The 66th anniversary of Jackie Robinson’s monumental debut in Major League Baseball has inspired me to write a post on the current issues we face with professional sports, hip-hop, and race relations.
Let’s get one thing straight: an entire college course could be taught on the plethora of racial issues intertwined in sports and hip-hop. Countless rap songs portray the harsh reality that from a young age, black men are taught that there are only two ways to break away from inner-city poverty: either be blessed with the skills to make it to the NBA, or pursue a rap career.
Hip-hop is scattered with sports references. J. Cole’s entire catalogue, for example, follows a metaphorical path of athletic success: The Warm Up, The Come Up Friday Night Lights and The Sideline Story. This model for success—get rich or die trying–presents a new-age, narrow-minded image of the American-American dream. Pull yourself up by the bootstraps and get signed by any means, because there’s no use pursuing a career as a doctor, lawyer, or banker with an education from inner-city public schools. The majority of role models for today’s black youth are either on stage rapping about monetary success, or on TV signing multi-million dollar contracts to play professional sports. The spotlight given to athletes and rappers provide a “they made it, so why can’t I?” mentality to black youth who have suffered through poverty too much to idealize anything less than a high-class lifestyle.
The main problem here, is that the probability of success in either field is lower than any other professional pursuit. Even worse, failure along either of these paths, even after success in the underground rap scene or collegiate athletics for example, leaves next to nothing to fall back on. The idealized African-American success story, in reality, ends much more often in tragic letdown than in triumph. Young black men in poverty who don’t succeed in professional sports are often left with inadequate education. They are drawn toward the only glorified option left as a means for monetary success: drug dealing.
Kanye West’s line in “Gorgeous” comes to mind: “All them fallin for the love of ballin/got caught with 30 rocks the cop look like Alec Baldwin.” Notorious B.I.G. also chimed in on “Things Done Changed:”
If I wasn’t in the rap game
I’d probably have a key knee-deep in the crack game
Because the streets is a short stop:
Either you’re slinging crack rock or you got a wicked jump shot
For every player who signs a deal in the NBA and has the fortune to move their family out of the dangerous neighborhoods from which they came, there are hundreds of young men who remain stuck in poverty. Young men who were ushered through their high school (or even college) classes because they were stars on the basketball team, but were left with nothing to show for it.
While professional sports do provide an avenue for the lucky few who are blessed with incredible talents, they also perpetuate a flawed, misleading ideal for African American youth. Moreover, professional athletes and rappers give others a façade to deny any existence of present-day racism. When Adrian Peterson voiced his opinion that professional sports are a modern-day form of slavery, an angry reaction erupted, citing how much money these professional athletes make compared to the average American income. I don’t align with Peterson’s view that professional sports are present-day slavery, per se. But there is something significantly wrong when young black men are taught from birth that they need to attain athletic success, so that rich white men can pay to watch them compete as a spectacle. As if pointing to the few famous black men who have attained elite success somehow negates the fact that most black men are considered lucky if they don’t die before the age of 25.
For me, the most severe problem is that escaping from inner-city poverty is a ridiculously difficult task. Faced with racial profiling, endless crime, and a disintegrating education system, who can blame these kids for looking up to athletes and rappers, who to this day remain the only prominent role models for the black youth. Perhaps we need to change how we glorify athletic success, especially at the high school and college level. Instead of spending so much money funding athletics, why don’t we spend our time, money, and attention creating other avenues to escape poverty, so that our future children will have role models in any field they wish to pursue.