How Taking A Stand For Justice Can Threaten The Careers Of Black Athletes

Jun 13, 2018
Originally published on June 14, 2018 3:33 pm
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TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. These are turbulent times in professional sports as some athletes kneel for the national anthem to protest racial injustice and others decline to visit the White House after championships. After several members of the Super Bowl winners, the Eagles, declined to accept an invitation to the White House, President Trump canceled the team's invitation.

Our guest Howard Bryant says there's a long tradition among African-American athletes of speaking out on issues of social justice. His new book traces that history back to Jackie Robinson, Bill Russell, Muhammad Ali and others. He says activism among athletes practically disappeared in the '80s and '90s as sports stars made millions and got lucrative endorsement deals. But Bryant says athletes are speaking out again, particularly in response to police shootings, and they're coming into conflict with team owners and President Trump. Howard Bryant is a senior writer for espn.com and ESPN The Magazine, and he does regular commentary on sports for NPR's Weekend Edition Saturday with Scott Simon. He spoke with FRESH AIR's Dave Davies about his new book "The Heritage: Black Athletes, A Divided America, And The Politics Of Patriotism."

DAVE DAVIES, BYLINE: Well, Howard Bryant, welcome to FRESH AIR. You write about this tradition, this sense of responsibility among black athletes to use their position to advocate for social justice, which goes way back. And one of are the early ones that you write about is Paul Robeson, who I always thought of as a singer, as an entertainer. Did Americans know him as an athlete?

HOWARD BRYANT: Well, I think Americans knew him as an athlete early, especially when he was a star at Princeton. But I think what people don't know is that he played in the National Football League in 1921 and 1922 and did not have a long NFL career because the NFL decided to impose segregation, just as Major League Baseball had. After Robeson from 1922, the NFL didn't integrate again until 1946. So people forget that Paul Robeson was a star athlete first before becoming a legendary performer.

DAVIES: Right. And you write about how he ran afoul of the U.S. government, in particular with a speech in Paris. Tell us about that.

BRYANT: He gave a speech in 1949 right as the Cold War was starting to ramp up about how he did not believe that in a conflict between the United States and the USSR that African-Americans would be better served fighting on the side of the United States, that he was treated better in Russia than he had been as an African-American in the United States.

DAVIES: He had visited the Soviet Union. Yeah. Right.

BRYANT: Many times, yes. And so Robeson had run afoul very much not only of the government but also of the public. And so in terms of trying to nullify him, especially someone of his stature and his fame and his influence with the African-American community, the House Un-American Activities Committee sought out Jackie Robinson to testify and essentially denounce and refute Paul Robeson's claim that black people were not going to be loyal to the United States in case of a Cold War conflict.

DAVIES: Of course, Jackie Robinson, you know, is a towering figure in American sports, the guy who broke the color barrier in baseball. And he's an interesting character. So he goes before the House Un-American Activities Committee, which was investigating communists, and people were - at the time were writing that many of the advocates for civil rights were really inspired or even themselves members of the Communist Party. So what did Jackie Robinson have to say?

BRYANT: Well, one of the things that he said that got the most attention, obviously, was he criticized Paul Robeson and said exactly what the committee wanted him to say, told him that the American people had - though African-Americans had fought for freedom in this country for so long, that they were not going to essentially be traitors. He said something along the lines of, I've got too much invested for my wife and child to be in - and myself - in the future of this country to throw it away because of a siren song sung in bass - is how he referred to Paul Robeson, which is - as we would say today, that's quite the shade against Robeson.

But one of the things about that testimony that no one talks about is after he talked about Robeson. In the middle of that testimony, he also said, and one other thing the American public ought to understand if we are to make progress in this matter - the fact that it is a communist who denounces injustice in the courts, police brutality and lynching when it happens doesn't change the truth of its charge. Just because communists kick up a big fuss over racial discrimination when it suits their purposes, a lot of people try to pretend that the whole issue is a creation of communist imagination, but they're not fooling anyone with this type of pretense, and talk about communists stirring up Negroes to protest only makes present misunderstanding worse than ever. Negroes were stirred up long before there was a Communist Party, and they'll stay stirred up long after the party has disappeared unless Jim Crow has disappeared by then, as well.

To me, that's the heritage. That's the beginning of this responsibility that African-Americans - athletes have faced or have felt ever since.

DAVIES: Yeah, and that's, you know, considering the context of the 1940s and the growing anti-communist, you know, kind of fervor in the country, that's a fairly militant statement, that these issue...

BRYANT: It's pretty radical, absolutely.

DAVIES: These issues are real, and they're not - it's not the work of communists or anybody else. You write about Robinson himself. I mean, of course, he - you know, he endured an awful lot of torment when he entered the league and kind of took it and played magnificently and had an interesting role in the social and political currents as his life went on. Tell us about that.

BRYANT: Well, I think one of the things about this book, about "The "Heritage" that I really sort of enjoyed - and one of the reasons why I wanted to do it in the first place - was this notion over the past four or five years that athletes being involved in political issues is a new thing. It's nothing new. It's one of the reasons why I wanted to do this - was to say, wait a minute; how about we step back a little bit and think about this inheritance, this legacy that athletes - that black athletes have had? And when you think about Jackie Robinson and Muhammad Ali and Tommie Smith and John Carlos, you think so much about that rehabilitation that they have. Robinson's a saint today. Jackie Robinson can do no wrong. In Major League Baseball, everybody wears his number on April 15. But when you go back, this was a radical concept. In fact, some of the things that Robinson had said back in the 1940s and 1950s are far more militant and far more aggressive than what we hear today. And today, people will refer to Robinson as being mainstream.

DAVIES: Right. And, you know, as he got older, he was an ally of Richard Nixon - right? - to support Republicans.

BRYANT: Long Republican, absolutely. He was a Rockefeller Republican, a Nixon Republican, and, as he saw the changes in the '60s, realized his mistake in supporting Nixon. And the interesting thing about Robinson as his radicalism continued - once again, we talk about him like he's a saint. People do not realize that Jackie Robinson was never offered a job by Major League Baseball after he retired and on top of that was so disillusioned by the state of race relations that he - Jackie Robinson, veteran Jackie Robinson, legendary Jackie Robinson - did not stand for the American flag either.

DAVIES: Yeah. I was surprised to - I didn't know that till I read it in your book. After he died, his widow, Rachel Robinson, made a point to carry on the legacy of advocacy, didn't she?

BRYANT: No, there's no question about that. And we spend so much time talking about these male figures and their place in this heritage, but Rachel Robinson may very well be the most important of all of the figures involved here because Rachel was the one who started the Jackie Robinson Foundation after Jackie died in 1972. And more importantly, in addition to all of the students that they had put through school and all the advocacy that they had done, one thing that Rachel did was she made sure that Major League Baseball lived up to Jackie's legacy and that - made sure that if the Major League Baseball is going to make money off of Jackie's name and commodify Jackie's exploits, then they also had a social responsibility, as well, which is part of this heritage that you have to live up to the person if you're going to commodify his exploits. And I think that's something that - I had the pleasure of meeting Rachel Robinson a few months ago for the second time, which was great. And every time I see her, I just think about that strength and that none of this would've taken place. Without Rachel Robinson, I truly believe that Jackie Robinson would've faded a little bit or maybe even a lot into the dustbin of history.

DAVIES: You know, you're right that after the color line in baseball was broken, you know, more blacks were admitted to teams - in some cases grudgingly, and not always welcomed, of course. What kind of bonds developed among African-American players in baseball in those days?

BRYANT: No, it's the most powerful bond of all the sports. And now that baseball is now down to 7 percent African-American, a lot of people in the game are concerned that you have players today that don't know their history, that don't know how important it was when Jackie Robinson came to town, that he connected with Hank Aaron and taught Hank Aaron the game, and that when Hank Aaron came into town, that he taught the younger African-American players the game. And then when Dusty Baker came into town, Hank Aaron taught him how to play the game, and where to go, and what cities were hostile, and which places you could go and which hotels were more friendly. And there was a huge network involved in those days, and it's something that started with Robinson and continues to this day. You see it to a lesser extent in some of the other sports, but that is another piece of this responsibility.

DAVIES: In the 1960s, this tradition of protest and social advocacy had a lot of really memorable athletes who took part in it. You want to just mention a few?

BRYANT: Absolutely. Well, I think they - there's Bill Russell, of course, the great champion of the Boston Celtics; Jim Brown, Curt Flood and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. In fact, when he was Lew Alcindor, he was the one instead of Tommie Smith and John Carlos raising their fist at the '68 Olympics - Kareem was the one who wanted to boycott the Olympics. He didn't want to play at all in Mexico City in 1968, and he did not play. And so that history - I talk about this quite often in the book about if you're from a certain generation, you remember this; this is a part of your life - an African-American athlete having their culture and their racial identity be part of their public persona, not something that they're trying to deny or ignore or erase.

And if you're part of a different generation, if you were born in the '80s or the '90s, you are not used to athletes taking a stand. You're not used to seeing these players attach their racial identity to their public identity. And I think that's one of the reasons why we have so much tension today because we're just not used to it. We're not used to LeBron James opening his mouth, and you respond to that with, stick to sports. But for me, for my generation, Muhammad Ali, Bill Russell, Jackie Robinson - when I was a kid in the 1970s and the '80s, they - their memory was very, very fresh for their activism.

DAVIES: Howard Bryant's new book is "The Heritage: Black Athletes, A Divided America, And The Politics Of Patriotism." We'll talk more after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF BOOKER ERVIN'S "THE BLUE BOOK")

DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR, and we're speaking with Howard Bryant. He is a senior writer for espn.com and ESPN The Magazine. He's also a commentator on NPR's Weekend Edition with Scott Simon. He has a new book about the tradition of political and social advocacy among African-American athletes. It's called "The Heritage."

This is one of those things that hadn't occurred to me until I'd read your book and thought about it, but, for decades, this tradition of black athletes speaking out on racism and social justice kind of disappeared. What happened?

BRYANT: Not kind of - you're being kind.

(LAUGHTER)

BRYANT: It most certainly disappeared, and it was gone for 40 years. And some of it makes sense. A lot of it makes sense in some ways - that getting out of the 1960s, I think the country was very weary. I think citizens were weary. You had Vietnam. You had the assassinations of prominent political figures. You had Watergate coming up very soon. And it was a very tense time. And I think that, on top of that, you finally also had the opportunity for African-American players to start making money.

I talk about this in the book, that we have three acts of the American athlete. You have the immigration story. You have the integration story. And then you have the commodification story. And coming into the 1970s to the present, we are in the commodification story, where it would not be long before players were making millions of dollars. Nolan Ryan was the first million-dollar player in 1979. By 1992, Magic Johnson had a $25 million contract. And today, LeBron James' net worth is $450 million. He makes $35.6 million a year. And so because of that, there comes risk. And suddenly, the players are no longer part of the society. Hank Aaron's kids went to public schools. Today, these players - their kids have no connection to these issues that we talk about today. They're super rich. They are protected. And so that activism began to disappear as their status increased. On the one hand, that made it - you're proud of the players for being able to finally earn after how they'd been treated. But on the other hand, the - what's the best way to say it? And I think that that legacy or that responsibility certainly disappeared.

DAVIES: Right. I mean, the leader was O.J. Simpson, who - you know, the star running back, who - now, of course, famous for the...

BRYANT: Yes. He had other problems in the future.

DAVIES: Yes, right - for other things, but he was an incredible athlete and became well-integrated into kind of the world of elites in California, did commercials - and then after that, Michael Jordan - fabulously wealthy - and Tiger Woods. You write in the book about times at which, you know, civil rights leaders would urge these guys, like Michael Jordan, to take a stand on some things. And what was their response?

BRYANT: Oh, a lot of times, their response was that they just didn't want to get involved, that they had no interest in this because they were - they did not take a political interest because they were controlled by their corporations - controlled by Nike, controlled by Pepsi, controlled by whatever sneaker company or beverage company or clothing apparel company that they had financial relationships with. And I think we put this responsibility on the athletes because the argument that I make in the book is that the black athlete is the most important, most influential, most visible black employee this country has ever produced. They're the ones who made it. They're the ones that people look to. They're the ones with the money. And so now that you're in the 1980s and the 1990s, and you've got Michael Jordan and you've got Tiger Woods, and everybody wants to be like Mike and everybody wants to follow his lead, what do you do when you're looking to him for leadership, and he doesn't want to get involved?

I had a wonderful conversation with the Reverend Al Sharpton about this, and I asked him about the 1980s. And I said, well, you're looking at Trayvon Martin and LeBron James and the Miami Heat, and you're looking at the players getting involved post-Ferguson. And you're looking at Colin Kaepernick. But in your time in the '80s with Howard Beach and Bensonhurst and all of those things that were taking place in the '80s, were any athletes - did they reach out to you? Where were they? And he said, not a single athlete reached out - not even a dime. He said the entertainers did. He said, Prince would come in and give him $10,000 and say, hey; don't put my name on it, but we got your back - and Michael Jackson or James Brown. But there were no athletes who got involved. And we're talking about really - New York was - had an incredible string of athletes during that period. You had Rickey Henderson, and Dave Winfield, and Lawrence Taylor, and Patrick Ewing and all those great players. And none of them got involved because they were simply too risk averse at that time.

DAVIES: Right. It seems like the leaders weren't prepared to take a risk. A few others were, and they paid for it.

BRYANT: No. Well, when you cover sports, one of the things that we always say in sports in the locker room is that the smartest guy is the one with the biggest number of zeros on his paycheck. And if you're not going to be protected by that guy - and over the last 40 years, up until LeBron James in 2012, the guys with the biggest number of zeros on their paychecks did not get involved. You did not see - you follow the lead of O.J. Simpson. He was not going to get involved in these issues. You follow the lead of Michael Jordan. He was not going to get involved. You follow the lead of Tiger Woods. He was not going to get involved.

And not only were they not going to get involved on social issues, but they wouldn't even announce their blackness. They wouldn't - they would run from that. Tiger Woods would refer to himself as Cablinasian. Michael Jordan didn't do that. He always identified in the African-American community, but he made sure he did not get involved on specific issues that would have placed him in a political spot. And, of course, famously, I'm not black, I'm O.J. So that's the attitude, and that is the attitude that took place for - 40 years is a lot of time, and it's two generations or even maybe four or five generations in terms of sports. And this is the attitude that permeated the next generations of players. They followed the leaders, and that's why a lot of this heritage and a lot of this social activism disappeared until Trayvon Martin was killed.

DAVIES: You know, in 1997, Tiger Woods was invited to participate in a celebration of the 50th anniversary of Jackie Robinson entering Major League Baseball. Rachel Robinson, Jackie's widow, wanted Tiger to participate. What happened?

BRYANT: Well, it's actually a very funny story. And this is how I describe it in the book. (Reading) It was also 1997, the 50th anniversary of Jackie Robinson entering the majors. The foundation contacted Woods asking him to participate in the celebration at a Mets game side by side with Rachel Robinson. Woods demurred. He said he was busy. He said he had an overwhelming number of commitments to his sponsor, Nike. Tiger Woods stiffed Rachel Robinson. Frustrated but undeterred, the foundation looked down the lineup card and went to the bullpen, skipped the eighth inning setup guy and went straight to the closer, not Michael Jordan or Arnold Palmer or Jack Nicholas but the most powerful man in the free world - President Bill Clinton.

The president called Tiger Woods personally, and Woods told him the same thing. Thanks for the call, Mr. President, but I'm swamped. Tiger, Bill Clinton said, what commitments? I'm the president of the United States. Who do I have to call? I think I can get you out of them. Tiger held firm, giving President Clinton the stiff arm as well. The president offered to send an Air Force jet to deliver him to Shea Stadium. Instead, Woods was in Mexico partying with his friends on the beach.

DAVIES: Wow. You know, you write about Shawon Dunston, the shortstop for the Chicago Cubs who had such a great career, as one of the guys who - I don't remember whether he was saying this or whether others were observing it about him but that, you know, he's - it's not easy to play 162 games. And there's a lot of pressure to try and perform. And why should he - why should it be incumbent upon him to take risks and speak out? I mean, the white guys, you know, wear sneakers, too. Shouldn't they be, you know, active on issues of child labor in, you know, in other countries?

BRYANT: Absolutely, absolutely, and that is the challenge and the issue is because it's not your choice. That's the reason. The reason is because this is an inheritance that is yours that you didn't ask for but it's yours nevertheless. I don't think that Malcolm X or Martin Luther King or any of these powerful figures necessarily wanted to be the target or the leader. They wanted to live a good life, but life puts you in positions that you don't get to control. And it's an honor to be asked to lead. It's an honor that people want you to be part of something and that they think enough of you to rely on you. Where's the shame in that? Why run from that?

GROSS: We're listening to the interview FRESH AIR's Dave Davies recorded with Howard Bryant, author of the new book "The Heritage: Black Athletes, A Divided America, And The Politics Of Patriotism." After a break, we'll talk about how 9/11 changed expressions of patriotism and dissent at sports events. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF BENITO GONZALEZ, ESSIET OKON ESSIET AND GERRY GIBBS' "INNER GLIMPSE")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to the interview FRESH AIR's Dave Davies recorded with Howard Bryant, author of the new book "The Heritage: Black Athletes, A Divided America, And The Politics Of Patriotism." It's about how African-American athletes in the past and present have dealt with questions of dissent and patriotism, race and speech; a very timely book as taking a knee during the national anthem has become a form of protest, which President Trump opposes, and a time when the president canceled the Super Bowl winners' White House visit. Bryant is a senior writer for espn.com and ESPN Magazine and a sports correspondent for NPR's Weekend Edition Saturday with Scott Simon.

DAVIES: You say that 9/11 changed everything in sports in ways that would eventually figure into activism again. What was the change?

BRYANT: Well, it was everything, and I think everything is an understatement. If you are of a certain age, when I was a kid, the Cold War was what shaped our lives. I remember the 1976 Olympics. You remember the 1980s when - the 1980 Olympics when the Americans didn't go and then the 1984 Summer Olympics when the Russians didn't go. This was what shaped your life. If you were born in 1990, you were 10 or 11 years old on 9/11. And everything about sports that you've seen ever since has been shaped by militarization, jingoism, patriotism at the ballpark - all of these different symbols and images that are now embedded into the game-day experience.

If you were my age, sports teams and sports leagues did not want to get involved in politics because they didn't want to anger half of the fan base. If you get involved in politics, somebody is going to be mad at you. But post-9/11, the attitude was very different. Who could possibly be against patriotism? Who could possibly be against supporting the troops? And so you start to look at how the game actually appeared on the field and on your TV screen. You have first responders singing the national anthem now. You have soldiers in the crowd. You have police in every sort of part of the game when you look at the game. Pregame, you have the surprise military inductions and surprise military homecomings. And all of these different things are part of the selling of sports now. That's completely attributable to 9/11.

And what's even more, to me, sinister about this was the fact that it was underwritten by the Department of Defense while being sold to the public as organic - that the teams were doing this because they were being patriotic. And they were joining the war effort when, actually, it was the National Guards across the country that were paying these sports teams to sing the national anthem and to have these homecomings and all of these things. It was a complete deception to the American public.

DAVIES: Yeah. I mean, this is - let's be clear about this. What we're - you know, we're talking about how now the singing of "God Bless America" has been added to the seventh inning of ballgames. And there are bigger flags, and there are flyovers from military jets. And it was in 2015. There was a report that came out, which (laughter) surprised a lot of people, which said the military was paying baseball teams not insignificant sums of money...

BRYANT: Not just baseball teams. All of them.

DAVIES: OK.

BRYANT: All of them from...

DAVIES: Sports teams every...

BRYANT: That's right.

DAVIES: And football probably more than others, right? I mean...

BRYANT: And NASCAR as well and all of the above.

DAVIES: Yes. So what were the arrangements? They would pay for the privilege of what?

BRYANT: They would pay for the singing of "God Bless America." The Wisconsin National Guard paid the Milwaukee Brewers $49,000 to sing "God Bless America" during the seventh-inning stretch. When you look at a game on TV and you see all those military members up in the fourth deck - to the fan watching the game on television, that must have been a sports team donating those tickets to the troops. But it's actually the DOD paying for those tickets. The surprise homecomings before a game also staged by the Department of Defense - by the Pentagon.

DAVIES: You mean the servicemen and his family are reunited.

BRYANT: The servicemen are coming home and being reunited with their families.

DAVIES: Right.

BRYANT: Absolutely. That is a staged event, and so this has become part of sports. And so the two Republicans, John McCain and Jeff Flake of Arizona - they authored the report "Tackling Paid Patriotism," chastising teams for this practice, for charging the military for these displays and deceiving the public and, on top of that, forcing these teams - and sometimes to give the money back. But a lot of times, as you watch on TV, these displays haven't changed. It's a part of sports now. It's something that is - it must be dealt with in a certain way that you're selling - one, you're continuing two wars that are being fought at the ballpark. It's also something that the Pentagon is doing on purpose, and they don't hide it. That's one of the interesting things about this. They're recruiting soldiers. They need soldiers to man the force, and they view sports as a great recruiting tool.

And I think what's really interesting about this and where I found this collision with the heritage is that you have this post-9/11 sports militarized and nationalized and all of these different sort of attitudes toward patriotism taking place at the ballpark colliding with a revived black athlete whose experiences with police - it runs counter to these displays that are taking place at the game. So you have the post-9/11 sports colliding with the post-Ferguson black athlete. And this is really where a lot of the tension comes from.

DAVIES: And when Colin Kaepernick took a knee in 2016 - I mean, he was certainly not the first one to join the protests against police shootings. LeBron James had made a statement. I think it was at an ESPN awards banquet, right?

BRYANT: Absolutely.

DAVIES: It got a lot of attention.

BRYANT: He and Carmelo Anthony and - yeah.

DAVIES: Right. What was different about Colin Kaepernick? I mean...

BRYANT: Well, I think the first thing that was different about Kaepernick was the gesture itself. The players had spoken before, and you had the hands up, don't shoot gesture. You had Derrick Rose and LeBron James wearing I can't breathe T-shirts. You had the Minnesota Lynx, the women's basketball team in the WNBA, doing the same thing. But the fact that Colin Kaepernick took a knee during the national anthem - that changed everything. And what it did was it got people's attention, which is what protest is supposed to do. But what it also did was it exposed the gap between how African-Americans were viewing what was taking place in the climate and how the mainstream media and how teams were viewing it. And now it was forcing teams into a collision with what they were selling at the ballpark in terms of flags and flyovers and militarization and how these African-American players were feeling about what was happening in the community. So it was - the gesture brought these two seemingly disparate strains together. And it brought them together at the ballpark, which is another interesting sort of twist to it because the ballpark is the place where everyone's supposed to get along. And it's the toy department, and sports are supposed to be fun. And suddenly, sports became the most politicized place in America.

DAVIES: Right. Now, some owners...

BRYANT: I was going to say, and then the other part of that, too, is then you add Donald Trump into it who recognized very quickly that this was a political piece that he could exploit for his base. And you saw what he did in terms of questioning the players' citizenship and questioning whether or not players belonged in the country and questioning whether or not players - it was appropriate for players to protest at all. Obviously when he called them SOBs in 2017 in September, and I wrote...

DAVIES: And said they should be fired, right? Didn't he tell owners that they should fire...

BRYANT: Exactly.

DAVIES: Right.

BRYANT: And that they should not even be employed. This is explosive, powerful, undemocratic territory. Actually suggesting that a citizen and that an employee lose his job - you take away their employment for disagreeing with something that's taking place in the United States. And I wrote in the book - I'd like to just read a quick paragraph to you about how I felt about this. I said that Trump positioned dissenting views as unpatriotic at best, traitorous at worst, both to the United States in general and the country's armed forces in particular. Black players, such as Colin Kaepernick, enjoyed wide support from military members and nationwide black police organizations that were committed to eradicating police brutality, but it didn't matter.

Sports, if not completely nonpartisan but famously ambivalent to overt political messages, was sending its own message through its fans, media, broadcast partners, teams and leagues. The American flag did not represent ideals. It was supposed to be obeyed. And so that's the energy that Trump brought to this issue. And as we've seen with the Philadelphia Eagles and the White House issue - as we've seen ever since the start of his presidency, he's used the players as a wedge between being patriotic and unpatriotic. And in a lot of ways, it follows a template when it comes to dealing with African-Americans during electoral years. As I was saying the other day, it feels like you've gone from welfare queens to Willie Horton and now ballplayers.

DAVIES: Right. Howard Bryant's new book is "The Heritage: Black Athletes, A Divided America, And The Politics Of Patriotism." We'll talk some more after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF SLOWBERN'S "WHEN WAR WAS KING")

DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. And we're speaking with Howard Bryant. He's a senior writer for ESPN.com and ESPN The Magazine. He's also a commentator on NPR's Weekend Edition with Scott Simon. He has a new book about the tradition of political and social advocacy among African-American athletes. It's called "The Heritage."

Athletes can protest. They're in a position to have an impact on public opinion. They're not necessarily in a position to negotiate changes in public policy - like, you know, police procedures or introducing new laws. But a number of players got together and essentially began to negotiate with owners for some concrete step in the direction of greater social justice. And this kind of created a divide among some of the players who were advocating. Tell us about that. What happened?

BRYANT: Well, you had two things taking place at once. On the one hand, you had players who wanted to negotiate with the NFL about creating a fund to affect social change. On the other, you had Colin Kaepernick in 2016 who had taken a knee in protest. And then in 2017, you had Eric Reid, his teammate with the 49ers, when Kaepernick was out of the league continuing that protest. And so now you've got two different strains of strategy. On the one hand, you have protests. And on the other, you have negotiation. So you have one group of players negotiating with owners - the very people who were blackballing Colin Kaepernick and would soon blackball Eric Reid because he's now not in the NFL. And this created essentially a divide-and-conquer strategy. And what ended up taking place was the players were split.

In December, they created a $90 million partnership with the NFL. And yet within that partnership - or after that partnership, you have the NFL Players Association filing consecutive collusion lawsuits against the NFL because Colin Kaepernick and Eric Reid both don't have jobs. So from a tactical standpoint and a strategic standpoint, the players have been pitted against each other. You've got the protesters on one side. And then you've got the negotiators on the other. And it will be very interesting to see how the players navigate this.

A lot of people feel like the players sold out. And they sold out Colin Kaepernick. And they sold out Eric Reid. And they sold out the protest. And then a lot of other people think that this is the way that you can create change. You have to negotiate. You have to work within the system. And we will find out exactly which side was right. But to me, I think that the players had made a terrible mistake because you isolated the two people who really did begin this conversation. There's no $90 million partnership with the NFL without Colin Kaepernick's protest. It was the protest - the being in the street and the being visible - that got anybody to the table.

DAVIES: You know, if you take the long view of African-American athletes, I mean, you can go back to an era when there was outright segregation. Blacks were then admitted into the leagues. More are now in coaching staffs - some in the front office, I think a couple in minority ownership positions. Do you see a throughline of progress in all this? Are we, over the long run, moving in a positive direction?

BRYANT: No, we're not. And the reason that we're not is because of that throughline is essentially a myth. The way that you view sports - and it has been this way for years - is white owners, white coaches, white season-ticket owners, white media, black player. That is the filter. This is how sports is run. There is one owner in professional sports who is African-American. And it's Michael Jordan with the Charlotte Hornets. And he's the only black owner, and that's a sport with an 80 percent black workforce. The NFL is a 70 percent black workforce. And yet these players are being muscled into not having political opinions.

When you look at media, media has focused not on the filter of the black athlete in terms of their protest but through their own filter, which is through police and through the flag. So the player isn't even able - the player spends so much time being frustrated that this is not what their protest is about. They can't even explain themselves in a way. And that's because the predominantly white media does not want to relinquish control of this narrative. If they actually listened - if it actually listened to the player, we'd be having a very different conversation about these protests. And so to say that there's progress is to suggest that some of these - or any of these components are changing. And actually, they're not.

In baseball, front-office opportunities are becoming less and less possible for African-Americans. The numbers are actually shrinking. They're going away. And so the problem that you have here is we feel - it feels like we're going backwards in a lot of ways. One of the main issues of this book is the question of black body over black brain. The reason why we talk about players is because players were supposed to be this pipeline to education. They were supposed to be the pipeline to a better America for the African-American player. But what you have instead is you have really rich African-American athletes, a very small percentage of them, who have made it and a lot of other players and a lot of other people who haven't. And the response to those players, the LeBron Jameses and the Dwyane Wades and Colin Kaepernicks who actually have made it, the response to them has been shut up and play, shut up and dribble. That doesn't sound like progress to me.

DAVIES: You know, I have to say, at least in terms of the media, it doesn't seem as monolithically white and condemning of protest as you say. I mean, you're out there. I mean, I see a lot of African-American commentators in live broadcasts of sports. There are columnists I know here in Philadelphia that have, you know, have been supportive of Kaepernick. Isn't there some diversity of voices there?

BRYANT: Well, there is some diversity of voice, but there is not diversity of voice. And I think that when you look at that - when you look at those numbers, just look at the raw numbers. Let's not put a whole lot of emotion into it. The numbers are very small. There are some prominent African-Americans who are in prominent places. I'm very fortunate to be working at ESPN. That is a prominent, prominent media voice. But the numbers are very small. And not only are the numbers small, but it's not just the numbers. It's also the lens through which these issues are being discussed. And even the African-American voice as the lens through which the issues are being discussed is still the flag and still the military.

How many times do you have African-American voices or you have players - Malcolm Jenkins just the other day put out a sign at his locker during the voluntary workouts, and instead of doing an interview, he just held up a sign that said you aren't listening. So we all understand the lens through which these issues are being discussed, and that is a problem because the players find themselves on the defensive. Why are the players on the defensive? Because they find themselves talking about the military when their protest has nothing to do with the military even though it is OK to criticize the military if you want. But once again, the lens is being written and discussed through the predominantly white media because they are pandering to the fan bases.

DAVIES: So what would that conversation be if they listened?

BRYANT: I think if the media and the public actually listened, the conversation would be very different. It would be a conversation - instead of talking about the flag, you'd be talking to Tamir Rice's mother. You would be talking to Eric Garner's family. You would be talking to Philando Castile's family and talking about their experience and why their experience with police is as confrontational as it's been.

DAVIES: Howard Bryant, thanks so much for speaking with us.

BRYANT: My pleasure. Thank you.

GROSS: Howard Bryant is the author of the new book "The Heritage." He spoke with FRESH AIR's Dave Davies, who is also WHYY's senior reporter. After a break, our jazz critic, Kevin Whitehead, will review a new album by Shamie Royston, a composer and pianist whose writing he really admires. This is FRESH AIR.

[POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: Howard Bryant incorrectly says Paul Robeson attended Princeton University. He actually attended Rutgers College.]

(SOUNDBITE OF ANTHONY BRAXTON'S "22-M (OPUS 58)") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.