Keith Strudler: Summer Basketball

Jul 13, 2016

This week my two boys, age 6 and 8, started summer league outdoor basketball in my town of Beacon. For the uninitiated, summer ball is a particular basketball pleasure, an offseason gathering for those who truly love the sport. Its lacks the structure and perhaps urgency of winter ball, the sport’s natural regular season. It’s outdoors, instructional, and really for people that see basketball as not simply a sport on the rotation, but a year round pursuit.

To cut right to the point, of the 30 or so kids in our summer group, my kids are two of perhaps six white kids in the program. It’s something you can’t really miss, particularly as a parent observer. My kids either don’t seem to notice, or more likely, simply don’t care. At eight, my oldest is aware of race, particularly as an obsessive sports fans, but he doesn’t carry the bias that’s endemic of our adult culture.

Now, after only a couple of days of observation, there’s a whole lot that can be said about the place of race in sport. Clearly, in my town, far more African-American families value basketball than white families, who seem to spend summer in other sporting activities. And when splitting up teams, my two kids were selected nearly at the end of the draft, even though they’re both pretty good for their age. To be completely objective, as much as any dad can be, my oldest has a really nice handle on the ball and can dribble with both hands. His shooting needs work, so I’m thinking maybe point guard. And now I’m the one who’s stereotyping.

The point is, sport and race are inherently and everlastingly interwoven, and it starts as soon as kids are old enough to throw a ball. This isn’t new news, but perhaps it’s more interesting to me when I see it happen right in front of my eyes, with six and eight year old boys who, without being told, are perhaps creating a perception of what basketball players are supposed to look like.

With that as a backdrop, neither I, nor anyone else, should be surprised that players for the WNBA Minnesota Lynx chose to wear “Black Lives Matter” shirts during warmups for a home game this past Saturday. The shirts carried the names Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, two African-American men recently killed by police, and a logo of the Dallas Police Department, clearly paying homage to all. The front of the shirts read, “Change starts with us,” and “Justice & accountability.” That was the message this largely, but certainly not exclusively African-American basketball team in a largely African-American sport would send before a regular season game in Minnesota.

Four off-duty police officers working the game took offense and walked off the job that night. The head of the Minneapolis police union lauded the cops’ position, and critiqued the players, and others assumedly, for promoting, as he put it, false narratives around police brutality. The Minneapolis police chief and the city’s mayor took a different stance, criticizing the officers’ lack of professionalism. I’m guessing you’d hear similarly divergent comments across the nation, if you so desired. Such is the state of our fractured union.

The Lynx aren’t the only athletes who’ve made statements around the most recent events involving police killing African-Americans. New York Knick Carmelo Anthony and tennis star Serena Williams both spoke out, as did a handful of other notables. Most, though not all, were black. That isn’t particularly surprising, but it does illustrate both the chasm in this debate and the racial divide in the sports world itself. Even if locker rooms are united – and they typically are – it doesn’t solve larger, and more important racial issues outside of them.

I’m not entirely sure there’s a point here, other than the obvious. That is, were in a really bad place right now, and we’re far from colorblind. From the sports perspective, though, we should never shy from the racial dynamic, and some might say experiment, of our fields, tracks, and courts. Athletes should speak freely and openly about race. Not simply because they’re role models or have a platform, both of which are true. But because they’ve negotiated a landscape where race has always been a point of analysis; where people are often and openly judged based on the color of their skin. Just ask any African-American of a certain age who aspired to be a quarterback, or what it’s like for Serena to play tennis. Or what Kristaps Porziņģis felt like getting booed on draft night, because teams aren’t supposed to use the number four pick on a white guy from Latvia.

Athletes aren’t simply obligated to speak out for racial justice because they can. They should because they are uniquely qualified. That goes for white, black, Latino, Asian – really, everyone. Because maybe, just maybe their perspective, and megaphone, could make just a slight difference, assuming anything can.

Even if the so-called adults don’t get it, perhaps our kids will. My two boys, a minority in their summer basketball league, seem to get it just fine.

Keith Strudler is the director of the Marist College Center for Sports Communication and an associate professor of communication. You can follow him on twitter at @KeithStrudler

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