I was raised to see skin color and to pass judgments as if it mattered. For a boy growing up in rural, Mormon-pioneer-settled-community in Wyoming, I saw very few people who’s skin was not as white as mine. When I saw a white family at church with the black nephew and niece they were raising, my four-year-old self turned to my mom and asked, “Are those chocolate people?” My mother, horrified, hushed me while my father and older siblings chuckled. They hadn’t taught me to think like that, but I hadn’t been taught not to. I don’t think that four-year-old or his parents should be blamed for what was said. Other races were simply not in our line of sight on a regular basis. Our television received three, grainy, rabbit-ear signals out of the cosmopolitan enclaves of southeast Idaho and northern Utah. We didn’t have PBS–a good thing, too, since their liberal ways triggered my father. I didn’t get to see Mr. Rogers dip his feet in the pool with his black mail carrier until I was an adult looking for genuine role models.
What I did get to see, on the rare occasion they were broadcast, were sports. I didn’t really start watching them until I was ten. in 1990, just twelve years after the Mormon church finally allowed members with black skin to hold the priesthood and be married in their temples, Ty Detmer won the Heisman trophy for our BYU Cougar football program. The season captivated me as I fed off the excitement of my father and older brother. I also started to notice, that there were black people playing…and they were incredible athletes! Detmer won over Raghib Ismail and Eric Bieniemy! Despite being enamored by Detmer, I can’t remember any specific play from that season. I do remember the incredible kick return by Ismail that would have won the Orange Bowl had a penalty not nullified it.
Sports became a passion for me following that season. Up to this point, there had been little exposure to racism for me in my home. It was definitely there but it was subtle, built into the daily discourse in a way my young mind couldn’t discern. You might say it was systemic and by being so prevalent, it was normal. I figured everyone spoke this way.
We had our teams to follow–BYU anything; Steve Young’s San Francisco 49ers; and whomever was playing against the University of Wyoming. When basketball season came around, we peripherally followed the Utah Jazz. That white point guard they had was an acceptable role model. He wasn’t flashy but he was tough, smart, and dignified in his press conferences. He looked and sounded like us. But when a game came on the TV with two teams we didn’t know, I learned quickly how to decide which team to cheer for. When I asked who my father was cheering for, he almost always had picked a team, especially when it was basketball. “Why them?” I would ask.
“Because they have more white guys on the floor.”
Over time I learned to think in this way. I should cheer for the team with the most white guys because we are different than the black guys and…it mattered. If it mattered for something as trivial as sports outcomes, what about real, complex, divisive social, political, and personal issues?
I think that I felt there was something not quite right about this but, like my love of ice cream and my devotion to Mormonism, I absorbed some unhealthy habits from my dad. This trite phrase became hard-wired, expected for its consistency as well as its reliability and applicability. In essence, there was a difference when it came to race. I should notice white and black, and one reason to think this way was as a standard for deciding who to cheer for. Can you imagine how I felt when Barak Obama campaigned for the presidency against a white war hero or, *gasp*, a white Mormon?
THE ROOTS OF MY RACISM
I grant my parents and grandparents a pass. Why? Because, like anyone raised in a cult like Mormonism, everyone following orders is a victim. Add to that a moral superiority and divine infallibility exuded by the men at the top claiming to be modern-day Moses, Elijah, Peter, James, and John, and you can get anyone conditioned to defer to your judgement to say or do anything.
Artistic depictions of my white family’s and largely white church’s Palestinian-Jew, Jesus, were always of an anglo-Scandinavian male who’s slightly tanned flesh was the result of a bit too much desert sun. The actual words “white and delightsome” are used in The Book of Mormon to classify the good guys. The bad guys of the same book, in a vision to a prophet, were labeled as “a dark, and loathsome, and a filthy people, full of idleness and all manner of abominations.”
When that vision came to pass, we are told in 2 Nephi 5:21-25:
21…as they were white, and exceedingly fair and delightsome, that they might not be enticing unto my people the Lord God did cause a skin of blackness to come upon them.
22 And thus saith the Lord God: I will cause that they shall be loathsome unto thy people, save they shall repent of their iniquities.
23 And cursed shall be the seed of him that mixeth with their seed; for they shall be cursed even with the same cursing. And the Lord spake it, and it was done.
24 And because of their cursing which was upon them they did become an idle people, full of mischief and subtlety, and did seek in the wilderness for beasts of prey.
Don’t fret. These dark and loathsome creatures can reverse their “curse.” In fact, as recently as 1960, Mormon church leaders have taught that the curse can be and has been reversed so that the loathsome, dark skin of Native American children was becoming lighter! Prior to the civil war and for sometime after, leaders promoted the eternal rightness of enslaving people of African decent. Though the church wants to now promote the idea that these prophets were products of their time, other church leaders within the same governing body, The Quorum of the Twelve Apostles were opposed to slavery. (Turns out that Brigham Young University bears the name of a decrepit racist) The apostle Orson Pratt, unlike the slave-holding and slaver-sympathizing leaders, opposed to slavery. He was certainly ahead of his time and perhaps should have been targeted by God to lead the church so that the church couldn’t be led astray against reassurances that said deity would never let that happen. Prohibitions against interracial marriage were taught from the pulpit for over one-hundred-thirty years. Until 1979, blacks couldn’t go to the temple for the most sacred, capstone-rite of Mormonism–eternal marriage to one’s spouse.
Those factors influenced my parent’s a great deal as the operating system they were given had been passed from their parents for at least six generations of Mormons. (That’s as far back as anyone can claim.) But my dad had his own reasons for cheering for the team with the most white boys playing. It took me thirty years to figure it out.
We cheered for BYU and whoever was playing against the University of Wyoming. This became a double-win when, as happened in 1969, BYU travelled to Laramie to be UW opponent. Fourteen black players at UW asked their coach if they could wear black armbands during the game to quietly protest BYU’s sponsoring entity’s–The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints–policy that excluded black individuals from equality in the church. The “Black 14” included seven starters on their nationally ranked team. The coach’s response was to promptly remove each of the players from the team, citing team rules. The University realized there could be a constitutional conflict with their rules and dropped the rules a week later. However, they did not reinstate the fourteen students.
The bad PR to the University of Wyoming is its own story. For my father, something else happened. Like the University of Wyoming, it was my father’s own fault for reacting as he chose to. His loathing for UW became permanent and irrevocable, a loathing he passed on to my older brother. I, too, carried the torch until reason prevailed over me, and I realized that the only chance of anything catching fire was my own decency. The larger choice my father made was to see black athletes as lazy and entitled and lesser.
His own mother, a vocal racist in her own right, used the word “negro” or “colored” as often as occasion would permit. A college tennis player in the early 1940’s, we watched tennis tournaments all summer in her home. Due to a lack of diversity, I saw few non-white competitors in tennis before Venus and Serena Williams. My grandmother was happy to see Venus win Wimbledon and talked about watching Arthur Ashe play. This was the first I’d heard of him. My grandmother was one of the sweetest women I knew. She was also the racist product of a sectarian, racist belief system and larger, racist social construct. We cheered for the Williams sisters in-spite-of their skin color. My father is her son with the slow erosion of social progress smoothing some of the rough edges.
The simple fact remains that through sports my father taught me that race matters. It may just be through sports that I have learned that it shouldn’t matter.
WHEN SPORTS ARE ONLY GAMES
I do not think my father is or ever was a malicious racist. I believe he would, like Abraham Lincoln, espouse and defend the axiom, “As I would not be a slave, so I will not be a master.” Even the great Lincoln, with his fight for emancipation, seemed to believe that whites and blacks could not or should not coexist. President Lincoln made attempts to garner support in an effort to expatriate blacks, after emancipation, in colonization efforts to Liberia or the Caribbean.
In 1880 Frederick Douglass said, “In all my interviews with Mr. Lincoln, I was impressed with his entire freedom from popular prejudice against the colored race.” Yet, Douglass would also said, four years earlier, that Lincoln was, “In his interests, in his associations, in his habits fo thought, and in his prejudices, he was a white man. He was preeminently the white man’s President, entirely devoted to the welfare of white men. He was ready and willing at any time during the first years of his administration to deny, postpone, and sacrifice the rights of humanity in the colored people to promote the welfare of the white people of this country.”
I’ll accept both Lincoln’s–the Great Emancipator and the White Man’s President. Why should I revere half of one man? Why should I choose to see only the half of my father that maintains racist impulses or the half that would not be a master any more than he would be a slave?
Watching sports with my father, and football in particular, was always all about the contest. Extended breaks for replay were perpetual annoyances unless it benefitted our team. Distractions from the game and competition were almost always unwelcome. With the exception of the Olympic games, story lines were rarely compelling outside of the competition at hand. Unless, of course, it involved a former or current BYU athlete.
I recall in 1993 when Emmitt Smith held out from his expiring contract with the Dallas Cowboys. I think I remember it mostly because my dad thought such a thing as a holdout was immature and immoral. After all, Smith signed a contract. “When you sign a contract, you follow through.” (My father also opposed unions, convinced they were an apparatus of socialism at best, and that was an inevitable precursor to communism at worst.) During the 1993 season and the years on either side, we cheered for the San Francisco 49ers–the Dallas Cowboy rivals–led by BYU alum and future hall-of-fame Quarterback, Steve Young. Despite the Cowboys being our arch rival and a much better team with Smith on the field, my father seemed to take Smith’s holdout personally. “They are payed millions to play a game!”
I heard similar rhetoric, though with more disgust and vitriol from my father when Colin Kaepernick began to kneel during The National Anthem prior to Football games in 2016. This behavior had gone from something like Smith’s selfish demand for money to blatant disrespect for the United States of America and its divinely inspired and appointed National Anthem! Disrespect for the soldiers who had given their lives to defend its Constitution and the freedoms it outlines.
I’m not immune to the climactic, elation-inducement of a well-performed rendition of Francis Scott Keys’ lyrical majesty. When Whitney Houston performed our National Anthem in Tampa Bay before Super Bowl XXV, I was not yet a teen. With all that surrounded that monumental performance in 1990, perhaps it is no wonder that my father’s eyes were misty at the end. If you watch the video and see faces in the crowd, and even Ms. Houston’s, he wasn’t alone. To this day, her rendition of The Star Spangled Banner still brings a tear to my eye.
Let’s not forget that there are more verses to the Nation Anthem than the first. The author, himself a slave owner, penned the words that celebrate the United States of America as a bastion of freedom for the oppressed. Black men (women, black or white, weren’t counted at all) were legally considered only 3/5 of a man and then only for apportioning WHITE representatives to the U.S. Congress. For practical purposes, it would seem that few considered their black slaves as human at all. Treating them as beasts of burden and chattel, I think of Jefferson’s words (another slaveholding founding father who perhaps appreciated the irony of the practice) when he said, “I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just.” Even under the grand auspices of The Star Spangled Banner, we must admit that it contains a dream of freedom for everyone…so long as they are considered a human.
Oliver Wendell Holmes, father to the famed Supreme Court Justice, penned a fifth verse to the Anthem during the American Civil War. Perhaps we will one day, our nation may stand united when we have realized the hope contained in Homles verse:
Down, down, with the traitor that dares to defile
The flag of her stars and the page of her story!
By the millions unchain’d who our birthright have gained
We will keep her bright blazon forever unstained!
Until then, I don’t think we should find it offensive or even surprising that an entire community within our nation should find a hero who kneels for them. The song certainly did not represent them when it was written or adopted. After reflecting on the justice of God, Jefferson added, that God’s “justice cannot sleep forever.” And despite the famous Christmas refrain, “Chains he shall break, for the slave is our brother. And in his name all oppression shall cease.” For now, I am left to trust in the goodness of collective humanity–an exhausting and discouraging course–to break the chains. Rosa, Martin, Colin, Bayard, Abraham, and George: If God’s justice is to be awoken, chains broken, and the oppressed to go free, it will begin these names and those we haven’t yet met who’s acts and words will inspire and indict.
Sports At It’s Worst
Fall in line. Do your duty. More dramatically, “the powers that be are ordained of God.” That is how I was raised. There’s no value in dissent. Conformity is far more honorable than individuality. Things are pretty good. The status quo works! Well, it works for families like mine. God. Family. Country. The United States is ordained by God! To serve one is to serve the other. Ms. Houston’s yet unrivaled performance of the Nation’s anthem evoked a great deal in my mind. Commitment to the flag and the institutions of the country. Somewhere within that, I believed that the government and the flag were the country
An injured olympian struggling to finish a race to which they’ve dedicated their life, only to see their father run from the stands to help them cross the finish line.
A high school athlete collapse when her body can’t go on, and struggle to rise, determined to finish when her competitor stops and lifts her as they cross the finish line together.
A professional athlete, idolized by a child visits them in their hospital bed granting them encouragement.
Alex Smith, determined to return to the field after a horrific injury and near deadly recovery, returns to competition and leads his team to the playoffs.
Victories of the human spirit over their circumstances. Sports can and often does inspire the best within us. Yet, the two-bladed-sword of humanity cleaves divisively in the opposite direction. Where there is the best, we often see the worst at work as well.
There exist grotesque levels of selfish, entitled, and violent behavior from fans, parents, and athletes. These often happen precisely over the less-important, silly-children’s-game aspects of sports. I can’t think of them being justified. But they happen when scores, playing time, and individual ego are taken too seriously by aspiring amateurs and overpaid, professional, athletic entertainers. Sports are at their worst when we take them too seriously for what they actually are. Other than money or pride, little rides on the outcomes of sporting events. A person’s livelihood may depend upon it, to be sure. And I expect that every player takes their job seriously. They put their health on the line to entertain. They are placed in an environment of physical and mental strain. I’m not surprised. But I have come to appreciate that sports can be so much more than entertainment. I want the entertainment, but I see now that we, all of us, need the game to be far more.
As a youth, I vaguely understood the ill-defined silhouette of these historical events and motivations leading up to and through the end of The Civil War. I pledged allegiance to the flag, saluted it appropriately in cub scouts, and Lincoln’s reminder or redefining at Getteysburg of “a government of the people, by the people, and for the people” may have made “the people” extensions of those symbols rather than the reason for their adoption. The military pomp with navy, marine, and army color-guards and air-force fighter-jet flyovers that accompany the National Anthem remind me of George Orwell’s words in his essay, My Country Right or Left. In the essay that explains how the middle-class are most susceptible to and are a nationalistic toward military service. He wrote, “I grew up in an atmosphere tinged with militarism…To this day it gives me a faint feeling of sacrilege not to stand to attention during, ‘God save the King.'”
Sports At It’s Best
From “God Save the King” to “The Star Spangled Banner”…
I was raised to hate an athlete like Colin Kaepernick. Overpaid prima donnas making a fortune to play a child’s game. What happened to the love of the game and striving for the best within us? The virtues that made college sports and the Olympics the pinnacle of athleticism? I just wanted to watch football. Get through the ceremony of the National Anthem and watch some football. The Anthem was out-of-place anyway. Not only should there exist a “wall of separation between church and state” as Jefferson once said, there ought to be a wall of separation between sports and patriotism. Are we to be indoctrinated as Orwell said by the vestigial rite we perform before each athletic contest? But that’s not really the point or, rather, it doesn’t have to be. What I did feel was a reverence for the song and the flag–symbols–not a reminder of what the symbols represent.
I tolerated the form which was made more important than the freedoms.
Now, consider the irony of my father’s dislike for Colin Kaepernick. For a man who believed that sports were a child’s game and could be little more than that, he refused to allow sports to represent something more. For a man or woman to use the stage of athletic contest for something other than entertainment; to kneel or sit and by so doing to stand for something much bigger than a game; this is where sports are at their very best! This is where a man like my father ought to see that an athlete might just be worth millions.
Transcending the events on the field is when sports is at its best–black fists raised in solidarity and black knees bent in memoriam. Triumph on the field of competition can’t mean more than victories in our communities and schools. If it’s all about cups and rings, my dad is right. Its just a game. A captivating but ultimately meaningless game played by adults. And the worst of it is just the natural offspring of it.
We’re not talking about an uninjured LeBron James walking off the floor with nearly six minutes remaining in a blowout, playoff loss. We’re talking about the difference between that “me first” behavior and The Black 14 who weren’t allowed to play for making a statement about something bigger than their own ego. I’m a white dude enjoying privilege and security from a life easy enough to grant me the time and energy to contemplate these things. I’m not sacrificing much. I write under a pseudonym to protect me from my family or friends learning my identity. Most of my family wouldn’t care if I expressed racist or sexist views if they were framed with the “wisdom” of ancient scripture or modern, prophetic catch-phrases. Harming the reputation of their tribe is what is important to them. They don’t care about Kaepernick’s tribe. Yet he and others have sacrificed their careers to their tribe. He took a knee in an attempt to raise his tribe’s station. I don’t doubt he would welcome a common unity where the only tribe that matters are those of the collective, human race.
When Kaepernick lost his value in the NFL, I heard some say, “It serves them right for being ____________.” This kind of reaction offers a lazy mind (dogmatic minds tend to be lazy) a comforting, facile deflection from engaging with difficult ideas. But when they fill-in-the-blank with “gay” or “a woman” or “a black man” it is necessarily preceded by a qualifier like “bitter”, “man-hating”, or “ignorant.” A white man is simply an “angry man”, or an “ignorant man.” In saying it this way, it seems to justify the anger or ignorance or at least to excuse it as understandable if not acceptable.
While the golden rule serves as a great mantra for those who feel empowered, it seems to fall short for the marginalized and oppressed. It can lay a groundwork for such individuals and groups to act passively when strength is called for in word and deed. The Bible played a powerful role in both oppression and emancipation. The fact that it can be used to justify both sides weakens its role as an arbiter. It encourages slaves to be subject to masters and for everyone to submit to the powers that be. Don’t go violently usurping an oppressive tyrant. God put him there to begin with!
Far better is the wisdom often attributed to Nelson Henderson though written by his son, Wesley, in the book, Under Whose Shade: “The true meaning of life is to plant trees, under whose shade you do not expect to sit.”
Martin Luther King, Jr. seemed to be utilizing this mantra when he, realizing it would not happen in his life time, still dreamed of his own children playing with the children of his white neighbors as equals in dignity and opportunity. Can we say the same for Colin Kaepernick? It seems safe to assume that he put his career in serious jeopardy by “taking a knee.” Kapernick took a knee to direct people’s minds to the persistent inequity with which black people continue to endure in the land of the free.
Tim Tebow loved to take a knee. It’s hardly possible to imagine him without visualizing him on one knee. He took a knee to point attention to the “big man” in the sky. If it were not for that reason, why do it publicly? I don’t recall him kneeling during the Anthem, but should it matter? Both are attempting to point attention to where they feel it needs to be.
The difference is that we can all see the people to whom Kaepernick attempted to turn our collective attention. We don’t need to take anyone’s word for it. Sky Daddy has yet to come out of hiding yet society seems to pine and sappily ahhh when an athlete takes a penitent knee. It’s not only Tebow. Many athletes of every ethnicity do the same.
Like those who went before him, Kaepernick utilized his platform of athletic popularity to plant a tree. Today, athletes take knees during the National Anthem with some regularity. None of them risk their career and their reputations seem to recover well-enough. They bask in a shade under which their predecessors only dreamed.
What is the National Anthem? It is a poem put to music and adopted as a theme for the United States of America. It celebrates the grim nature of war if fought for a just cause. It celebrates a red, white, and blue fabric and the freedom from oppression for which it stands. It honors free and brave individuals who give their lives for collective emancipation.
Where we should honor the principles and ideals for which it stands, in this country our co-dependent relationship with an idol of billowing fabric too often supersedes the republic for which it stands. Many people in my circle who seemed incredibly offended by the passive, kneeling activism of Kaepernick and his disrespect toward the Stars and Stripes were reluctant or even obstinate in condemning the Capitol storming of January 6, 2020. Somehow, for them, the fabric of the flag and the F.S. Keys poem set to music are sacrosanct while the institutions and civic rites for which they stand are easily anathematized. Even by riled protestors waving the same flag in insurrection upon the floor of our congress.
Abraham Lincoln said, “Fellow-citizens, we cannot escape history. We of this Congress and this administration, will be remembered in spite of ourselves. No personal significance, or insignificance, and spare one or another of us. The fiery trial through which we pass, will light us down, in honor or dishonor, to the latest generation.”
“In giving freedom to the slave, we assure freedom to the free—honorable alike in what we give, and what we preserve. We shall nobly save, or meanly lose, the last best, hope of the earth.”
We can’t see the future but we have a clear view of the past and growing clarity of the present. Kierkegaard reminded us that, though we live our lives forward, we can only understand it backwards. Like Lincoln, the Black 14, and Colin Kaepernick, we don’t know the future. We can’t see it. We can only hope for it and strive to bring it into being. Whether on our feet or on our knees, it is our hearts that must learn empathy and our minds that must endure the painful struggle of understanding. We hope to see a tree, we hope to bask in its shade. I hope that we can find the shade as one people. I hope for a day when sports can be about the competition because, perhaps through sports, we will have arrived at a place dreamed of by those ahead of their time.