Rappers and Athletes

Heh. Bill James has an excerpt from his new book up on Slate:

People in the sporting world in 1950 were just as racist as people in other parts of society--but people in the sporting world got over it a hell of a lot faster, because we cared more about win­ning than we did about discriminating. Because the sporting world was always ahead of the rest of the world in breaking racial barri­ers, black kids came to perceive sports as being the pathway out of poverty. For this we are now harshly and routinely criticized--as if it was our fault that the rest of society hasn't kept up. Some jackass Ph.D ex-athlete pops up on my TV two or three times a year claiming that a young black kid has a better chance of being hit by lightning than of becoming a millionaire athlete. This is nonsense as well as being a rational hash. 

Look, it's not our fault that the rest of the world hasn't kept up. It's not our fault that there are still barriers to black kids becoming doctors and lawyers and airline pilots. Black kids regard the athletic world as a pathway out of poverty because it is. The sporting world should be praised and honored for that. Instead, we are more often criticized because the pathway is so narrow. 

Which, I agree, is a real problem. I would never encourage my children to be athletes--first because my children are not athletes and second because there are so many people pushing to get to the top in sports that 100 people are crushed for each one who breaks through. This is unfortunate. We are very good at producing athletes, and maybe we are too good at producing athletes. Some­times the cost is too high. We should do more to develop the next Shakespeare and less to develop the next Justin Verlander.

Whenever I do a reading, its fairly common for black parents to ask how we can make "our sons" read more. Taking a cue from Walter Mosley, I generally ask--as politely as possible--"Do you read?" Obviously I want more kids to be readers, but so much of the inquisition over their fate involves our disgust at their habits--which is to say our disgust at our own habits.

This not racial, but societal. When I was child the bandwith for demonstrating your intellectual aptitude was quite small. There were no mock trial teams or debate clubs. There were no science clubs which competed. (We did have Olympics of The Mind, which I loved.) There were no creative writing clubs, or poetry slams. But there were quite a few sports leagues--and they were open to virtually anyone who was interested. 

Like most adults, I'm very interested in kids understanding the many ways they can potentially succeed at life. But that interest should be girded with deeds. There's something backwards about berating children for aspiring to be that which the society itself seems to most value. I guess it's good to see the president telling young black boys they will not be the next Lebron or Lil' Wayne. It'd be a lot better if he'd make sure they knew they could be the next Mae Jamison.
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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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