Sports is one of the few areas in which Americans of all races can talk to each other. Right now, it may be the country’s best hope for meaningful dialogue.
As the Guardian’s series on race and sports starts today – and we mark two years since Colin Kaepernick first knelt during the national anthem – I am reminded that whenever an NBA player comes close to shattering one of my dusty old records, eager journalists contact me to ask how I feel. Here’s how I feel: At the time I set those records – most points scored, most blocked shots, most MVP awards, blah, blah, blah – I celebrated them because they confirmed that all my hard work and discipline since childhood was effective in me achieving my goal of becoming the best possible athlete.
But that wasn’t my only goal. The even greater significance those records had to me then, and has to me even more now, is in providing a platform to keep the discussion of social inequalities – whether racial, gender-related, or economic – alive and vibrant so that we may come together as a nation and fix them. Historically, that has been the greatness of the American spirit: we don’t flinch at identifying our own faults and using our moral fortitude and ingenuity to become a better nation. In honoring that spirit, I pay tribute to two of my most important mentors, UCLA coach John Wooden and Muhammad Ali. It is Ali’s voice I often hear in my head: “When you saw me in the boxing ring fighting, it wasn’t just so I could beat my opponent. My fighting had a purpose. I had to be successful in order to get people to listen to the things I had to say.” All sports records will inevitably be broken, but the day after they are, the world won’t have changed. But every day you speak up about injustice, the next day the world may be just a little better for someone.
Sports is the most popular form of entertainment, with Americans spending about $56bn on sports events last year, compared to about $11bn on movies. Seventy-two percent of 18- to 29-year-olds consider themselves sports fans, as do a majority of those older. This level of popularity has made sports more than just entertainment, it’s also part of our national identity, a source of inspiration for personal achievement, and a means to teach our children valuable lessons about teamwork and social ethics. For African Americans, sports has all those values – but it also has some extra implications.