We are currently in the thick of March Madness, a time of year when it seems as though everyone is an expert in all things basketball. People are filling out brackets, making bets and anxiously watching as many games as they possibly can. This time, more than ever, I am reminded of one of the things that annoyed me most during my childhood, along with being the cause of a lot of anxiety and decreased self-esteem. When I met new people, usually adults, or saw family members whom I did not see on a regular basis, they would ask me, “Do you play any sports?” Now this in itself is harmless. Every given year, I was one of the tallest people in my grade. After my awkward pre-teen phase, I slimmed down and started to work out at my mom’s gym occasionally. It was not unusual for people to comment on my “athletic” physique, and the affirmation was a positive reinforcement. It really was no surprise that people thought I would be an athlete.
In reply to the aforementioned question, “Do you play any sports?” I would simply say no and smile. However awkward, all of this is fine and completely normal. Sports are a big part of American culture and most of my peers played them. So what was the issue? It lay in one word: Why?
Now this always seemed like a very loaded question, and I never knew exactly how to respond. I would say, “I’m just not into them,” or something of the sort. If I was lucky, they would leave it at that; however, sometimes they would say some pretty demoralizing things. One family member even told me that I was “a waste of height and size.” This comment bothered me for obvious reasons, but mostly because it seemed like people were never interested in all of my other qualities and interests. I enjoyed reading books on presidential history, catching up on politics and cooking new foods.
For a short period in middle school, I played baseball and ran track. Though I liked the challenge and opportunity to spend time with my friends outside of school, I knew that I was not an athlete. I actually fractured my ankle sliding into home base and was forced to wear a cast and then a boot for the better part of a year. Nonetheless, this piece is not at all my attempt at criticizing athletes or organized sports. I am not oblivious to the many positive effects that sports can have on youth: the ability to bond as a team, have a sense of responsibility and opportunity to compete with peers by constructive means are just some of the benefits. In more urban communities, specifically, sports can be pivotal in establishing a relationship between a coach and his players where many of them may not have a paternal figure in their lives. Sports can also give an out to students looking to escape violence and other disadvantageous situations.
However, in the Black community, sports are sometimes viewed as the only way to prosperity. This could be because the entertainment industry has for so long capitalized on the athletic ambitions of Black boys in conjunction with the general public’s appetite to consume such media. This, all the while collecting the lion’s share of multi-million dollar profits. For example, about three in four NBA players are Black; however, owners in the league are almost exclusively white.
I want my point to be clear: Stop asking Black boys why they don’t play sports because it is in turn reducing them to your entertainment. Instead, start seeing Black boys as intellectuals. Start seeing Black boys as artists, public servants and CEOs.
Let’s encourage more Black youth to code, draw and write columns for their school paper. The world needs more Black leaders, and today’s kids have to be inspired to chase those dreams. And with all of that being said, it is crucial to still acknowledge that kids can be whatever they want in life. So, if after you’ve encouraged him to be ambitious, and that Black boy wants to be a basketball player, go to the bleachers and cheer him on.