Through Obama, kids see new world


As the sun rose above Dorsey High School the morning after the election of our new president, the football team joined together in the school’s cramped weight room and let out a spontaneous chant: “O-bama! O-bama!” they shouted, “O-bama! O-bama! O-bama!”

These were kids from South L.A.'s hard-nosed streets. Teenagers who, if this had been any other election, say they would not have been paying much attention.

This election was different.

Wednesday morning was different, full of new possibilities.

I gathered with about two dozen Dorsey football players; big dudes and small, thin, fast ones, most of them African American, some of them Latino. They told me that seeing a black man become the leader of the free world would have a profound effect on the way they saw themselves and their futures.


No longer, several said, could kids like them think there were but a trio of paths out of the inner city: by conquering the streets, or becoming an entertainer, or becoming a star athlete like Dorsey alum Keyshawn Johnson.

“If Obama can be president, well, this gives us hope,” said Darius Turner, an astute senior defensive back who is said to have a future in big-time college football. “Kobe doesn’t have to be everybody’s role model anymore.”

No offense to Kobe, but that was music to my ears.

Throughout this long political season I’ve wondered whether having Barack Obama as president might alter the sports landscape. I have a theory -- the Obama Effect, I’m calling it -- and it goes like this: Among our next president’s many attributes is that fact that he has real intellectual heft; he’s as sharp a tack as we’ve ever seen on the political stage.

Our kids see this, see how he has created a winning life through his wits, his ability to reason and his dedication to book smarts. Many of them come from the black and brown inner cities that produce an inordinate amount of our pro athletes. For generations, weighted by poverty and race and all of the attendant problems, far too many of these kids have grown up thinking the life of the mind was something to be shunned. Being smart was “acting white,” which made you a target. Physical prowess and overwhelming toughness have for too long been the coin of the realm.

Now comes Obama, buster of all mythologies, a powerful symbol that great power can come though the mind, a president who can make a certain geeky-coolness a bit more in vogue in urban America.

If my theory holds and this happens, a new set of options will open for kids who normally would give their whole lives to making it in sports. Smarts, studying and libraries will be in. Sports won’t ever be out, but the myopic drive to “make it” as an athlete will be tempered by a more even-keeled perspective.

The result? More inner-city kids heading to college simply to study, graduate and head out into the world to get good jobs. Fewer inner-city kids growing up with the kind of hyper-drive needed to end up in big-time sports.

This happens and a decade or so from now maybe the NBA and the NFL will become just a little more like baseball, where black Americans exist in numbers that are more in line with the roughly 12% black population in this country.

Would that be so bad?

Of course, it could well be that my theory is a bunch of nonsense.

Harry Edwards, professor emeritus of sociology at UC Berkeley, told me that Obama’s “symbolism” goes only so far. “You can change D.C., that’s one thing,” Edwards said. But changing the way business is done and life is lived at street level, that’s another. Edwards said that for my theory to hold up, a grass-roots revolution must also occur -- through parents, teachers, school districts and youth culture in terms of how it approaches life.

“Barack in the White House without change on the ground is meaningless,” Edwards said.

One of my old African American studies professors at Cal, Bil Banks, reminded me of what is known in sociology as “social distance.”

In this case, social distance refers to the idea that the kids we are talking about are almost entirely motivated by people they see as close to them. “That’s not Martin Luther King, and not Barack Obama,” he said. “Those kids look at these figures and say ‘I will never be that.’ It’s actually the people closest to them that are the role models for these kids . . . someone as far from their reality as Barack, he only has so much sway.”

I appreciate what these fine scholars told me, but I have to say, I’m getting a different sense from the adults and kids I speak with in L.A.'s urban core.

From Cameron Bonner, a community activist who helps run the California Cowboys, a South L.A. youth football team recently featured in this column, came the following e-mail: “For decades many of our children dreamed of being like Mike or Tupac because those were the only images of success they felt [were] reachable. . . . May we all tell the youth [now] to ‘Be Like Obama.’ Tell them if they stay focused and work hard they could some day be elected President of the United States of America. Those words were once just a joke, but thanks to President Elect Obama, no one is laughing anymore!”

From Boniquia Smith, a 14-year-old freshman basketball player at Locke High: “Some of the athletes, I think they are going to start thinking they can be much more than athletes. You know, they will even be thinking they can be president.”

Hearing these voices makes me believe the Obama Effect has a chance at becoming reality. Maybe we will soon see a new attitude about education and smarts and opportunity course through our inner cities. Maybe we will see a bit less of a single-minded focus on becoming Kobe or Mike or Keyshawn.

Maybe we will see a different kind of racial landscape at the top of the athletic world. Fewer American-born minorities playing big-time college and pro sports? More of them hitting the books, bent on good college grades and good jobs as teachers, lawyers, doctors, ministers, politicians and, dare I say it, journalists?

Would you take this trade-off?

I would.