On every third Monday of January we observe a day in which we, from all walks of life, all races, faiths, socioeconomic backgrounds and genders sanctify and lionize Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Dr. King’s legacy is one where justice, love and peace prevail in the face of oppression, hate and violence. It is one that transcends generations, where grandparents of children alive right now lived in the world that he fought against. They lived in a world that excluded them from accessing equal education, employment opportunities, fair working wages and the right to vote. The lived in a world of separate and unequal, of separate and different, of separate and less than and of separate and inferior. King fought and dedicated his life, his physical and mental life, his blood, sweat and tears to achieving unity. Unity for poor and rich, for black and white and for liberal and conservative. He was on the front lines of poor and working class marches for worker's rights and he salvaged his body for racial equality in this country.
King’s legacy has been watered down. It has been hand-selected for us in paraphrases and in summaries of the most comfortable and centrist parts. We have, for the most part, only consumed the part that is void of controversy. King was not largely admired by all - many white Americans loathed him, more than 60% actually. He was the agitator and the race baiter. Many cheered his assassination in 1968. How we went from loathing to loving is much less of a story in growing tolerance and diminishing racism than it is about the ways his legacy has been distorted and blunted. King was arrested nearly 30 times in his shortened lifetime. Government agencies found themselves complicit in his assassination. He was regarded by the FBI as a domestic terrorist and two days after his widely known “I Have a Dream” speech that he is touted for, he was declared the biggest threat to our national security. So the questions remains this year again, how are you choosing to remember Dr. King?
Moments throughout our history deserve a complex analysis. We must recall for the sake of truth the good, the bad and the ugly. Moments in sport exist similarly. King was no athlete himself but he aligned himself with those athletes on the front lines of the social megaphone that is sports culture. He was just a teen in 1947 when Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in the MLB, but as Robinson’s career came to a close the two paraded the same message. Robinson was a speaker throughout the country championing civil rights. He ended every speech the same way, he said “if I had to choose between the Baseball Hall of Fame and full citizenship for my people, I would choose full citizenship every time.”
King embraced the likes of a young champion boxer, Muhammed Ali. Although largely dismissed because of Ali’s allegiance to The Nation of Islam, King and Ali campaigned for fair housing together in Ali’s hometown of Louisville. King often referenced Ali in his speeches too, particularly when it came to opposing the war in Vietnam. King would say, “Like Muhammed Ali puts it, we are all black and brown and poor victims of the same system of oppression.”
The most obvious example, however, might be King’s alignment with John Carlos, Tommie Smith and Lee Evans in the campaign to boycott the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City. They demanded to have Muhammad Ali's title restored, to have apartheid South Africa and Rhodesia dis-invited from the Olympics, to hire more African- American coaches and to see IOC president Avery Brundage removed after 32 years of iron rule. Many lashed out at this saying it was shameful and unpatriotic, but they counted on King to provide his unwavering support. King concluded that “freedom always demands sacrifice and one cannot look at these demands without seeing their truths.” John Carlos recalls that when he raised his fist at the Olympic podium, Dr. King was in his heart and in his mind.
Dr. King was arguably intertwined in some of the most prolific intersection of sport and civil rights. The million dollar question though, in all speculation and inference is where would King stand today? What would he say today in 2018? There are so many artifacts of King’s work that you don’t have to look too far. His speeches and letters and workings are left for us to continue his legacy. Sport today, like in King’s era, is not absent in its intersection with civil rights and social justice. You can pretty much take any issue in any league and insert King as the catalyst. There is undoubtedly conversation regarding the legacy and work of Dr. King and its relevance to the movement that Colin Kaepernick sparked which has suffocated news outlets for more than a year. Dr. King cemented himself by organizing, by action, by protest, by resistance and by never sitting idle. Sure, he preached non-violence but non-violence is not non-action. It is certainly not to keep quiet when you have a platform and an audience and he certainly did not deny the humanity of others simply because they can throw a ball, or they can sing and dance. Many use King as a way to leverage their dislike for the protests. They insist he would have done it differently, he would have went about it in a different way, a more inclusive or less controversial way.Talking heads will often show some humanity about the cause of the players, acknowledging the cause to find reform in criminal justice and police brutality. They then pivot in the action that takes place. Whether it is kneeling, marching or wearing clothing it seems to be met with disapproval, met with it being the wrong way to protest. That is very thing about a protest, it is supposed to disrupt, it is supposed to get people talking, to make some uncomfortable. Everyone has missed the crux of Dr. King’s effectiveness when those kinds of sentiments get echoed because, like King, the works of Kaepernick, Malcolm Jenkins, Chris Long, Adam Jones and others are rooted in action. Look at their work, their charity and efforts. It is rooted in action.
The re-appropriation of King’s legacy allows for Clemson Football coach Dabo Swinney to proclaim ignorantly, that anyone like Mr. Kaepernick should move to another country. In the same breath though he says that the protesters should instead embody Dr. King. Say what!?
“I think the answer to our problems is exactly what they were for Martin Luther King when he changed the world. Love, peace, education, tolerance of others, Jesus” Swinney said.
If you knew nothing, nothing at all about Martin Luther King Jr. before you read this piece you would know that just doesn’t make much sense. It’s worth noting that Swinney eventually apologized for his comments. I wonder if he realized the historical irony that he is employed by a university that sits on the refurbished plantation of John C. Calhoun.
This situation with Swinney brings to light another connected piece of Dr. King’s legacy. Aside from the obvious tendency to use Dr. King as a defensive weapon when protest arises, his life’s work may also be very well encompassed by his very last days alive, marching for the wages and rights of sanitation workers on the streets of Memphis. What does that have to do with our current state on college athletics? Well, Dabo Swinney takes home a base salary of $4.55 million. He also make $1.4 million in bonuses for a total salary of just under $6 million. His earnings don’t differ too much from other big time college football and basketball coaches. Him, Jimbo Fischer and their millionaire counterparts profit from the physical labor and bodily risk of predominantly black athletes. This observance of Dr. King and his views on wealth and the exploitation of labor are extra timely as we just watched National Championship between Alabama and Georgia, a great game nonetheless and as we enter an always exciting March Madness season only a few weeks away. There is a very obvious exploitation of revenue sports in college athletics. A former UNC runner recently wrote a great piece for The LA Times. In it she says:
“I never spent more than 20 hours per week in practice and competition, my coaches always prioritized academics over athletics, and my experiences launched me on a path to earning my Ph.D. As a graduate student at Arizona State University, I was an NCAA national champion in the 10,000-meter run.
This is not the trajectory for many revenue-generating college athletes. They spend upwards of 50 or 60 hours per week on sports. They frequently are enrolled in easy, sometimes fraudulent courses to maintain their eligibility and often don’t graduate.
NCAA rules stipulate that they cannot not be paid, despite the massive amounts of money their athletic performances generate. Instead, some of those dollars subsidize idyllic student-athlete experiences like mine.I embraced the weekly grind of the college athlete lifestyle, much like they did. I hit hard workouts, lifted weights and completed my prehab and rehab in the training room. But, unlike them, my sport responsibilities ended there. While they memorized playbooks, studied films and fulfilled media obligations, I escaped to the library in what became a love affair with history.
Thanks to the labor of football and basketball players, I did not pay for college, took full advantage of attending one of the top public universities in the nation, and traveled to cool places on the school’s dime.
It may be difficult to view revenue-generating players as exploited. They are celebrated with grandiose pageants on ESPN and CBS. And we are all familiar with the stereotype of college football and basketball stars — entitled jocks who benefit from world-class athletic facilities, gourmet training tables, academic support centers, game rooms with all the bells and whistles, and travel on chartered airplanes.
But for those who don’t go on to make millions as pros after graduation — and the vast majority of Division I football players don’t — the NCAA narrative simply doesn’t apply.”
This divide correlates with race. Nonrevenue athletes are mostly white, while revenue-sport athletes are disproportionately black. This is especially true at the most elite sports schools, the Power Five conferences.
According to a study by Dr. Shaun R Harper black men represent 2.8% of undergraduate students at UNC, but 62% of the school’s basketball and football players. These athletes graduate at a rate of 45%, compared with 72% for all athletes, 74% for black males, and 90% for all students.
College athletics is a multi- billion dollar industry. Athletes are not paid. The cost of going to school exceeds what an athletic scholarship pays. Part time jobs are hard to hold down, with the number of sport related hours a week usually surpassing the prescribed 20 hour rule, and frankly getting a job would be frowned upon. There is also no union protection, like other athletes have. The closest thing to that would be parents, which is interesting to consider when everyone is 18 and older. Many in the field actually agree upon the brokenness of this system. It has been debated and argued. Books and articles have dissected it and amplified the billions made and discrepancies within that. It goes without saying that with Dr. King’s inevitable intersection to sport in his life that he would also be carrying on his back the labor and exploitation of black athletes in a sports system that devalues black bodies and uses their labor to payout the richest few at the top.
To honor Dr. King today and every day know that he is much more than “I Have a Dream”. He is much more than a parrot of colorblindness. Know that many that cheered his assassination, those that opposed his movement are still alive, they are still voting and still holding us back from his vision. Dr. King was a champion for racial equity, for the working class, for the liberation of his people but don’t be fooled, he was not passive. Dr. King was not without controversy and he is in no way removed from the same issues that we fight about today. He is in the heartbeat of the protest and in the blood that pumps through the athlete-activist.
Chalk Talk is a weekly What's Next column by Anthony Cinelli, one of our founders. It will be published every Monday morning. Anthony is currently a mental health counselor and baseball coach in New Jersey.