Gagging Black Athletes

Unless it’s commodified, laid out over a beat, and marketed to suburban white teens getting their ghetto fix, there is no freedom to be angry in black America.

From Jim Crow to the New Jim Crow to Fox News fulminations about the New Black Panthers, there lurks an existential fear to, in the words of Ronald Reagan, “hold back the jungle.”

Nowhere on the cultural landscape is black anger policed more vigorously than in the world of sports. Ask Roddy White and Victor Cruz.

After George Zimmerman was found innocent of profiling, stalking, and gunning down seventeen-year-old Trayvon Martin, the two responses that garnered the most attention were from Cruz, a New York Giants wide receiver, and Atlanta Falcons wideout Roddy White.

Cruz tweeted, “Zimmerman doesn’t last a year til the hood catches up to him.”

White’s response was, “All them jurors should go home tonight and kill themselves for letting a grown man get away with killing a kid.”

Both were pilloried by the press, piled-on by their twitter “followers,” and hectored into apologizing. Cruz had to go on The Dan Patrick Show, where he said, “In the moment, when it happened—I’m not going to lie, I was a little angry. As a father, you think about if that was your son, if that was your kid.”

It’s tempting to make this a story about social media and impulse control, but the roots of this run far deeper.

Poor people of color rarely get a cultural platform, a megaphone, and something that approximates a public voice. The owners in sports want black athletes, who tend to come from poor backgrounds, to be known, to sell tickets and jerseys. They don’t want them to use that platform to actually speak about racism or poverty.

This story of controlling the black voice in sports is as old as sports itself.

In the 1930s, Joe Louis wasn’t told to “be loud and larger than life like Babe Ruth.” He was told, “Don’t open your mouth like Jack Johnson.”

Jackie Robinson was told by management to turn the other cheek.

The white media told every boxer from Sonny Liston to Joe Frazier that their “job” was to shut up “the Louisville Lip.”

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, despite his All-Time Status and Doogie Howser IQ, never got a coaching job.

Craig Hodges and Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf were drummed out of the NBA for expressing quiet, dignified disdain for nationalism and war.

Carlos Delgado was told that if he wanted to join the Mets, he could have Roberto Clemente’s number but had to keep quiet.

The list stretches for an ungodly amount of miles.

Be black but do it with a smile.

Be mad, but only at the other team.

Be an individual but only an individual brand, not a man.

Step out of line, and invite a torrent of abuse.

This story is not about whether we—particularly the white people we—agree, disagree, or are repulsed by the sentiments of Cruz and White. It’s about whether black athletes—even in 2013—have the right to their own rage.

As Frederick Douglass said, “At a time like this, scorching irony, not convincing argument, is needed.” Athletes have a long history of offering scorching irony only to be burned. We’d do better to listen.

Dave Zirin is the host of Sirius XM Radio’s popular weekly show, “Edge of Sports Radio,” and the sports editor for The Nation magazine. His newest book is “Game Over: How Politics Has Turned the Sports World Upside Down” (The New Press).