Before talking about Dan Le Batard’s recent comments regarding ESPN’s apolitical stance post-Jemele Hill, I first want to share a story about my friend Gwen Ifill, who passed away from cancer shortly after the 2016 election.
The last time I saw her alive we were in Cleveland for the Republican National Convention. I was covering the general election for ABC and she was there for “PBS NewsHour.” For those who don’t know, Ifill was a giant in the industry. In addition to receiving countless awards, in 2004 she became the first black woman to moderate a vice presidential debate and in 2016 she and her PBS colleague Judy Woodruff became the first team of women to moderate a Democratic presidential debate. She was one of my heroes and I miss her very much.
It was around lunchtime when I spotted Ifill having lunch on the patio of a jam-packed restaurant. As I got closer I noticed she was eating a plate of fried chicken wings. The RNC is not the most diverse event one can attend, so I jokingly said to her, “Girl, what are you doing eating fried chicken surrounded by all of these white people?” obviously making light of the stereotype.
She smiled and said, “Honey, it’s important to be yourself no matter where you are.” As you can imagine, it’s a quote I will always carry in my heart.
As I watched the Le Batard clip in which he called ESPN, an outlet where I also have a radio show, cowards for not addressing the inherent racism in the “send her back” chant directed at Somalia-born U.S. Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.), I thought about Ifill’s words.
I thought about Hill, a woman I have known for more than 20 years, and all of the racist vitriol aimed at her after she too became the target of President Trump.
I thought about the philosophical conversations I’ve had with former ESPN president John Skipper and current president Jimmy Pitaro.
Many of us understand the business of sports that leaders in the industry are charged with protecting. Le Batard is rightly questioning the cost of that protection.
For sports, like all forms of entertainment, are meant to be escapes from the real world. But we are nearing a place in our culture in which social media, sports and entertainment are no longer reprieves from life’s daily demand.
They are becoming instead the daily demand we are chained to, and what was once considered the important issues of the day are now unwanted interruptions.
As the Martin Luther King Jr. quote suggests, apathy toward racial injustice has been a hallmark of American life ever since Christopher Columbus got lost out at sea and thought he landed in India.
Now that detachment has migrated from “I know something is wrong but I don’t care enough to do something about it” to “I didn’t know something was wrong because I was too busy researching before my fantasy football draft.”
There is nothing wrong with being passionate about sports. As a native Detroiter I am proud to say I have never bought a pair of Jordans in my life because of the Pistons-Bulls rivalry, so it would be hypocritical of me to ignore the significant place sports has always held in my life.
However, as a minority I don’t have the luxury of ignoring the implications of large groups of white people essentially yelling “Go back to Africa!” while the president with the authority to select federal judges calls them “incredible patriots.”
And neither do the minority athletes that sports fans are hoping to select for their fantasy football teams. Or the athletes of color fans are hoping will lead their favorite NBA team to a title or World Series.
I started my tenure here at The Times by stating it’s hard to “stick to sports” because sports doesn’t stick to sports. That we don’t have a problem when a superstar athlete volunteers her or his time for the Make A Wish Foundation, but when that same athlete makes known that their own wish is not to have their community crippled by an unjust criminal justice system, it’s a problem.
Because conversations about race make people uncomfortable. So, instead of challenging blatant acts of racism, we would much rather vilify the person who dares to point it out. It is far easier to essentially kick an athlete like Colin Kaepernick out of the league than it is to address the longstanding infrastructure that allowed former Houston Texans owner Bob McNair, who referred to players inspired by Kaepernick’s protest as “inmates,” to thrive.
The critic would say: Can’t we all just agree Deshaun Watson is awesome and get along?
My response: Sure we can … but what do you mean by get along?
When a University of Michigan study finds that black offenders are 75% more likely to face a charge that carries a mandatory sentence than whites who committed the same crime, are we really getting along, or using sports as a distraction?
And if it’s the latter, then how long can we remain distracted before the fantasy becomes the only reality we know? Ifill told me it was important be myself no matter where I was. But understanding who I am is becoming harder and harder. As a sports columnist and sports radio host, I am well aware of what readers and listeners come to me for.
But there are brown kids living in cages along our borders.
There are white supremacists marching in our streets.
If the Lakers were recently considered a dumpster fire because Magic Johnson quit, then what the hell do I, and others in my industry, call all of this?