“It’s the thousand-pound elephant in the room that we’re not talking about,” Lindsey, who survived the anguish of growing up in Southeast Washington, told me last week from his office at New York University, where he directs the McSilver Institute for Poverty Policy and Research. “We think that black kids aren’t doing that — that’s something white folks do. Some of my research — and that of others — has pointed out that, no, that’s not the case. More and more black kids are doing this.”
Which was why Lindsey titled his caucus-commissioned report “Ring the Alarm.”
Few among us, however, heard its peal. Only 15 of the 50-plus caucus members signed up to be on a task force organized by Rep. Bonnie Watson Coleman (D-N.J.) to attack the issue after being presented with Lindsey’s research. A quick Google search I punched in for the report issued just before Christmas registered only 2,900 results.
But I found nearly 59,000 entries this month when I searched for Bryce Gowdy, a strapping 6-foot-2, 17-year-old black boy who was buried in his hometown of Deerfield Beach, Fla., on Saturday. He was a highly regarded football recruit headed to Georgia Tech until he surrendered his life on a train track near his home Dec. 30.
And I struck more than 140,000 stories when I searched for Zachary Winston, the 19-year-old younger brother of Michigan State basketball star Cassius Winston who took his life in November in the same manner Gowdy would weeks later. Zachary Winston played basketball at Albion College. Turned out he was one of the tragedies at the Detroit high school from which Lindsey received the parents’ emails about this gut-wrenching trend.
It is unfortunate that it takes the death of blossoming black athletic bodies to heighten awareness of the demise of young black bodies not necessarily part of our sports industrial complex. But that has become our value system. We pay attention to the black boys who entertain us. Others may as well be invisible. No matter that all of them suffer the same troubles, such as the trauma of racism, chaotic home lives, unstable finances and, Lindsey added, a barrage of news reports about their lot that has engendered a sense of hopelessness.
Or as Princeton professor and author Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor put it piercingly at the 2012 Socialism Conference in Chicago focused on police brutality and lethality in black communities: “For all we hear about black men — the descriptions, the characters of thugs, of hard life — we never hear about the trauma, the pain, the humiliation, the suffering, the stress, the depression of what it must be like to be considered less than human by the society into which you were born. We never hear, for example, that for young black men age 15 to 24 suicide is the third-leading cause of death.”
Kerry Dixon, the Georgia Tech wide receivers coach who recruited Gowdy, told me last week that he didn’t immediately know the details of Gowdy’s death.
“I didn’t know until [Gowdy’s mother] called me that morning,” Dixon said. “She told me what happened, so. I couldn’t believe it. Unbelievable kid, unbelievable student. We’re talking about a kid with a 3.73 GPA, a 1,200 SAT score. Of course, had some hardships. But there was no sign of this.”
Coaches such as Dixon, no matter how much time they spend with this increasingly troubled demographic — the suicide rate doubled between 2007 and 2017, and suicide attempts rose 122 percent from 1991 to 2017 — aren’t trained to recognize such dark thoughts. Who is other than mental health professionals?
“When I read the Bryce Gowdy story, it was clear that this kid needed some mental health treatment,” said Lindsey, whose original study was published in November in the journal Pediatrics. “His mom was also struggling with her own mental health issues and basically said: ‘I’m struggling with my own stuff. You’re going to have to figure it out.’ Often times we do turn a blind eye toward the problem presentation of kids. It was clear to me that people either weren’t attuned appropriately to what his issues were and interpreted them as mental health issues needing mental health treatment, or they just didn’t care.”
Gowdy’s family has been in the midst of homelessness. Those around him said he was increasingly worried about his family’s well-being should he leave them to go to college.
“I did know of their financial hardships, but by NCAA rules, there’s nothing you can really do. At all,” said Dixon, who was a Hampton quarterback in the early 2000s.
It made me wonder whether Gowdy would still be here if the NCAA allowed, as it should, revenue-generating athletes such as him to earn a salary like every other income-producing member of the college corporation. It reminded heartbreakingly of the system’s immorality.
“We knew once he got here we could take care of him in a different way, and that’s what we were anticipating,” Dixon said. “Then you get that call. It was hard.”
The story that was supposed to be written about Bryce Gowdy — and Zachary Winston — was one you have read a dozen times over. It was supposed to be how sports rescued them from a bad-luck situation, the vagaries of growing up poor, having to survive a violence-ridden neighborhood where its most prominent members are kings and queens of a lumpenproletariat.
But they turned out, sadly, to tell another story. It is, as Taylor observed in her remarks more than seven years ago now, that to be young, black and male in America — gifted or not — too often means to be “demonized and dehumanized in such a way that the very desire to be alive is taken away.”