Pub Date: 7/23/97