Of allies and accomplices
Don’t be an ally, a friend once advised, stating a core fundamental in anti-racist activism. Be an accomplice.
At Sunday night’s Super Bowl halftime show, Mary J. Blige – in all of her queenly grandeur, sparkling in silver and white with blonde locks cascading just about everywhere – announced from her perch up top the all-white set, that there would be “no more drama.”
Eminem, for one, didn’t get that message.
The show, which featured a dynamic history lesson on West Coast hip hop, painted a veritable love letter to host California that likely had three-quarters of America googling “Tam’s Burgers” at some point during the broadcast. Compton’s king, Dr. Dre, took his place rightly at the center of the performance, but it was Eminem, Dre’s protégé and the only white performer on the big stage, who took the opportunity to become – and it’s not his first rodeo doing so – an accomplice, going down on bended knee, head into his hand, after finishing a forceful and energetic performance of “Lose Yourself.”
The gesture, which could, perhaps, have been considered an homage to his mentor, is, of course, instantly identified with Colin Kaepernick, whose bent knee on the gridiron before games ensured his own unemployment as it laid the foundation for the reignition in movements of Black Lives Matters in sports in recent years.
Kaepernick, no doubt, is an accomplice.
As soon as Eminem’s knee hit the stage, rumors circled the internet that days earlier, he had requested to kneel as part of the performance and the NFL nixed it. Whether or not that is true, and a spokesman for the NFL says it is not, is almost beside the point.
He did it. It’s done – an accomplice by proxy, perhaps, as he brought Kaepernick’s gesture back onto the gridiron despite the fact that the quarterback has not played in the NFL in years. And now we get to talk about what it means, what it does, and whether or not it matters.
Being an accomplice matters, and there is perhaps no bigger stage to be one than in sports, whether during the Super Bowl halftime show or, as we have seen in the last few days, an Olympic speed skating oval. Erin Jackson, the best woman in the world at 500-meters, nabbed her gold medal in Beijing while teammate Brittany Bowe cheered so hard from the sidelines that she almost, as she told one reporter, passed out. Bowe, who carried the flag in Opening Ceremony alongside curler John Shuster, became a household name when she ceded her spot in the event after Jackson caught a bad edge and slipped during the Olympic Trials last month, finishing in third.
Bowe, who finished first at the distance in trials, knew Jackson deserved one of the two spots the U.S. had on the Olympic starting line. So Bowe gave her that spot, and Jackson made the most of it, ending the U.S. drought in speed skating by winning in dominant fashion, the first African American woman to do so.
And not for nothing, karma can reward accomplices – the U.S. gained a third spot eventually in the event and Bowe got to skate, finishing 16th.
Being an accomplice goes beyond the standard norms of sportsmanship – we see a lot of that at the Olympic Games, such as alpine skiers who finish their run and offer course reports via radio to those who have yet to ski, giving tips on the condition of the snow, the placement of the gates, and what kinds of shadows and light are at play depending on time of day. But being an accomplice goes a few steps further, as it requires risking one’s position to defy the status quo, to go against the norm and interrupt the narrative.
Be an ally, for sure. Stand up for the marginalized, root for the underdog. But think about doing the work to take the next step, in which consequences are not the driving force behind the action, but rather doing the right thing is.
Amy Bass is professor of sport studies and chair of the division of social science and communication at Manhattanville College. Bass is the author of ONE GOAL: A COACH, A TEAM, AND THE GAME THAT BROUGHT A DIVDED TOWN TOGETHER, among other titles. In 2012, she won an Emmy for her work with NBC Olympic Sports on the London Olympic Games.
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