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Monday, December 31, 2018

THE HERITAGE: BLACK ATHLETES, a DIVIDED AMERICA and the POLITICS of PATRIOTISM (audiobook) by Howard Bryant



Published by Beacon Press in May of 2018.
Read by Ron Butler.
Duration: 11 hours, 17 minutes.

Unabridged.

Howard Bryant's The Heritage: Black Athletes, a Divided America and the Politics of Patriotism takes a hard look at athletes, particularly African-American athletes, using their position to make commentary of social issues. Bryant brings a wealth of experience as a sports writer for ESPN.com, ESPN the Magazine and NPR. 


Tommie Smith and John Carlos in the 1968 Olympics 
Bryant does not come at this topic as a person critical of athletes taking political stances. Rather, he is very much in favor of it since athletes have a very large soapbox that they can climb upon and shout from, if they chose to do so. Some have. Bryant speaks in great detail about Jackie Robinson, Kareem Abdul Jabbar, Tommie Smith, John Carlos and especially Muhammad Ali.

Bryant starts, oddly in my mind, with someone who was an athlete (played 15 games in the NFL in the 1920's for teams that no longer exist) but is almost entirely remembered for his singing and acting - Paul Robeson. Robeson was very outspoken (he spoke out so often that he was blacklisted by Hollywood and was investigated by the House Un-American Activities Committee), which fits the model of person that this book profiles, but he hardly fits the model of a professional athlete that the book is focusing on.

Nonetheless, this is an interesting and thought-provoking book. Bryant's thesis is that the norm has been for Black athletes to stand up for other African Americans, either symbolically like early boxers who literally fought against white men, or by speaking up. This is what Bryant calls "The Heritage".



Colin Kaepernick
For about 25 years, more or less, "The Heritage" went away - from roughly the 1970's through the early 2000's. Bryant insists that it starts with O.J. Simpson and follows right through Michael Jordan. The model is "go along and get rich". Keep the controversies quiet and make as much money as possible. I am sure it is more complicated than that. For example, the large legislative pieces were already passed by the time Simpson made it to the NFL so there were few "official" government policies to protest any longer - at least not like before when there were a smorgasbord of racist policies to protest. But, he makes his point well - where was Michael Jordan, the most famous African American of all (except for Michael Jackson) when the Rodney King beating, for example, took place? Or when a host of other similar racial incidents happened? Nowhere.

This brings us up to Colin Kaepernick. This is, without a doubt, the strongest part of the book. Bryant takes us back through the trauma of 9/11 and reminds the readers that lived through it how shocking it was for all of us and how so many police officers and firefighters died in that attack. He reminds us how sporting events became a way for everyone to share in the loss and honor those that died on that day through flag ceremonies and special songs (Yankee Stadium performs "God Bless America" during the 7th Inning Stretch, for example).

But, soon enough, those special healing moments became part of the routine - a routine paid for by the U.S. military. Those honor guards that present the flag? Paid for by the military 
with taxpayer money (they pay the teams to let them do it). Those special, tearjerker reunion moments where a soldier comes home and his or her child is surprised on the field? Paid for by the military with taxpayer money. Those "shout outs" on the Jumbotron from soldiers in the field that are rooting for the home team? Paid for by the military with taxpayer money. Special "honor the troops" days where dozens of soldiers have seats together at the game and the camera focuses on them a few times and they all wave and say, "Hi Mom!"? Paid for by the military with taxpayer money (it costs more for more camera shots).

These combined to give sporting events a hyper-patriotic, even nationalistic feel that was not there before.

Personal note: I have attended every Indy 500 since 1986. The hyper-patriotic feel has been there throughout that time because the Indy 500 has always been scheduled on Memorial Day Weekend. They have incorporated a playing of Taps, a flyover (they were one of the first to feature a flyover) at least two patriotic songs and had a group of soldiers there representing all of the branches of the military every year. But, when I went to the August 2017 NASCAR Bristol "night" race, it was just as patriotic, including going so far as to feature a recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance. Now, the NFL games are just as reverent as the Indy 500, so much so that the Indy 500 pre-race activities are not nearly as distinctive as they used to be.


So, when Colin Kaepernick decided to protest - in a much less divisive way than Ali (who talked non-stop and even went to jail when he refused to serve in Vietnam, but was publicly mourned when he died) he was excoriated.

Specific criticisms: Bryant strays from sports into popular entertainment from time to time - but not consistent enough to make it a comparison of how African American athletes, musicians and actors approached race-related controversies, with the exception of Paul Robeson (noted above) but enough to muddy the waters. He even brought up the movie Rocky as being racist because it features a white boxer as the protagonist and a black boxer as the bad guy. There are two problems with this: 1) Apollo Creed is not really a bad guy in any meaningful sense he is overconfident and symbolizes the establishment while Rocky symbolizes the "little guy", but he is remarkable for even giving Rocky the chance to fight in the first place and 2) Rocky was inspired by real-life the story of Chuck Wepner, a journeyman boxer who fought for the title Ali in 1975. When you hear Apollo Creed talk about himself he is clearly imitating Ali's style. Stallone saw the fight and then wrote the screenplay (he even settled a lawsuit with Wepner over using his story).

But, despite those criticisms, this was a remarkable book. Not always a fun book, but remarkable nonetheless and certainly an excellent ending to a solid year of reading.

The book was read by Ron Butler. His voice had a sense of authority and his pacing was excellent. He did a great job, even if he could not pronounce the name of the former baseball Commissioner Bud Selig's name correctly.

I rate this audiobook 5 stars out of 5. It can be found on Amazon.com here: THE HERITAGE: BLACK ATHLETES, a DIVIDED AMERICA and the POLITICS of PATRIOTISM by Howard Bryant.

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