The Road to Hell is Paved With Good Intentions: RISE's Efforts Burden Black Athletes

Photo Credit: "Road to Hell," Bill Collison, Flickr

In an article recently published in the Huffington Post, Jocelyn Benson, CEO of the Ross Initiative for Sports Equality (RISE), discusses the popular, if misguided, notion of sports as the ideal vehicle to unify Americans and “bridge the racial divide.”  RISE is described as an “unprecedented alliance of professional sports leagues, athletes, educators, media networks and sports professionals, to use sports to improve race relations and drive social progress in our country.”  What are the means and methods by which RISE intends to make this happen?  In sum, it appears that they primarily entail Black athletes, young and old, conducting the heavy lifting in fostering this “understanding, respect, and equality,” while those actually responsible for racism are held to a much lower and less rigorous standard.

The first example is a town hall hosted by RISE during Super Bowl LI entitled “From Protest to Progress: The Power of Sports to Improve Race Relations.”  Less than a third of NFL teams had individuals participate, and nearly all of the NFL participants were Black.  With the heavy hitters on RISE’s Board of Directors, which includes the commissioners of every major sport in America, where were the white NFL executives and decision makers?  Where were the white coaches?  Where were the white NFL players? How is it that racism’s victims fill the ranks of town halls and panel discussions regarding racism in America, while its perpetrating class is largely absent or more interested in defending the status quo when they bother to show up? This is not a recipe for success.

The second example is an effort where RISE “teamed up with the NBA and other partners to create ‘Saturday Morning Hoops,’ a six-week program in New Orleans that brought local youth and law enforcement together.  The program featured a combination of on-court basketball training and hands-on learning developed by RISE focused on leadership, conflict resolution, identity and diversity. RISE and the NBA partnered with Under Armour and the Union League Boys & Girls Club to create a similar program, ‘Building Bridges Through Basketball,’ that is ongoing in Chicago this summer.”  This, again, misses the point.

Specifically, it posits Black people and police as equally culpable for the racist tension that exists between the two groups, and frames the issue as one in which racism would be minimized if only the two groups got to know one another.  With all due respect to our Black elders, this was the tactic used during the Civil Rights movement—the notion that whites would not mistreat Blacks if only they got to know us—and it was largely ineffective.  It is not Black people who are committing unaccountable murders of police officers; it is police officers who have routinely engaged in the unlawful beating and extrajudicial killing of Black people since the police’s inception as slave patrols. Crimes for which they are rarely held accountable.  The history of racist policing is a long, storied one, which is wholly unrelated to any action on the part of Black people.  It is a micro version reflective of the macro issue of institutionalized and systemic racism in America, which is omnipresent and permeates Black people’s lives from before birth to after death.  The focus of any efforts to improve the relationship between Blacks and police must be principally focused on delving into the root of racism in the nation’s police departments, and eradicating it and its attenuated manifestations.  There must be a comprehensive, aggressive, metric based, dedicated effort to that end.  This is especially relevant for the police because the manner in which their racism manifests itself is distinctively harmful and literally, violent; it can result in actions that significantly impact the lives of its victims, including the very taking of Black lives.

In the final example of RISE’s means and methods to meet its objectives, RISE intends to implement leadership programs in all 50 states wherein “[t]he curriculum is administered to student-athletes by their coaches during the course of their respective team’s seasons, and is designed to increase awareness, build skills and create safe spaces to have difficult conversations.”  This plan is similarly flawed.  Who is vetting the coaches administering this program?  And what is the role of the Black athletes in “increas[ing] awareness, build[ing] skills, and [having safe space] to have difficult conversations.”  Black high school students should not be burdened with facilitating the eradication of white racism, as it is the white high school students—in the same manner as the white adults who rear them—who continue the American as apple pie tradition of perpetuating racism against their Black peers, athletes and otherwise.

Frankly, RISE must move beyond the flawed notion of Blacks’ and whites’ shared interest in sports as a foundational basis to “improve race relations.”  Throughout history, including up to the present day, whites have been more than content with Blacks entertaining them at sporting events while maintaining racist beliefs and supporting racist institutions.  In fact, entertainment of majority white audiences in sports and music are the very few areas where Blacks have been allowed to generate massive amounts of money, status and influence—but  only at superficial levels, with racism alive and well throughout the management level of the sports industry.  Blacks do not own or rarely coach the teams for whom they generate billions of dollars in profit, and in which they are paid relatively small sums of money in comparison.  Or, in the case of college football and basketball where they too dominate the rosters and make billions of dollars for schools, are not paid at all.  In the stands at high schools, universities, and professional sporting events alongside Black fans, die-hard white fans who are rabid supporters of their team are the same ones who send death threats to Black athletes they were cheering days before when the athletes dare to challenge racism or the mistreatment of Blacks in this country.  These men and women are told to “shut up and play.”

Racism is in no way, shape, or form, the responsibility of Black people.  As previously stated here, we did not create this mess, and we are NOT its perpetrators; and while we should assist in trying to mitigate its impact on our communities as a practical matter, we should not be the ones on whose shoulders the burden is chiefly placed.

As an aside, Benson touts RISE’s receipt of the Stuart Scott ENspire Award, just two years after RISE’s inception, due to RISE’s innovative approach. . . in using sports to promote understanding, respect and equality.”  It is  interesting that an organization, founded and chaired by a billionaire, receives a $100,000 grant when there must surely be other worthwhile organizations who too meet the award’s criteria of “using sport to serve communities and make a positive impact on society,” that really need this money.

The road to hell is indeed paved with good intentions.  Given its prominent board, apparently sincere founder, and financial resources, RISE is in a unique position to make a substantive impact on the issue of racism and sports.  It appears, however, that to do so, a course correction is in order.