The following is an excerpt from “Raise a Fist, Take a Knee,” a book by Washington Post columnist John Feinstein, published this month by Little, Brown.
Ed Tapscott, now a scout for the Minnesota Timberwolves, was the first African-American to be the CEO of an NBA team. He was hired as the first president of the Charlotte Bobcats by Robert Johnson — who, not coincidentally, was the first African-American to own a franchise in the NBA, NFL, NHL or MLB.
Tapscott, a graduate of Tufts, had been a successful college coach at American University — succeeding future Hall of Famer Gary Williams — before moving to the NBA, first as the top assistant for New York Knicks general manager Ernie Grunfeld and then as the Knicks’ general manager. During his time with the Knicks, Tapscott had an apartment in tony Riverdale, in the Bronx, east of the George Washington Bridge, near the northern tip of Manhattan.
Most nights, after a game at Madison Square Garden, Tapscott could make it home in 15 to 20 minutes since the traffic was minimal at that hour. But not always.
“Once or twice a year — at least — I’d get pulled over somewhere between the Garden and my apartment,” he said. “I drove a nice car, not anything crazy, but a nice car. The closer I got to Riverdale, the more likely I was to get stopped.”
Tapscott’s crime? Speeding? No. Drinking and driving? Absolutely not. Broken taillight? Expired license plates?
No, Tapscott was pulled over for the catchall that most African-American men — especially those who drive a high-priced car — experience at some point: DWB. Driving While Black.
“Believe me when I tell you: I wasn’t just careful; I was extra careful,” Tapscott said. “But if a cop caught a glimpse of me, there was a decent chance I was going to get stopped.”
Almost without fail, Tapscott would have to wait while the cop ran a check on his plates and on his driver’s license. Because he had maintained his residence in Northern Virginia, he was asked, “What are you doing in this neighborhood at this hour?” When he explained that he worked for the Knicks and kept an apartment in Riverdale, he would usually be asked to show some kind of Knicks ID. One night, when the cop finally told him he could go, Tapscott couldn’t resist asking, “Do you think this is fair?” The cop shook his head and said, “No, it’s not fair.”
For the Black athletes and coaches I interviewed who are fathers, giving their children, especially their sons, “the Talk” — a discussion that Pittsburgh Steelers Coach Mike Tomlin had with his sons as teenagers — isn’t just about the possibility of being stopped while doing nothing wrong. It is about how they must handle themselves when stopped, whether the stop was legitimate or not: hands on the dashboard as soon as the cop walks up, ask permission before making any move to get out a license or registration, stay in the car at all times unless told to get out, be polite — ultra-polite — as in “Yes sir, no sir.”
This is true when dealing with any police officer but even more so when dealing with a White one, especially a White male. “You have to understand,” Tapscott said. “Anyone who gets stopped is going to be anxious, nervous. But for most White people, the anxiety comes from concern about getting ticketed, maybe more so if you’ve been drinking. No one wants a DUI.
“But if you’re Black, it goes beyond that. You’re worried that you might die. When a White person tells me they don’t believe that, I say, ‘That’s because you’ve never been Black.’ ”
There is, without doubt, a double standard when it comes to what a star — Black or White — can get away with, as opposed to a non-star. But there is also a double standard when it comes to what many (most?) White fans will accept from a Black player and from a White player.
This difference was never more evident than during the 2017 anthem protests, when most of those kneeling were African-American. The complaint heard over and over again from white people — led by the bleatings of Donald Trump — was, “How dare they ruin my enjoyment of football.” Not once did any player protest during a game. Not once was a game delayed in any way by the protests. White people — most of them men — have no problem with paying Black athletes to entertain them. But ask these fans to think or rethink the way White police officers much too often treat Black people? How dare you. Get out there, entertain me, help my team win, and shut up.
“I get very tired,” Super Bowl-winning coach Tony Dungy said, “when I bring up a racial issue — like the current coaching situation, among other things — of people saying that I’m creating a racial issue when there is none. The people saying that, without fail, are people who aren’t touched by racial issues, who have never experienced racism, who have never been labeled or called a name because of the color of their skin.
“Where in the world do they come up with the notion that an issue has nothing to do with race? What they should say is, ‘This has nothing to do with me, so I don’t care.’ That would at least be honest.”
As the reaction to the anthem protests made clear, many White Americans — quite a few of them NFL season ticket holders — love Black players who help their teams win games. But they have little if any interest in what these players think on any subject beyond the decision to go for it on fourth-and-one. To these people, the players aren’t all that different from the gladiators who entertained the Romans a couple thousand years ago.
The athletes are there to entertain and, if they’re lucky, they get to live to see another day. Nowadays, they’re paid very well for performing. But the principle isn’t so different.
“When you are choosing players in almost any sport at any level, it is almost always a meritocracy,” Tomlin said. “Everyone wants the best players because they want to win games. But when it comes to giving people a chance to lead, a chance to be the decision-maker, all of a sudden politics often come into play. A lot of people want to see us in uniform, want to see us perform but don’t really want to hear what we have to say — on the field or off the field.”
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