Baseball and Social Change

Baseball and Social Change.

You should be able to do both.

I tweeted about midway through tonight’s @Orioles baseball game:

“I lose abt 5-10 Twitter followers every #Orioles game.”

In addition to being an educator, nonprofit manager, and social justice advocate, I also am a baseball fan. I am passionate about being each of those things so much, in fact, that I’m working to carve out a career being fully invested in each and all of them at the same time.

Last weekend, some of our team and I attended an inspirational conference sponsored by the University of Louisville and Brown University and held at the Muhammad Ali Center in Louisville, KY called “Athletes and Social Change.”

Among many other powerful questions, this forum and its attendees grappled with the question:

“What does it mean for athletes to engage in social change, philanthropy and work within the community?”

I’ve written elsewhere that there is an unfortunate perception of an inherent disconnect between sports and social engagement. I was glad to learn this past week that not only is that perception truly false, but that smart people are already deeply, deeply involved in using sports to encourage social action.

Check out Nick’s and my presentation to the Athlete’s and Social Change Forum, brought to you by a web site that we wrote in about two hours the night before our first public appearance:

With very little fanfare, I’m moving on

Last month I moved into a new position managing a nonprofit baseball community organization.

A lot of the creation for this new project has been several years in the making: From research, design, and implement of racial justice and diversity programs for college students—many of these have touched in the past on the intersections between sports and racial justice.

They say the best learning is the learning you do when you are teaching. (If they don’t say that, they should). I’ve been a baseball fan all my life. I’ve tried to be a more conscious fan more recently.

I see baseball especially is not divorced from the world—it’s not at all an opiate, as some grumpy old people call it. Baseball has been around for over 150 years—America has seen some remarkable and horrible things in 150 years. And remarkable and horrible things continue. And baseball’s there too.

I suppose because of all this recent transition, this blog will take a slightly different turn. As an eager new member of the nonprofit management and baseball industries, I plan to blog more about these intersections than specifically about race, white privilege, and/or education.

For the rest of my life, though, my commitment to racial justice remains rock-solid. And as I navigate these new experiences and interact with new people, my reflections will make their way here.

Check us out online.

What if sports mattered?

Will Leitch at Sports on Earth says sports are not important. That sports don’t matter.

“People who work in sports like to consider sports somehow cleansing in times like this. But I think they’re just saying that so they feel better about working in a field that doesn’t really matter or change the world.”

But what if sports did matter? What if sports could change the world?

I understand Leitch’s message: Sports—for this argument, American sports—in design and function and reality do not positively benefit humanity in a significant way. By design and function and reality. That’s right.

Sure, wonderful and empowering and humanitarian individuals, causes, and programs exist because of sports and in relationship with sports. And many of these have benefited other human communities in this country. Major League Baseball as an organization, for instance, has numerous community development and charity arms supporting various activities for the promotion of health, education, and safety. And youth. These programs are certainly a public Good and certainly stand to benefit humanity in important ways.

But Major League Baseball as a for-profit organization in the entertainment industry does not in its design and function and reality benefit humanity simply by existing and acting in the world.

This is what Leitch is getting at and this is a bummer. But it’s not the biggest bummer.

The bigger bummer is that this truth is ever related and viewed with even the slightest degree of passive acceptance and unaccountability. Leitch is probably right, but shouldn’t that make us want to fix it?

How many people in this country alone work in the industry of sports entertainment? Tens of thousands? More than that?

If someone approached me about my field or, let’s say, posted a blog entry about my field, delineating to me the ways in which the time and effort I spent at work, away from my family, meant nothing at all in the grand scheme of things—I would not be keen on resting back and thinking, Oh well. It is what it is.

Rather, I would look immediately and critically at myself and my situation and figure out fast if she or he were right or not.

And if I discovered they were right—or if I discovered they hit on even a tiny something I had already been thinking—I imagine I would endeavor straightaway to change that reality. Out of a sense of the common Good or a sense of individual spirit and purpose or a sense of human efficiency. If someone could convince me that my day-to-day efforts were in design and function and reality meaningless, I would be motivated to find a better way. Right away.

What if sports did matter? What if sports could change the world?

What if the response to Leitch’s final comment—“It [is] just sports: consistent, often exhilarating, entertainment. Isn’t that enough?”—was: Absolutely, unequivocally NOT.

It’s not enough that sports don’t matter. For one thing, it isn’t efficient. Sports cannot be the appendix of the social system when sports could be the lungs or the brain or the big toe or some other metaphorical but entirely useful and purposeful and meaningful component of human existence.

Sports has the power to transform communities by investing more fully in infrastructure and development like education, health, and housing in America—in racial justice and social equity. Sports as entertainment is boring—besides that it’s probably fascist.

I don’t know.

I guess it doesn’t grate me necessarily that anyone would call sports meaningless. I do believe sports in design and function and reality do not fully contribute to a sustainable, equitable, and purposeful future.

But I also enthusiastically do not believe that this should be the correct or uninspired end of the discussion.

Tomahawks belong to Native Americans; Sports belong to White People

In a recent ESPN piece, Paul Lukas, “sports’ only full-time uniform reporter,” refers to the issue of Native American imagery in sports as an issue of the appropriation of intellectual property rights:

“I don’t think we have the right to use images of headdresses, tomahawks, tribe names, and so on. It’s not a question of whether such symbols are offensive, or whether they perpetuate outdated stereotypes; it’s that they don’t belong to us.”

Lukas is right to criticize the misuse of power by American sports institutions and to disapprove of the appropriation of Native American cultural “artifacts” for economic and other gains.

They do not belong to US.

But if we look for it—and we should look for it—there is something critical and necessary in Lukas’ treatment of this issue that perhaps he did not intend:

There is yet an unnamed, underlying assumption in this language of property rights that just as Native imagery does not belong to “us,” neither do our sports belong to “them.”

We must confront the fact that American sports are neither owned by nor created for the American Indian in the first place—and this is fundamentally why it can be described as a violation of intellectual property when predominantly and historically white-owned institutions appropriate Native imagery in sports. Because if sports truly granted the same full access and control to Native Americans as they do to white Americans, then it would not be stealing when any American used this imagery in sports.

But by the racial order and through the racial lens of our America today, Native Americans are denied full access and participation in sports—not by law, but by history and custom. This is made all the more obvious by our long overdue revelation that to use this imagery and to use it illegally suggests quite clearly that we never intended them to play with us in the first place.

When Notre Dame takes any field as the Fighting Irish this event is not contested with the same racially-and-politically charged intellectual property language. Why? It isn’t because hundreds of independent, sovereign communities of Irish Americans convened, voted on, and contractually gave permission in any way to the French-influenced Holy Cross founders to use the Irish name and imagery for its sports teams.

When the Minnesota footballers take the field as the Vikings this event is not contested. Why? It isn’t because Minnesota football executives sent delegations to Norway and Sweden and Denmark to purchase the rights to the name and authentic purple helmets of the historic Viking nations.

Further, the Notre Dame Fighting Irish opened their football season this year against Navy in front of 50,000 people in a soccer stadium in Ireland. There is a very specific and dire socio-economic reason—as well as a general fear—that you will not see the Redskins, Chiefs, Braves, Indians, or Blackhawks organizing a friendly preseason or regular season match-up on a Native reservation any time soon.

Because that kind of relationship between American sports institutions and the Native American communities they purport to recognize and honor doesn’t actually exist—and to claim it does is silliness.

If we look critically at what we have in front of us, it doesn’t make sense to compare Native imagery in sports to Irish or Viking imagery in sports. These are not the same thing.

Rather, I think it makes far more sense to observe that the difference in the situations involving the Fighting Irish and the Vikings from the one involving Native American imagery is that today, in America, any folk of Irish or Scandinavian descent will claim “White” on the U.S. Census. They don’t check the box that says Irish. They don’t check the box that says Scandinavian or Viking or Descendant of any one of the historic Viking tribes of North Atlantic Europe prior to 1400 C.E.

They check “White.”

Using the name Irish and Vikings is not stealing. We already own the rights to these names, by virtue of our ownership in whiteness. Native Americans, American Indians: They are not included as owners of this whiteness. And so they do not participate equally and fully in the ownership of our sports.

And so, as Lukas rightly claims, we do not have the right to use their imagery.

Whiteness is very often an uncomfortable thing to talk about in public discourse. In discussions about whiteness especially among white people there is very often guilt, anger, defensiveness, and helplessness. I understand. But this discomfort does not mean we don’t try to think about these things more critically and honestly. And it certainly does not mean that we passively accept this status quo–especially if our moral sensibilities remind us that segregated sports ownership is wrong.

Because although folks sometimes have called sports the “opiate of the masses” in contemporary America, I disagree. Sports do not exist outside of social issues and conversations. In fact, one of the things I have grown over recent years to truly love about American sports is that they offer—for better and worse—a “playing field” (pun intended) in which to engage sensitive social topics such as race.

This is a larger conversation. Are American sports really only for white people?  We could probably take it that far. But for now maybe we reexamine not only Native American participation in American sports, but Native ownership of sports. Because if we continue to deny Native ownership and full participation and access to American sports, then our sports will remain segregated and our use of this imagery will continue to be troubling and, probably, illegal.

See also Cheryl Harris’ “Whiteness as Property.”