What if I told you that a train was pulling into the station that would take you to a destination that possessed all the resources you needed to be wealthy, to find true love, to live a long and fulfilling life⎯you’d run to make that train wouldn’t you? But what If I also told you that the ride was long, you would not have a seat, the cars were hot and crowded, there would be no food or drink, etc. ⎯would you still get on? Would you stay the course to reap the reward at the end? In other words, how uncomfortable of a ride would you be willing to endure in order to reach a better destination?
Athletes learn very early in their careers that most of their days will be filled with doing things that make them uncomfortable. But they adapt, and get comfortable with the idea of being uncomfortable. They are called upon to confront issues beyond the scope of sports, and learn to stand by their actions and very publically live their truth.
Most members of society never face that type of scrutiny. They form opinions, and very often compartmentalize their views and beliefs in ways that are comfortable, and often contradictory. Many share these opinions on social media, but beyond Facebook posts or Tweets, how are we actually held accountable for what we believe, or the consequences for acting on those beliefs?
The problem is that we have become a society that fights for our own, and if a particular fight doesn’t directly impact us, we do not think to fight it. If I am a wealthy woman on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, why bother caring about what happened in Ferguson, Missouri? If I am a straight man in corporate America, why should I expend my time and resources to help the LGBTQ community?
This mindset is what has led to the terms “privilege” and “entitlement” being thrown around so much these days. If you want to know the meaning of privilege, I would say that if you possess the rights that you would expect to have in a democracy, then you have privilege. Don’t get me wrong; I believe that there is no shame in having privilege — you are either born with it or you’re not. However, if you take your privilege for granted, and become complacent in your own comfort, doing nothing to help those without it, that is when you become entitled.
I believe that sports are yet another glaring example of our entitlement. The sports industry is one of the most profitable and powerful in this country. Sports have always been a way to engage and unite people, but to what end? As a player, when you are offered a scholarship or contract, you develop a sense of loyalty to your teammates, your university, the city you play for ⎯ you devote yourself to them. Now undoubtedly, the fans pledge that same loyalty back to your team, but do they pledge it to you? Do they care where you come from, your stance on social issues, what your political affiliations are? Would they support you if you spoke out on an issue that made them uncomfortable? Moreover, are they cheering for their team to win, but supporting laws and societal norms that continue to marginalize the majority of the players that comprise the team?
Let’s look at the universities that make the most money in college sports. The top five grossing universities are Texas A&M ($192.6 million), University of Texas ($183.5 million), Ohio State University ($167.2 million), University of Michigan ($152.5 million), and University of Alabama ($148.9 million). In fact, across the country, if you look at college football alone, $3.5 billion is generated annually by these disproportionally Black teams. I say disproportionally because when you look at the data, you quickly begin to see a pattern. In 2012, only 14 percent of undergraduates were Black. In a 2013 University of Pennsylvania study, a mere 2.8 percent of full-time degree-seeking undergraduates were Black men. Now, let’s have a look at the number of Black players on the football teams. Black men account for an average of 57 percent of college football teams across the country, while at certain universities, that percentage reaches far higher. The 2016-2017 basketball team at the University of Kentucky has a roster that is 80 percent Black. These universities are raking in money from the students on their teams, while these “amateur” players see almost none of it. In fact, many of these players have to scramble to find money for housing, books and food.
Consider how many people attend and watch these games, surrounded by people who look like them, think like them, live like them. This is a culture we created over time, where Black people can entertain our country and people can enjoy the entertainment, but never actually have to interact with them, let alone consider their views or their experiences. So when do we become accountable for our entitlement, and make changes that will begin to unite and engage us beyond the sports arena or entertainment?
As both the idea and the reality of diversity continue to expand in our country, we all need to catch up, or we will get left behind.
So, what if we all started to stand up for diversity — not out of moral obligation, but because we took a look at what it means for the bottom lines of the corporations and teams that we value so dearly. We need to begin to think of diversity as a competitive advantage. Whether we are examining a Fortune 500 company or a Big Ten football team, one constant is that the future lies with a new generation of talent. This is a generation of transparency, of people living their truths, one that sees the spectrum of color, that is comfortable with gender equality. The message of this generation is no longer ‘tolerance’ of diversity but rather, embracing it.
This spring, the Arizona Wildcats became the first NCAA football team to grant a scholarship to an openly gay football player. In fact, when My-King Johnson⎯a 6’4”, 225 pound high school player with a 3.8 GPA⎯ told his recruiter, Wildcat’s defensive line coach and former NFL player, Vince Amey that he was gay, Amey’s response was simple, “Look, you are who you are, I am who I am, and I’m going to coach you the same way. I’m going to treat you the same way…You do what you do…When the players find out, especially my room, I’m going to tell (those) dudes: “look, you gotta have his back.” ‘ “ I applaud Amey and the Wildcats for making a decision to recruit Johnson. However, I am still disheartened that his sexual preference remains a factor in the decision at all. But we must begin somewhere.
We have entered into a period of time where people want to prove discrimination does not exist by pretending that they do not see diversity. But I would argue that people do this because they do not want to be made to feel uncomfortable by actually having to confront it.
If you are reading this, and feeling uncomfortable, or maybe thinking that I am discriminating against you ⎯ but still reading ⎯ then first, let me thank you for proving my point, and second, GREAT, you’re on the train — now the ride can begin.
Sean James is executive director of Sports & Entertainment for Pinnacle, and a former NFL player. Follow him on Twitter/ Instagram: seanjames23.