When They See Us: The Central Park 5, Kyle Lowry, Kevin Durant, and the Criminalization and Mistreatment of the Black Male
Summertime 2019 has already been sweltering and steaming. I am not talking just about the weather. I am talking about what has been going on in sports and culture and how they are intermixing. At this moment, we are watching an epic NBA finals between the Toronto Raptors and the Golden State Warriors with Toronto on the verge of winning their first title ever and ending the reign of the Bay Area ballers. On Netflix, an epic docu-series was recently released by the acclaimed director Ava Duvernay that tells the story of the Central Park 5 who were five young black and brown men who were falsely convicted of sexually assaulted a young woman in the famed park in 1989. They spent over a decade in prison until a man behind bars declared he was the real perpetrator and DNA tests backed his claim. Antron McCray, Kevin Richardson, Yusef Salam, Korey Wise, and Raymond Santiago were eventually released but the scars of that trauma are still as raw today. Now you are probably thinking, what do these events have anything remotely to do with one another? Especially given the fact that they are thirty years apart in time.
Well, let’s look at the recent incident in which the part owner of the Warriors, Mark Stevens, literally pushed Raptors star Kyle Lowry after he was going for a loose ball courtside where Stevens was sitting. Also look at the reaction to Kevin Durant’s injury during Game 5 among Toronto fans. These incidents are the heart of what has been prevalent in our culture for centuries and what was reflected on the court and in reliving the story of the Central Park 5. The perspective that black male bodies, in sports and in general, are used and abused by the dominant white society who feels as though they can be mistreated, violated, degraded, and criminalized without warning.
The actions of Mr. Stevens was for all to see and the reaction was swift. Kyle himself was distraught and in disbelief. What gave this privileged white man the right to put his hands on a young black male and to simply dismiss him as if he had no reason to dive for a loose ball where he was sitting? One cannot overlook the overtones of race that is clearly prevalent. This is part of dangerous thought pattern that has existed among owners/CEOs of professional sports teams forever. It is often referred to as a “plantation mentality”. Now we need to be clear to never equate these incidents with the institutionalized oppressive practice of slavery. This is about a mindset. Owners/CEOs feel as though they can do whatever they want with the players. They can trade them without warning. They can deny them an increase in salary. They can put their hands on them without permission or regard. They can also disparage them with bigoted rhetoric and do everything they can to get away with it. Those thoughts were certainly in the minds of former Cincinnati Reds owner Marge Schott, former Houston Texans owner Bob McNair, and former Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling, to name a few. They ultimately paid the price in the end. They were part of a system that saw, in the context of sports, that black male athletes are only good for generating profit and that they must be obedient. When they don’t, the owner/CEO give themselves permission to act out as Mr. Stevens did. But this narrow minded white supremacist irrational fears and disregard of black men isn’t just confined to those at the top.
During game five of the Finals, with the Raptors up 3-1, Warriors star Kevin Durant was injured and out for the rest of the game and, potentially, the rest of the finals. In response, some Raptors fans cheered vigorously. It took Kyle Lowry himself to step in and tell the fans to essentially “knock it off.” They ultimately did what they were told. But it shouldn’t take one of their stars to tell them to get their act together. There is something clearly disturbing about fans taking pure joy in seeing an athlete from the opposing team in pain. The dangers of the hyper-competitive culture in sports sometimes brings out the worst in fans. This is one of those moments. This is also a case where race cannot be overlooked. For years, black athletes who get injured are at times dismissed and their pain was discredited. There is an article from Sports Illustrated in 1968 that addressed how when black athletes sought out treatment for injuries they were turned away by many of the white trainers. Marge Schott refused to show any support or care for former Reds outfielder Eric Davis after he punctured his lung while making a diving catch during the 1990 World Series. Eric was in the hospital in Oakland and was forced to rent a plane to fly home. Marge Schott never called him. Fast forward to KD, this is part of yet another toxic mentality that is rooted in the belief that black men aren’t supposed to feel any pain physically, mentally, or emotionally. That they are supposed to tough it out and walk it off. That is part in parcel of toxic masculinity. If they get injured, they are not seen as worthy any longer. That certainly plays itself out in NCAA sports when athletes who are on a full ride athletic scholarship wind up with a career ending injury and they are ultimately cast aside. If they get injured, they are seen as worthy of mockery, ridicule, and objectification as if their wellbeing doesn’t matter. It is one thing to be a fan or a passionate fan, but it is another to use fandom as an excuse for wishing bodily harm.
All things brings us back to the Central Park 5. Before, during, and after their ordeal, there are still people pushing the narrative they were guilty even though the evidence is completely to the contrary. There are some are who saying that even if they weren’t guilty of sexual assault, they were guilty of something. All of these incidents, from past to present have the same common theme, which is that black men and boys are criminals, lack discipline, ungrateful, worthy of insults, and should do what they are told by white society. Social workers working in sports should pay attention certainly to these issues as they affect the sports world, but they should also be able to see how what goes on in sports and in the rest of society, particularly when it comes to race, all intersect. In the end, you cannot separate these incidents. It is upon us to deconstruct the dangerous and pervasive system of white supremacy in every institution in America, including sports. Part of that effort includes understanding the plight and predicament of black men and boys and to challenging the cultural narratives that present them as unworthy of protection and worthy of fear and distrust. We can do that by attending various racial justice trainings, joining and supporting racial justice organizations, support the recent efforts of athlete activism, and reading up on the stories and experiences of black men and boys such as athlete activists Michael and Martellus Bennett and their recent books “Things That Make White People Uncomfortable” and “Dear Black Boy.” Let’s show what teamwork, unity, and camaraderie looks like in practice.