By 1945, Branch Rickey had zeroed in on the black player he wanted to breach baseball’s color barrier. He was a 6-foot, 190-pound dark-skinned Afro-Cuban shortstop named Silvio Garcia who bounced among leagues in Central and South America, the Caribbean and briefly the Negro leagues.
Rickey traveled to Cuba that year to scout Garcia in person. When Garcia’s bat and flawless fielding didn’t disappoint, Rickey scheduled a meeting with Garcia to assess whether he could be competitive while patient enough to deal with what abuse he would be certain to receive as the first black major leaguer since Fleetwood Walker 60 years earlier.
At their get-together, Rickey, the Brooklyn Dodgers' general manager, eventually asked Garcia what he would do if another player spat a racial epithet in his face. The story goes that Garcia responded curtly: "I kill him."
Rickey went back on his search.
Garcia threatened to be a black athlete neither Rickey nor his sport could control.
Control of black athletic talent in this country was then, before and now — as Houston Texans owner Bob McNair reminded not once but twice over the past few days — of paramount concern to ownership and management. There was, for example, the concerted effort of white lawmakers to wrest the heavyweight championship of the world over a century ago from boxer Jack Johnson, the first black man to hold it, to restore the fallacy of white superiority. There was reduction of college athletic scholarships from four-year contracts to single-year agreements at the start of the 1970s, which just so happened to coincide with teams ramping up through integration, reducing the power of new stars, primarily of color, from managing their destinies. There was the NBA under commissioner David Stern in 2005 managing to impose a dress code on the predominantly black league to rebut an increasingly urban image that Stern was worried might have made it less marketable to advertisers and white fans.
And there is the NFL’s response to free agent quarterback Colin Kaepernick and those players who have dared use the national anthem as a stage to protest grievances against police lethality vs. black men or the dog-whistle (if not foghorn) firebrand of this country’s latest president.
What the upper echelon of the NFL began reacting to earlier this year, with its conspiratorial defrocking of Kaepernick, wasn’t about the anthem, per se. It wasn’t about the massive flags it so often unfurls before games. It wasn’t about the military it recognizes at almost every game with a presentation of the colors or an expensive flyover of armed forces weaponry.
It was about, as McNair allowed his subconscious to let slip, corralling the players and returning them to their place.
"We can't have the inmates running the prison," McNair was quoted by ESPN.com reporters Seth Wickersham and Don Van Natta. Jr. on Friday after an owners meeting earlier this month in which the bosses discussed the power the players exercised against the league protocol that they stand in a manner deemed respectful by the owners for the national anthem. The sentiments of Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, who suggested, echoing a charge from President Trump, that he would dismiss any of his charges who followed Kaepernick's lead, no doubt spurred the agenda item.
Demonization of black athletes, such as referring to them as “inmates” in a “prison” as McNair did, wasn’t the most critical issue raised by McNair’s quote, but it was helpful to the process of convincing the public that it is in its best interest, too, for those who run sports to somehow contain their athletes. After all, it plays on the fear of black men misbehaving that we in the media, the sports media in particular, continue to perpetuate.
As Missouri journalism professor Cynthia Frisby underscored in a 2015 study of sports coverage in black and white, more stories are written about white athletes than black, but more stories about crime involving black athletes are written than about crime involving white athletes.
“And it just got worse from there,” she told me earlier this year on a webinar we participated in sponsored by the U.S. Basketball Writers Association. “When it got to domestic and sexual violence, we found 70.6 percent of the stories were about the black athletes and 17.6 percent about the white athlete.”
It's the kind of research that led me to write of black athletes in the Wake Forest Journal of Law & Policy in 2012 that they are more likely "to be portrayed more as deviant, drug abusers, violent, women beaters, and menaces to society."
When Stuart Alan Clarke was teaching political science and American studies at Williams College in the early 1990s, shortly after Public Enemy’s legendary “Fear of a Black Planet” album was released, he made an observation in the Socialist Review that applies to what McNair accidentally laid bare last week.
“Social representations — narratives, symbols, images — that privilege race as a sign of social disorder and civic decay,” Clarke wrote, “can be thought of as part of a socially constructed ‘fear of a black planet’ that has traditionally functioned to blunt progressive political possibilities.”
In short, McNair’s couching of black players as deviants was yet another weapon, like the rhetorical wielding that protests during the anthem “disrespect the troops,” to stop a legitimate protest that bled from the streets into our games.
To be sure, after McNair met with his Texans on Saturday to apologize for suggesting they were menaces to society in need of corralling, he reiterated his original allusion that he and his fellow owners couldn’t allow them to act as they were so moved.
“As I said yesterday [Friday], I was not referring to our players when I made a very regretful comment during the owners meetings last week,” McNair was quoted Saturday in a statement released by the team. “I was referring to the relationship between the league office and team owners and how they have been making significant strategic decisions affecting our league without adequate input from ownership over the past few years.”
Like Silvio Garcia, these black NFL athletes are threatening to be a lot neither McNair nor his brethren can control.
Kevin B. Blackistone, ESPN panelist and visiting professor at the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland, writes sports commentary for The Washington Post.
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