By Quraysh Ali Lansana
I am a native of Enid, a place that feels difficult locating on a map. Oklahoma has such a vexing history regarding race, class and the rule of law. Oklahomans also love football almost as much as life itself.
Think about it: even the nickname, Sooner, is a celebration of outlaws who staked their claims under cover of darkness the night before the Land Run officially began. It’s also terrible grammar.
To be an Oklahoma Sooners football fan, a college football lover or a fan of the NFL, presents many profound conundrums. But I am, have been my entire life, and hope this pandemic will be at a place where it’s safe to play this season. The question is why.
I wasn’t a very good football player—too chubby to be a running back, not fast enough to be a defensive end. But sports are where I first experienced the dissolution, or at least temporary reprieve, of racism. I squatted on the offensive line next to white dudes in the understanding we had to work together to be successful, even if “nigger” lurked behind their mouth guards. I watched religiously every Saturday, as my OU heroes of all ethnicities made mutual respect and inclusiveness look easy on the field, even though Black players had to be inside by sundown until the late 1970’s.
My elementary school, ironically named after Teddy Roosevelt, was among the last in town to desegregate. The vast lot of the school grounds is where the Land Run was re-enacted annually. Zack, a full-blood Cherokee and one of my earliest best friends, never participated. We also didn’t watch Westerns. This patched earth was also the junior high school practice field, and Zack displayed amazing speed at wide receiver. He was our high school mascot, a Plainsmen, our junior year, riding a spotted mare at pre-game in war paint and headdress. I’ve long wondered how he felt on that horse, energizing a mostly white crowd whose ancestors aided in the decimation of his.
It is an odd form of tribute.
Several colleges and professional teams (in a variety of sports) possess Native American mascots. So at the same time sports can bring disparate people together, if only for a few hours, how can it not also engender a spirited, historic violence? Every time I see folks at Florida State or Atlanta Braves games engaging in the “Tomahawk Chop” I cringe. Would a fan of the Washington Redskins be cool with the Beantown Honkies or the Cleveland Crackers?
Perhaps it is just me, but that violence is also part of why I love football. We are Romans at the Coliseum, are we not? Not that we want anyone to experience injury, but that release of aggression, that acceptable rage! We live for the hard hits, the smack of shoulder pads. Tell me it’s not cathartic. As a boy, as non-violent as I was and mostly remain, the football field was a place to vent the frustrations and pains of race and class. My junior high teammates and I loved playing the school from the wealthier west side of town. We generally lost, but relished in our “thug school” swag as we swallowed defeat. Sport is a place where a person of color could be hero or heroine. A place where I could watch a Black or Brown man attack a White man and not go to prison. To quote one of my former student poets, Maya Dru, “When is the last time you cheered for a Black man who was not in an end zone?”
My mentor, Pulitzer Prize winner Miss Gwendolyn Brooks, wrote in a poem the following lines about the murderers of Emmit Till:
Perhaps the boy had never guessed
That the trouble with grown-ups was that under the magnificent shell of adulthood, just under
Waited the baby full of tantrums.
These lines deftly describe many professional athletes, and most certainly a few football players. Not all, but many. Every weekend I pondered how players who were under investigation for sexual assault and rape were allowed to play, yet players whom exercise their First Amendment rights are called disgraces and vilified by politicians. The entire Baylor University football program, including the athletic director, coaching staff and the university’s president, were dismissed for colluding in the concealment of a long history of rape and sexual assault against women on campus. Peyton Manning, Brett Farve and Ben Rothlisberger, NFL quarterback giants, all have sexual assault on their jerseys. Would they be called unpatriotic?
Colin Kaepernick’s peaceful protests, his right to voice his opinion by silently kneeling during the national anthem, has cost him the opportunity to work. Just think about that for a moment. He’s not working because of his opinion, not his ability and he’s harmed no one. Kaepernick is a better quarterback than half the starters in the NFL. If you follow the game you know I’m right. This is also a conundrum. The attacks on him are in truth attacks on free speech and an example of blatant racism.
Do these same people support the right of Alt-Right leaders to spew hate and division across the country? Are these the same people who told former Ohio State quarterback Cardale Jones, when he shared his thoughts on police brutality, to “…worry about getting us fans another championship. Stay out of this BS. Go Bucks?”
I was a journalism major at OU in the early 1980’s, and spent many Saturdays in the press box at what was then Owens Field, now Gaylord Family Oklahoma Memorial Stadium. I wrote for the school newspaper, was sports anchor and news producer for live cable access broadcasts, and served as news director at the radio station. I am a firm believer in a free press. That freedom of expression and the right to knowledge is being dismantled under the mantra of “fake news.” The instilling of distrust in the news media is real and dangerous. True, one should not believe everything they see, hear or read at face value. But the idea that there is nothing of substance coming from legitimate news sources leads to a blind faith in the loudest mouth.
Football is followed by rich and poor, Blacks, whites and essentially all ethnicities. Many teams are based in cities with consistent issues of racial injustice. Many players are from these communities.
The NFL is currently 70% Black. The NBA is 74% Black. The MLB is 7.7% Black and 27.4% Hispanic. MLS is 6% Black and 33.4% Hispanic. There are 26 Black players in the NHL. There are currently no Black majority team owners in the NFL or MLB. There is one Black ownership partner in the NHL. All of these numbers are political.
Recently, I heard a sports journalist state “We should keep politics out of sports.” Notre Dame, in the 1930’s, forfeited a game against OU because Blacks were not allowed in Norman, Oklahoma, let alone the stadium, at that time. Notre Dame had a Black player. There has never been a time politics weren’t involved in sports. The conundrum is “whose politics?”
Russ, a white kid whom I met in 3rd Grade on a basketball court and would become my brother for 33 years, loved the Boston Celtics of the Larry Bird era. I was decidedly a committed fan of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Magic Johnson’s Lakers and Dr. J. and his Sixers. We both understood that our lines were drawn based upon styles of play, which in effect was just coded language for race. Fundamentals versus fast and flashy. We’d chide one another if your team lost, bask in moments of victory, then laugh, drink Dr. Pepper and go play football. Once on the field near the Armory, we’d become our favorite OU or Dallas Cowboys players, and that porous line between us disintegrated. We played every Sunday afternoon for years. It was a kind of ritual.
Often, if only in my imagination, I return to the patchy hard dirt of Roosevelt Elementary to revisit the huddle, the cypher of possibility, the circle of respect and togetherness. All of us must huddle up. Or we will lose the game.