Sports, Race and The Politics of Shirts

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I’m fascinated by the budding cultural politics of shirts, as we’re seeing it play out over the last few days in professional sports. As you’ve no doubt seen, a growing number of African-American professional athletes have either worn the Garner-related “I Can’t Breathe” shirt or in the case of the St Louis Rams and others the “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot” gesture tied to the death of Michael Brown.

Reactions have split pretty much right down the established lines of polarization we see right across our society. You’ve got some stuff like this nonsense from Geraldo Rivera, who suggests LeBron James should have worn a “Be a Better Father” shirt instead of a “I Can’t Breathe” shirt. (The thinking being the prevalent default assumption that blacks can’t state seek a redress of grievances until the homicide and divorce rates among African-Americans drop to zero.)

Laker Kobe Bryant warms up before a game against the Sacramento Kings in Los Angeles. December 9th, 2014.

But beyond the individual reactions the negativity seems pretty clearly rooted in a general sense of “Hey, this is sports. Don’t be bringing your political stuff into my sports.” And I don’t think it’s just white Republicans who feel that way. There are probably a lot of people – quite apart from race or political affiliation – who would be sympathetic to that point as a general matter. A lot of what we like about sports is an element of escapism, from the divisions and travail of work and politics and everything else. But there’s something more specific going on here.

I’ve heard some people say that we’re long since the point where all but a very tiny minority of Americans have any objection to African-Americans in sports. But not all white Americans are comfortable with African-American sports figures expressing political views. No doubt there’s some of that. But I don’t think that’s the crux of it. After all, there’s no problem with expressions or patriotism or religiosity or not even necessarily more generic partisan political speech.

Portland Trail Blazers guard Wesley Matthews, left, and forward Dorell Wright, right, before game against the Minnesota Timberwolves in Minneapolis. Wednesday, Dec. 10, 2014.

I think the issue is more general.

African-Americans are vastly overrepresented in American sports. And sports are a hugely important, in some ways almost central part of American popular culture – and in a way that more or less totally cuts across the Blue and Red divide. But African-Americans have very different political beliefs and cultural experiences than many or most white Americans.

Some of those line up with conventional partisan politics (African Americans overwhelmingly vote Democratic) and others are more immediately rooted in the African-American experience. Given how charged an issue race can be this is a great big cultural and political fissure sitting right there, smack dab in the center of American public life and yet it’s kind of just not there because of the awesomeness of SPORTS! You can see that as denial or just an example of the great unifying role, division-transcending role of sports in American life. It’s probably a bit of both.

St. Louis Rams players make the “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot” gesture as they walk onto the field to play against the Oakland Raiders in St. Louis. Sunday, Nov. 30, 2014.

But this brings it right out into the open, puts that fissure or cleavage in the starkest relief. LeBron is in your living room. And he’s awesome. But we don’t go there. But he is going there. And that just upsets the sports and race apple cart – by bringing big divisions in American society right into the open – in a way that is unexpected and hard for many to deal with.

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