On Sports, Academics and  Black Youths  

Russell-Wilson V

 Russell Wilson: Seattle Seahawks Quarterback
 An Open Letter To Eric L. Watree
 Dear Eric

I have carefully read your essay and here is my considered response.  I have already addressed most of your concerns in my lengthy essay “On Race, Culture and Sports,” as your argument is essentially the same as that of professor John Hoberman, ” the author of “Darwin’s Athletes,” who presented far more evidence for his argument.   The fact that you read that essay yet make the argument you offer here does not auger well for this discussion.

My first inclination is to simply retire my argument and move on to other pressing issues.  I have more important employment for my time and intellectual energies than to re-litigate an issue on which I have already presented my most compelling arguments.  And if it were anybody but you Eric that is undoubtedly the course I would take. Early on in your essay you make the following claim:

Playthell is a huge sports fan and is of the belief that sports have been invaluable in their impact on helping to move the Black community forward. I, on the other hand, see sports as a two-sided coin. While sports have undoubtedly been of great value in helping many young Black people to build character, obtain an education, and financially prosper, in terms of the overall Black community these people represent a limited few. For the greater part of the Black community, however, the lure of sports often serves as a distraction that prevents many from investing in their intellectual development and pursuing more realistic goals.”

 First let me point out that according to the website Inside Higher Ed, in a 2014 article titled More Athletes get to finish Line, the figures show that in 2007, 70% of black male athletes graduated college and 81% of black females.  Among white athletes 93% of them graduated and 85% of white males.  Many of these young people would never have gotten to college without sports scholarships.

However a later study by the University of Pennsylvania put the graduation rates for black male athletes at 50.2%, but the black non-athlete students only have a 55% graduation rate.  No great difference there. I think these young student/athletes should be celebrated for their hard work and discipline rather than besmirched with a bunch of hackneyed clichés that have no basis in reality.

Furthermore, I would argue that there is no question that sports has been “invaluable “in helping to move the black community forward.  We live in a participatory democracy that where black people are concerned has been a “Tyranny of the majority” in the words of Alexis de Tocqueville, the French sociologist who produced the first serious study of the American polity in his two volume tome “Democracy in America in 1831.

This being the case, as a minority in America our progress has depended upon the ability to persuade the white majority that we are worthy of inclusion into this society as first class citizens empowered with the full array of rights enumerated in that much celebrated declaration of universal humanistic values announcing the independence of the English speaking colonies of North America from the control of the British Empire, and codified in the US constitution.  It is useless to lament this extra burden placed on Afro-Americans; it is unfair to be sure, but nonetheless true.

I would argue that no group of Afro-Americans has been more effective at persuading the majority of white Americans of our human value – by demonstrating our beauty and genius – than Afro-American athletes and entertainers!  Since you are not inclined to read history texts you are probably not aware of this fact.  It is impossible to calculate the positive effects of Joe Louis’s defeat of Max Schmeling in their second fight, which was billed as a fight between “Fascism and Democracy, but it is enough to know that President Roosevelt publicly told him  “America is depending on those muscles tonight Joe.”  And his Jewish promoter, Mike Jacobs, announced at the White House gathering “Yes Mr. President, Joe Louis will show those NAZI’s who the real master race is!”  It is difficult for contemporary Afro-Americans to realize the importance of such statements in an openly racist apartheid America, but I will be posting a major essay on the importance of Joe Louis in a few days.

However the famous Grambling football coach Eddie Robinson remembers that in the aftermath of that fight “It was the first time a white person called me an American.”  And the legendary Alabama football coach Bear Bryant says the performance of USC running back Sam “The Bam” Cunningham did more to integrate the University of Alabama than Martin Luther King when he came down there in that football state and ran for 220 yards in a rout against them.  When Jesse Owens set world records while winning multiple Gold Medals at the NAZI Olympics in Berlin it was a mortal blow to the NAZI claim of Aryan superiority and inspired the Jewish people and anti-fascist forces all over the world!

None of these achievements led to instant change, because massive social changes do not occur overnight, especially where there are concrete material interests involved , but I can cite endless examples of the positive effects of sports stars in advancing the race in America and abroad.  One final example.  When I interviewed some participants in the bloody Civil Rights Movement in St. Augustine Florida, where I grew up, I asked them how they mustered up the courage to go on a particularly dangerous night march – which has been well documented by the historians Steven Oates and Taylor Branch Heyward Fleming told me: “Well Jackie Robinson came down and marched with us, and when we saw Jackie we knew we couldn’t lose.”  It is instructive to note that DR.MARTIN LUTHER KING WAS ALREADY THERE!  This reverence for Jackie Robinson provides a measure of the importance of Jackie having broken the color barrier in Major League Baseball, even though almost 20 years had passed.

Jackie Robinson and Dr. King

jackie_robinson & Martin King

Two Giants in the Struggle

Your comment that “the lure of sports often serves as a distraction that prevents many from investing in their intellectual development and pursuing more realistic goals” is undoubtedly true, but the same thing can be said of those who aspire to be singers, rappers or Jazz and classical musicians.  How realistic is it that one will be able to make a living at any of these occupations?  Furthermore your statement begs the question of what would these youngsters in question be doing if they were not involved in sports?

I think your argument here is based on a false premise: that these young men would be engaged in serious intellectual pursuits if they were not participating in sports.  I see no evidence that this is true, for there is certainly no paucity of failures among those who are not involved in sports.  Alas,  I’d wager that there is a mountain of statistical evidence to demonstrate that impoverished underclass youths and even working class youths who don’t participate  in sports are more likely to end up in jail, dead, on drugs, etc.  That’s because the problem of arrested development is not participation in sports but structural impediments to their advancement and BAD PARENTING!!!!!

There is no evidence of which I am aware that prove sport as such is the main cause of a “lack of intellectual development” in young black males.  If so, would you please acquaint us with it?   Since your essay here is supposed to be a response to my essay “On Race Culture and Sports” I can only conclude that you are not a careful reader.  Since you have repeatedly told me about all of the wisdom you gained from “winos” and other “hood  rats” how could you fail to note this passage about my experience as a devoted football player and the intellectual enlightenment and encouragement that I received from black athletes in my youth:

Hence there was no dichotomy between athletics and scholastics In the black communities I came of age in.  Although I doubt that anyone of my generation loved playing football more than I did, that love didn’t stop me from dreaming about becoming a symphony conductor, nor diminish my curiosity about the wonders of science, nor prevent me from becoming a civil rights activist – although certain football players at A&M shunned involvement in the movement because they thought it could hurt their athletic careers – nor did it dampen my love  for reading Shakespeare…or later becoming a published Shakespeare Critic. (See: “Did Shakespeare Intend Othello to be Black: A Meditation on Blacks and the Bard” in Othello: New Essays By Black Writers, Howard University Press

I first heard the ideas of European philosophers like Kant and Spinoza passionately debated by local black college football and basketball players like “Bubby Robinson and “Big Bama,” outside of McCall’s barbershop, which became an important center for organizing the civil rights struggle when Martin Luther King came to town in 1964, and one of its proprietors, Clyde Jenkins, became a hero of the movement. And, I might add, another hero of that movement was baseball great Jackie Robinson.”

Aside from ignoring personal testimony regarding my experience as a football athlete and being mentored by older athletes, you repeat that hackneyed cliché about participation in sports as the cause of intellectual underachievement in young black males. Yet this bogus claim was demolished by distinguished scholars from several disciplines who participated in the conference discussed in my essay.  Did you not read this passage?

…even if it’s true that Afro-Americans have a love of sport that amounts to a “fixation,” it is not automatically a bad thing. The most persuasive argument for that point of view was put forth by Dr. Keith A. P. Sandiford, an Afro-Barbadian cricket expert who is a Professor of History at the University of Manatoba, in Canada. ‘Some former colonial societies have succeeded extremely well here by emphasizing the value of education, by arguing that athletic triumphs depend to a large extent upon mental acuity, and by promoting their black, brown, and yellow heroes in all disciplines.’ Hence Sandiford, who pointed out that Barbados has the highest literacy rate in the world, argued that  ‘It cannot be disputed that Barbadian cricketers continue to be lionized by a society still enthralled by the cult of cricket, but the Barbadians (committed as they have traditionally been to  the competing cult of education) have never lost their respect for intellectual genius.  There is, in the final analysis, nothing wrong with the sports fixation itself- so long as it leaves time for other constructive addictions.’”

 Since these passages obviously made no impression upon first reading – which is evidenced by the fact that you made no mention of them – I don’t expect them to have a different effect upon a second reading.  Hence the main reason that I am engaging in this exchange is to educate other readers who may happen onto this page.  But any evidence you have that shows a causal relationship between participation in sports and low intellectual achievement would benefit us all in grappling with this critical issue.

 Russell Wilson and Dad
 Russell and Harrison Wilson
 Athletic and Academic Stars!

You insist that the problem of low intellectual achievement in young black males is due to their participation in sports, yet Russell Wilson has been a sports fanatic all of his life.   Excelling in football, baseball and basketball – he is one of a very small group of elite  athletes to be drafted by two professional teams in sports in history – and all of these men have been wildly successful American icons.  No down side there!  Russell Wilson graduated from a major university in three years while starring in two varsity sports.

His father was a sports fanatic who played briefly in the NFL, then went on to a distinguished career in the law.  Russ’s father’s mother and father, his paternal grandparents hold PhD’s, and his grandfather was a basketball star on the black college circuit when the black schools had the best players in the nation. It was he that turned Russ’ father Harrison onto sports.  Yet Harrison and his brother, who is also a sports enthusiast, went to Dartmouth and Harvard.  Calvin Hill, a former star running back with the Dallas Cowboys held a master’s degree from Yale, and his son, basketball great Grant Hill, graduated from Duke.  Tiger Woods has been obsessed with playing golf since he was three years old, but his father, a former officer in the Green Berets, made playing golf conditional on his getting good grades, so he became the greatest golfer in history and was admitted to Stanford.

Richard Sherman, the best corner back in football maintained a four point average in high school and a 3.9 average at Stanford!  He says the work ethic which made such high achievement possible was inspired witnessing his father rise at four in the morning to go out and drive a trash truck around LA, then come home and work on their house in the evenings. And rapper Snoop Dogg’s son Cordell is on his way to UCLA to play football, a sport his father introduced him to and coached his Pop Warner teams, but the coach says when he met with Snoop and his wife on a recruiting visit “He didn’t talk about football; he talked about educating his son for life after football!”  (See the video clip below.)

If you had been playing football like your LA homies, chances are you would not have been a juvenile delinquent faced with jail or a stint in the Marine Corps!  For instance John Wideman was obsessed with basketball as a kid and remained entranced by the sport his entire life, playing the game until halted by age.  His Brother Robbie however had no interests in sports and decided to become a street player instead, killed a man during a robbery, and  ended up spending his entire adult life in jail…where he will die.

John on the other hand won a state wide competitive Benjamin Franklin Scholarship that provided an all expenses paid education at the University of Pennsylvania, which stopped granting athletic scholarships years before Wideman joined the student body.  And despite having to deal with the racism and elitism of white students he became a basketball star and a Rhodes Scholar. Writing about Wideman in a 2002 paper for the University Archives, Elliot A. Greenwald tells us:

“As a Rhodes Scholar, Wideman was heralded in the national media. Look magazine’s article, ‘The Astonishing John Wideman,’ by Gene Shalit, introduced Wideman to the nation, providing a stylized version of his Penn experience, focusing on how he overcame simple racial differences to succeed. Even though Shalit and others from Look followed the team on a road trip to Yale and Brown and attended Wideman’s classes the article fails to discuss racial issues concretely… Shalit explained, ‘Girls call him up for dates, professors invite him to their homes for dinner…[T]he world is his plaything…Obviously it is not. John Wideman is a Negro….'”

Choosing an academic career over pro basketball  Wideman went on to become one of the most distinguished  American writers on the 20th century, and now has an international community of scholars devoted to the study of his work ( see: The John Wideman Society.”   I would hazard a guess that fascination with street life is a far greater danger to black males than sports!

Paul Robeson starred in four sports yet made the highest score in New Jersey on his college entrance exams, tutored his white classmates in Greek and Latin and graduate Valedictorian of his class at Rutgers –  then one of America’s elite universities.  However Robeson’s father had escaped from slavery and worked his way through Lincoln University – where they studied the same curriculum as Harvard – and thus placed a good education at the top of his list.

Alas, since you have declared on numerous occasions that you are not impressed by elite university educations, the academic achievement in such schools by the athletes mentioned above may  make no difference to you Eric, but for a multitude of people admission to elite universities and earning doctorate degrees are outstanding accomplishments; this writer included.  But you can’t have it both ways Eric, either you are for high academic achievement or not; and if you are for it then how do we measure it?  There are so many examples of black athletes who were high academic achievers that I could  go on ad infinitum; especially if I look at it Globally.

For instance Dr. Bartholomew Naji, who came from Nigeria to attend St. Johns University in New York.  Naji not only set collegiate athletic records while graduating in three years, but went on to take a PhD in Industrial Engineering and become one of world’s foremost authorities in Robotics. His expertise in the field was such that the State Legislature in Massachusetts created a special chair in Industrial Engineering to keep him at UMass.

Despite this effort he has returned to Nigeria and if he can get the politicians to fund his projects we will see some cutting edge ideas coming from Nigeria in computer science and robotics.  I knew him well and he too had parents who demanded that he excel in school.  These examples alone – although I could cite numerous others – leave no doubt in my mind that the parents you get are far more important to success in life than an obsession with sports!

It is interesting that you dismissed this argument elsewhere because you claim that it is based on “anecdotal evidence,” when you have offered NO EVIDENCE for your sweeping generalizations: anecdotal or otherwise!  As near as I can tell, it’s just about how you see things; we should take it on your word.  Furthermore you have a tendency to state the obvious as if it were a profound revelation.  The following statement is a case in point:

 “I view sports much like I do morphine. In small doses it can be of great medicinal value against pain, but if you overdo it, it can destroy your life, and it seems to me that many in the Black community are about to overdose from a lack of substance as a result of its abuse, both literally, and figuratively.”

 Of course too much of even a good thing can be harmful, too many vitamins can hurt you, but what evidence do you have that “…many in the Black community are about to overdose from a lack of substance as a result of its abuse, both literally, and figuratively.” Have you read sociological studies that demonstrate this statistically?  Or do these bits of wisdom descend into your head from the ether.

I have no way of knowing how you arrive at these conclusions because you have already told me that you believe sociology is a pretentious fraud, mumbo jumbo I think you called it; so how do you know the claims you make about the cause and effect of large scale social phenomena are true?  Or are we to again take your word on this critical issue because you say it is so?   Is it just common sense?  Well I require a bit more persuasion: what is your evidence for these sweeping generalizations?

You tell us with brimming confidence:

“So I’m not against sports, per se, but I do think that sports should be kept in perspective. It’s perfectly natural for kids to want to indulge in games, but while they are indulging in these games it’s very important that the adults in their lives constantly remind them that sports represent the “Toy Department” of life, and that there are many other things in life that are much more important. But due to our mass societal fixation on sports, and the virtual “worship” of sports figures, they’re rarely getting this instruction. As a direct result, we’ve become a society of easily manipulated, undereducated, and totally distracted sports junkies. “

 First of all,  virtually everything you say about sports in this passage can also be said about music and musicians!  The biggest musical acts fill up those same stadiums and the fans get just as crazy…if not worse!  Here again sports is being made a scapegoat for your rightful concern about other societal ills. Furthermore, since you have cited Socrates as your role model, it should interest you to know that his prize pupil Plato, from whose writings we learn most about Socrates’s life and thought, considered music and sport of equal importance in the education of the youth in his ideal Republic. He also thought the athlete was superior to the spectator and poets should be banned from the Republic!  Hence a joker like you, a poet who disdains sport, would not have fared very well in Socrates’ crowd, for the cultivation of mind and body equally is the essence of the Greek ideal of human development.  Remember Eric, it was the ancient Greeks that gave us the Olympics: the greatest sporting event in history!

I would argue that love for and participation in sports has caused many young men to remain in school that might have dropped out, and raised the academic achievement of many other youths: THOSE WHOSE PARENTS VALUE EDUCATION ENOUGH TO MAKE PLAYING SPORTS A REWARD FOR ACADEMIC ACHIEVEMENT!!!    I am not guessing about this Eric, that was what me and all of my friends did who had kids that were athletes!  Just like YOUR SON DOES WITH HIS KIDS!   You have no trouble recognizing the good that sports is doing for your grandchildren; so why wouldn’t sport have the same benefits for other youths if they enjoyed the guidance good parents too?

I didn’t tell my children that sport is the “toy Department of life” because that’s not how I see it. I regard your statement as little more than an expression of personal prejudice that bears no observable relationship to the reality of sports in human experience.  And it is certainly at odds with the bulk of the scholarship on the subject.

For instance Dr. Marianne Engle, a professor of Sports Psychology at the distinguished New York University Child Study Center, published a paper in 2004 title “Kids and Sports: Creating a Healthy Experience for Every Child.”  This paper sums up the conclusions of the major researchers in the field of sports participation and human development, and Dr. Engle tells us:

“Participation in sports, whether as an individual or as a member of a team, plays an important role in the social, emotional and physical development of children and adolescents. Successful sports experiences provide benefits – gains in social and interpersonal competence, fitness, health-mindedness, and psychological well-being – that have been shown to last throughout life. As expressed by William Damon of the Stanford Center on Adolescence,” The future of any society depends on the character and competence of its young. In order to develop their competence young people need guidance to provide them with direction and a sense of purpose. They need relationships that embody and communicate high standards. They need to experience activities that are challenging, inspiring, and educative.”

It is an undeniable fact that sports competition is fundamental to all human societies; the more complex and advanced the society, the more complex and advanced the games they play. That’s why football, the quintessential American game, is the fastest most physically and intellectually demanding and complex game in the world!  And I know for sure that whatever a young person wants to do in society – any society in the world – all other relevant factors such as intellect and talent being equal, their chances of success will be enhanced if they are also a great athlete!

I have repeatedly implored you to read “Beyond a Boundary,” by CLR James – an athlete, sports fanatic and one of the most brilliant intellectuals of the 20th century – so you can gain a much broader view of the role of sport in society and how one can share an equal love for sport and scholarship… but to no avail.  It is hard to have serious conversations with you Eric because you do not have a proper respect for intellectual authority; as you have repeatedly told me.  This makes it difficult to build a systematic argument based on that authority and I often get the feeling that I’m wasting my time…..which is like burning money to me.

Far too much of your argument rest on intuition, subjective observations, or outright hyperbole; which as near as I can tell, is totally innocent of facts.   The following passage is a poignant case in point.

“Many in this country can tell you the starting lineup and various statistics of every football team in the country, but they can’t tell you who their congressperson is, how they voted, or what they voted on. That’s not good, and it’s having a negative impact on not only the Black community, but the nation as a whole.”

Well, I have been an avid football fan for over half a century and I have NEVER met anyone who “can tell you the starting lineup and various statistics of every football team in the country.” I have a fabled memory, in fact when I was a professor my colleagues nicknamed me “Univac,” after the giant IBM main frame computer: AND I COULDN’T TELL YOU THE ENTIRE STARTING LINEUPS OF THE  NEW YORK JETS, THE GIANTS OR MY FAVORITE TEAM THE SEATTLE SEAHAWKS IF YOU PUT A GAT TO MY HEAD!!!   Frankly I do not believe that such a person as you describe exists accept in your imagination.  As to your point about not knowing who your congressman is, I’ve got news for ya dog: I’ve known highly educated people with no interests in sport who DON’T KNOW WHO THEIR CONGRESSMAN IS!!  I challenge you to present any evidence that sports fans are more politically ignorant than non-sports fans…..this is nothing more than BASELESS CONJECTURE!  How am I supposed to take such arguments seriously?

There are other passages in your essay that sound about as scientific as astrology.  Would you please cite a scholarly source for the following claim?

“What many people fail to realize is how profoundly their thinking can be shaped by social manipulators through the use of sports and other forms of public “entertainment.” The passion engendered through sports allows social manipulators to circumvent an individual’s cerebral cortex, or intellect, and exploit a direct line to the fan’s brain stem, or the most animalistic and condition-receptive part of their brain. That allows manipulators to condition an individual’s thinking and attitudes without  the individual even recognizing it.”

I have a former student who is now a professor of Neuroscience at Harvard, he is also a Senior Research Fellow at the Krolinska Institute in Sweden, where the award the Nobel Prizes for medicine and biology, and he not only played football but considered going out for the New England Patriots as a free agent.  He is a Florida boy and loves football like me…do you suppose that you know facts about these deleterious effects of sports on the brain but it escaped his notice?  Frankly, given your often expressed disdain for intellectual authority and your high opinion of your own intellectual abilities I would not be surprised to discover that you do. But it strikes me as beyond ridiculous.

Surprisingly, you seem unaware that your concentration on sports rather than the “other forms of public entertainment,” such as musical performance, exposes an anti-sports bias that nullifies your pretentions to objectivity.  Since you have openly expressed your ignorance of history and your disdain for sociology, on what do you base the following conclusion:

“But most Americans have blindly accepted the proposition that it’s our ‘competitive spirit’ that makes this nation great. But what evidence do we have of that? How do we know that we wouldn’t have been even greater if we’d embraced a philosophy of enlightenment and the pursuit of excellence with the same amount of zeal as we’ve pursued the need to say, “I’m better than you?”  And why must our national motive be to be “the greatest nation on Earth?” We’d UNDOUBTEDLY be much greater if we’d resolved to compete against who we WERE to become the greatest nation that we can BE. How many minds do we have locked up in the nation’s prison systems who may have the unique intellect to solve the world’s problems? Is it possible that due to this nation’s ‘us against them’ mentality that they might have lynched the very person who might have found a cure for cancer?”

.Unfortunately, sentimental prattle like, “How do we know that we wouldn’t have been even greater if we’d embraced a philosophy of enlightenment and the pursuit of excellence with the same amount of zeal as we’ve pursued the need to say, “I’m better than you?” is not a serious argument!   Maybe in Socrates’s time, when most things were a matter of speculation,  but not now, in the age of quantitative comparative sociology and scientific historical research.  There is a vast scholarly literature on this subject!  Apparently you are unaware that this question has been discussed ad infinitum.

We know that the competitive American system produced the most powerful nation in the history of the world, that’s an incontestable fact, as it the fact that the productivity and efficiency that made the US economy the richest in the world is a direct result of competition between business firms to make a better product at a cheaper price!  Your position on the other hand is baseless conjecture; wishful thinking.  It is your task to convincingly demonstrate that we could have been a greater nation without the American emphasis on competition, not simply pronounce from on high.  That may be enough for you but I am unimpressed.  Your argument denouncing the evils of competition is especially curious coming from a Jazz musician.

One of the most intriguing questions regarding the art of Jazz is “How did Afro-American musicians create and develop an art form that requires virtuosity and originality on the part of every instrumentalist in the orchestra, without the benefit of a formal conservatory?” The answer is to be found in the ruthless competition between musicians striving to be ”the best” on their instruments. Without job security, written contracts, vast financial endowments for orchestras, or retirement pensions for performers, the Jazz world is a Darwinian milieu, red of tooth and claw, where survival of the fittest is the order of the day.  It’s a jungle out there!

The trials and tribulations of the professional Jazz musician are well documented in interviews by the musicians and the writers who covered them.  A poignant description of what life as a Jazz musician was like during the most popular period of modern Afro-America complex instrumental music can be found in “Good Morning Blues,” The Autobiography of Count Basie.” 

Written in collaboration with the great Afro-American writer and cultural critic Albert Murray – author of the classic “Stomping the Blues,”  for my money the best book ever written on Afro-American music – Bill Basie’s autobiography  provides an in-depth look into the world of the working Jazz musician that covers most of the 20th century, when Jazz developed.  It takes us back to a time when Jazz was a new and evolving art, and moves to a time when many big bands worked regularly and some – like Andy Kirk, Duke Ellington, Count Basie, et al  – worked three hundred days a year and could have worked 365 days if they had a mind to.

 Bill Basie
Count-Basie-01_02 
He finally Made the Cut

  There was more work for black Jazz musicians during this period than anytime in American history, but you could only work if you were considered “the best man available” by whatever standard the bandleader wished to judge you – just like today.  So the more versatile and original your sound the better your chances for getting steady work.  And the major venue of instruction in their art was The Jam Session!  The central feature of these events was the “cutting session” in which musicians on every instrument tried to outplay their counterparts.  Basie describes how the competition was so thick for seats in a working orchestra that you could lose your gig from “getting yo head cut” by a musician invited to sit in on your instrument during a gig!

He recalls an incident early on in his career when the band leader gave everybody but him a different time to return from a break, because he wanted to check out a local cat on piano.  Basie says he was outside having a smoke when he heard the band strike up, but by the time he got in the room the cat on piano was wailing.  After listening for a few choruses Basie says he went straight to the owner of the club and asked him for a job parking cars!

That’s how competitive the jazz environment that produced such great musicians was.  And nobody was more competitive that the “Be-boppers” led by Bird and Diz, who took jazz to another level of harmonic and rhythmic complexity.  To get a feel for what this environment was like you should read Ralph Ellison’s seminal essay on the origins of Bop “Things Remembered, Times Past: On Bird, Birdwatching and Jazz.”  Here is a firsthand view live from Minton’s Playhouse in Harlem, where this new genre was molded in the heat of fierce competition and only the strong survived the savage cutting sessions.

Ellison, a trumpet player from Oklahoma who was studying composition with the famous black classical composer William Dawson at Tuskegee Institute, thought he was a bad man on the trumpet.  But the fierce playing of the musicians at Minton’s scared him.  “They were playing bebops,” he wrote of the horn players “I mean rebopped bebops.”  And he described the drummers as “frozen faced introverts dedicated to chaos.” It was a heroic act to take the stage in Minton’s Playhouse, where the rhythm section often included Theolonius Monk on Piano, Oscar Pettiford on Bass, and Kenny “Klook” Clark on drums!

There are endless stories about the day Bird strolled into that lion’s den dressed like a country boy from Kansas City, whipped out his axe from a raggedy cardboard case, and slayed them all!  Dizzy Gillespie said they had been hearing bits and pieces of what Bop might sound like, but when he heard Bird play “Cherokee” it all came together. Everything about Minton’s was highly competitive – including the gangsters who regularly hung out in there and competed with each other for everything from the flyest cars, to clothes, to girls!

The great Max Roach, arguably the most influential improvisational percussionist of the twentieth century, told me that they had heard about bird from musicians who had passed through Kansas City on tour and came back talking about what a “monster” he was on the saxophone.  “But our attitude was Sheeet, we in the Big Apple baby, ain’t nothing this country boy can play that we ain’t heard before.”  So all the horn players were laying to “cut his head”  and ended up dead…slain by a yard bird from the sticks.

 Bird and Dizzy: Taking no Prisoners!
 Bird and Diz
 Two Innovative Geniuses that Changed Western Music

That was the highly competitive environment in which the fine art of Bebop was born Eric.  Louis Armstrong – a seminal figure in the evolution of Jazz – hated both bebop and the beboppers; the music and the musicians.  He once remarked that they were mean and evil people who just wanted “to carve everybody up.”  He said The music was just a bunch of chords and notes “that don’t mean nothing!”  I have never known a great Jazz musician who was not egotistical about their playing and highly competitive, and I’ve known legions of them over more than half a century. In fact, I don’t know anybody that is great at anything of whom that is not true.

The competitive nature of Jazz as a method of creating a better product is one of the things that makes Jazz the quintessential American Art.   Like athletes, who generally embrace each other after the contest – including boxers after vicious fights – musicians form a unique band of brothers and are generally friendly after the competition on the bandstand.  In fact they embody the highest ideal of sport, unless one’s lively hood is at stake: “It’s not whether you win or lose… but how you play the game.”  And I have never known a great Jazz musician who wasn’t an avid sports fan.

The great Earl “Fatha” Hines says that after his gig at the Grand Terrace Ballroom in Chi Town he and the band members would go play baseball as soon as it was light outside; Louis Armstrong had his own baseball team.  Every chance he gets, the great Wynton Marsalis plays pickup basketball games with the youths in the projects across from Lincoln Center, and is quite proud of his jump shot!  The master percussionist Rachid Ali and innovative trumpeter Miles Davis – a seminal figure in 20th century music – were both boxers and fanatical fans who never stopped going to the Gym until hobbled by age.  Miles was best friends with Sugar Ray Robinson, who also idolized Miles.  The peerless Heavyweight Champion Joe Louis, trained to Jimmy Lunceford’s “I’m a Rug Cutter,” and the powerful Sonny Liston trained to Bill Doggett’s “Night Train.”  There has always been a close relationship between black musicians and Black athletes, now it is mostly hip hop, but in an earlier period it was Jazz. So it looks like you are just an odd ball Eric; I’d bet all of these great Jazz musicians would find you as strange as I do.

In its philosophy and practice Jazz successfully embodies the highest ideals that American civilization aspires to but seldom achieves.  It is democratic; prizes individual Freedom; promotes innovation; grooves to the tempo of a machine age milieu, and sharpens performance through fair and open competition.  These are the characteristics that make Jazz the most representative American art.  Frankly Eric, as a Jazz musician I am surprised that you don’t recognize this….but then playing music and contemplating its social significance as art are two different things.

Finally, your above passage confuses  and conflates issues that have little to do with each other. People commit crimes and go to jail in every society in the world, including communal ones where competition is not encouraged.  Contrary to your faith based belief, there is no evidence that the prisons are overflowing with geniuses.  Conversely, there are numerous studies which show that the majority of prison inmates have below average IQ’s, that’s partially why they are in jail in the first place. If you do a Google search of the scholarly literature addressing the correlation between crime and IQ levels you will discover that there is abundant statistical evidence showing that incarceration rates are higher among those with the lowest IQ’s.  This proves true even when the studies are controlled for age, race, gender, and economic status.  There is no debate about this among scholars in the field.

The following passage strikes me as self-indulgent nonsense, a mindless diatribe on the evils of sport  uttered during a public temper tantrum that dramatically fails to rise to the level of what I consider serious argument.  Mostly what it does is expose an embarrassing ignorance of the ideals  and virtues promoted through sports.

 “You see, sports appeal to, stimulate, and feed upon the very worst characteristics in human nature, or what’s referred to as the “Seven Deadly Sins” – wrath, greed, sloth, pride, lust, envy, and gluttony.Each is a form of Idolatry-of-Self wherein the subjective reigns over the objective.” The very point of sports is to prove that “I’m better than you.” Sports also promotes the “Us against them” mentality that’s at the very root of every form of bigotry – racism, sexism, homophobia, xenophobia, etc.”

 If you really believe that this is the Message young people get from sports competition, why do you  celebrate their grandchildren participating in such a nefarious activity?   It would take a deranged person to proudly post their pictures on Face book openly engaging in an activity that by your description promotes ideas that have inspired mass murder!!! Racism and Xenophobia inspired the murder, enslavement and dispossession of black peoples all over the world before any of these sports were invented…they also inspired the Armenian genocide and the German  holocaust in the 20th century.  Will you please present some evidence of the role sport played in these atrocities Eric.  It is POLITICS NOT SPORTS that led to these atrocities!!! This is patent nonsense …foolishness!!

Let me share some real information that you obviously know nothing about, or you would be more careful in your argument.  In his 1986 book  “Jessie Owens: An American life,” the  first scholarly biography by a professional historian on the life of the great Afro-American Olympic athlete Jesse Owens, Dr. William J. Baker tells us how the Germans were so impressed by the athletic grace and prowess of Jesse Owens  and the other black American Olympians, that when they went out to nightclubs in Nazi controlled Berlin the German men and women flocked around them and several German men asked them to dance with their wives so they could take pictures….this was in NAZI GERMANY ERIC!!!!

Jesse Owens and Lutz Long in Nazi Germany

Jesse Owens and Lutz Long

In what arena other than sports could this friendship happened?

Obviously sports worked to alleviate the vices of “racism and xenophobiain Nazi Germany among those who met these great black athletes!  Jesse became life- long friends with the German he beat in the broad jump, and Max Schmeling, who turned up to boxing camp in a NAZI officer’s uniform to train for the second fight against Joe Louis, became his life-long friend after Joe kicked his ass in such fine fashion!!  There is plenty of evidence that sports create friendships among different peoples, often overcoming the imperatives of politics and the preachments of religion to do it, that’s the raison d’etre for the Olympic games…where is the  evidence for your charges; or are we once again supposed to just take your word for it?  Well your argument strikes me as baseless!

Sometimes your arguments contain elements of truth and fiction.  The following paragraph is an excellent example of this.

 “Now, if you’re a lifelong sports fan, you’re probably reading this and saying, “That’s ridiculous.” But it’s not surprising that you feel that way, because your conditioning is so ingrained, and so deeply seated at this point that you can’t even recognize the dysfunction in something that you’ve embraced and loved all of your life. It’s like a religion, or someone raised to believe in Voodoo – sticking pins in dolls seems like a perfectly natural way of life to them. So let me give you an example of how the system works, and how you’re being manipulated.”

 Your lead sentence is undoubtedly true,  because you sure sound “ridiculous” to me.  However your diatribe soon sinks back into the murky pseudo-intellectual quicksand  of issuing wild proclamations without the evidence to support them. You seem to take delight in spouting amateur pop-psychological analysis of complex mass human behavior….something southern California is famous for among  Easterners.  Which is why many New Yorkers refer to it as “LaLa Land.”  Alas, psychological analysis is a highly specialized esoteric practice, and I don’t trust ANYBODY who does not have a PhD to conduct it…just Like I wouldn’t think of going to a brain surgeon who didn’t have an MD.  Hence your Psycho-babble means nothing to me.  Can you cite some scholarly sources for your diagnosis? Otherwise I shall just dismiss it as spurious prattle.

Your comment “. It’s like a religion, or someone raised to believe in Voodoo – sticking pins in dolls seems like a perfectly natural way of life to them,” reveals a shameful ignorance of the culture from which so many of our ancestor came.  Voodoo is one of the world’s oldest religions, it is a polytheistic religion much like the one Socrates grew up in, as opposed to the antiseptic monotheistic religion that you grew up in – from whence your silly idea of Voodoo arises.  It is a religion that produced some of the world’s greatest art, such as the Benin Bronzes. Sculptures produced by the Yoruba people rooted in Orisha Voodoo, inspired the innovations of the creators of modern European Art such as Picasso, Salvadore Dali, and others.

The Voodoo Inspired Art of Benin

Benin--sculpture-queen-mother-benin-bronze

The Brilliance of Benin Bronze Sculpture is widely acclaimed

And by the way, despite your cavalier dismissal of religious belief: THE GREATEST ART IN THE WORLD HAS BEEN INSPIRED BY RELIGIOUS BELIEF!   I need only cite the Sistine Chapel, Bach’s B Minor Mass, and the Ellington Orchestra’s recording of “Come Sunday, with Mahalia Jackson as soloist, plus any other great traditional African art to end that conversation.

The music of the Yoruba peoples, inspired by Voodoo, supplied the basis for much of the great neo-African music of the America’s when it blended with European music….such as the Afro-Cuban Rumba and Son Montuno as well as Afro-American Spirituals, Gospel, Rhythm & Blues  and  Jazz; musical forms that have influenced musicians  of all races world-wide! The idea of Voodoo as some evil black magic consisting of people “sticking pins in dolls” is a Hollywood fantasy created by ignorant and racist white folks as part of their demonization of EVERYTHING AFRICAN!

Yet contrary to Hollywood’ s depiction of Africans as ignorant savages terrorized by a naked white man called Tarzan, here is a first-hand description of the Oba’s – Divine King – Palace in Benin, the ancient African city that produced the world famous bronze sculptures, written by the Dutch traveler Olfert Dapper in 1668, over a century before the birth of the United States.

“The king’s palace or court is a square, and is as large as the town of Haarlem and entirely surrounded by a special wall, like that which encircles the town. It is divided into many magnificent palaces, houses, and apartments of the courtiers, and comprises beautiful and long square galleries…resting on wooden pillars, from top to bottom covered with cast copper, on which are engraved the pictures of their war exploits and battles, and are kept very clean.”

The religion practiced by these people is the basis of what would later be called Orisha Voodoo.  And it makes about as much sense as any other religion in the world, but the emphasis on music and ceremonial objects made it a fertile source of artistic production. You really do need to study some black history and culture Eric.

If you want to learn something about voodoo read “Olodumare: God in Yoruba Belief,” by Bolasi E. Idowu;Art and Alters of the Black Atlantic World,” and “Tango: A History of the Dance of Love,” by Dr. Robert Farris Thompson, Professor of Art History and Dean of African Civilization at Yale University.  Although you have repeatedly told me that you have no respect for Academic degrees and University affiliations, I am still including them because most people do respect such accomplishments…the present writer included.  For unlike you, I do not consider myself wise or learned enough to comment on the complex problems of the world without constant reference to the work of great thinkers.

Finally, we have trudged to the end of your tortured and curious polemic, only to  find that the contradictions so characteristic of this impassioned tirade persist to the bitter end.  You tell us:

When a fan goes to a football game, what a fan THINKS he sees are two teams on a football field with the coaches and their staff on the sideline. But what the fan’s subconscious and emotions see are two armies on the battlefield preparing to go into combat, with two generals on the sidelines. And that’s not by accident, because the spectacle is DESIGNED to psychologically condition every male in the stadium to be willing to go into combat and sacrifice his life in a blaze of illustrious glory for “The Gipper” – or The Standard Oil Company. The very same is true of the “All-American” pastime of baseball and other sports.”

 Evidently you believe this passage to be pregnant with wisdom. But I’d bet the family jewels that the only spectators who see what you have described have unwisely dropped a hefty tab of acid….it is my fondest hope that you are not among them!    After  reading your essay carefully I am reminded of the man my grandfather says thought he was speeding when he wasn’t doing five miles an hour!   How do you know what football fans think? What studies have you seen that demonstrate this?  Is this another one of your original revelations?  Alas, it sounds like pretentious jibberish to me.   Are you so blinded by ideology that you cannot see that SPORTS COMPETITION IS AN ALTERNATIVE TO WAR!!!!

However  if what you say were true: How did a non-sports fan like you become a gung ho Marine?  Everybody who has seen the Academy Award winning documentary “Hearts and Minds” or read the path-breaking book “Deadly Deceits ” by longtime CIA field agent Ralph McGhee, understands the connection between football training and military training.  Having been a high school football  players was how I was selected for a special unit in the US Strategic Air Command.  But so what Eric?  Every nation has their ways of preparing young men to bear arms in defense of the homeland…why should the US be different?  Are you suddenly a pacifist?  Well for the record, I think pacifism is suicidal in a dangerous world, and evidently so do you; as you repeatedly mention your service in the Marine Corps with evident pride.  Do you want to denounce it now? If not what’s your beef?

However after carefully reading your near hysterical screed, I have come to the conclusion that you understand about as much about sports as a mule knows about playing a saxaphone.  Your essay is full of half-baked ideas based on erroneous assumptions that I found tedious to read and from which I leaned nothing that will have any effect on my feeling about sports.  In regard to the values that sports can teach, well  when my daughter Makeda came to me to ask me if she could join the cheer leading squad in the 9th grade, which seemed like a natural progression for a young lady who had studied ballet since kindergarten, I vociferously opposed the idea.  I was writing a column for the New York Daily News editorial page at the time.  I stopped, looked her in the eye, and said: FUCK BEING A CHEER LEADER, YOU GET IN THE ARENA AND COMPETE!  LET SOMEBODY CHEER YOU!

Well, instead of becoming a cheerleader she took all of that ballet training, joined the Peter Westbrook Foundation, became a student of Peter Westbrook – the greatest American fencer of the 20th century, a five time Olympian  – and became a fencer.  Peter was convinced that the combination of her ballet training and athletic skill – which enabled her to compete in Division I as a sprinter for the University of Delaware, while a Science Merit Scholar and a Dean List Student – could make a world champion out of her if he could just get her to devote herself to fencing.  I was interested in my kids participating in the sport of fencing because it was filled with high achievers from many fields.

 Makeda Voletta Dancing in the Ring of Fire

Makeda Dances in Hawaii

Celebrating the Goddess Pele in Hawaii

Today Makeda is a sports scientist, Certified sports nutritionist, a licensed fitness trainer who travels all over the country and abroad lecturing on women’s health and fitness! She also performs and teaches sacred dances from all over the African world, See “Magical Realism” on this blog.  She has thanked me a million times for encouraging here to become an athlete.  Why? Because that’s where she learned to compete on an equal basis with men, since men learn to compete through the games they play.  She also learned hard work and discipline – attributes which all good athletes must have, and she learned how to be magnanimous in victory and Gracious in defeat, she learned that you win some and you lose some battles…just like in real life!

My son also studied at the Peter Westbrook Foundation, where you had to maintain a high average in school in order to compete.  It was one of the best experiences of his life and he could have gone far in the sport if he had not loved baseball so much.  However what he learned about the price of excellence and what could be accomplished from hard work and perfecting one’s skills from Peter was priceless!  If anyone wanted a compelling example of how sports can save a young man from destruction and provide an avenue to the good life it is Peter Westbrooks.  Growing up in the dangerous rough and tumble  projects of Newark New Jersey, Peter was an angry young man who was headed to jail or an early grave.

 Peter Westbrooks

Peter Westbrook

America’s Greatest Fencer

Half Afro-American and half Japanese, he was small in stature and regularly picked on, but being spunky he was always getting into fights.  One day his mother came home, handed him a new Saber,  and said:” If you want to fight, learn to fight with this.  It will introduce you to a noble class of people.”  Peter began to study Saber fencing and began to love it.  He won a scholarship to a Catholic high school  – which has managed to consistently combine high academic standards and great athletic teams – and from there he won a scholarship the New York University from which he graduated with a degree in business.  After making a fortune in commodities trading he decided to devote his time and energies to introducing the sport of fencing to inner-city kids combining high academic achievement with mastery of sport.  He has now sent several of his students to the Olympics, and Keith Smart, who along with his sister Errin, has gone twice and Keith came within a touch of winning the gold Medal in the Peking Olympics: both are college graduates!

The salutatory effect that sports had on my son’s life was dramatic.  As a young kid he was skinny, asthmatic, and kind of withdrawn and timid.  However I would take him over to the park and throw footballs and baseballs with him. Greg Tate, a writer with the Village Voice, was my neighbor and wrote that I was a splendid father citing all the times he saw us together in the park.   However if we are to take you at your word Eric, you must believe I was actually wounding him psychologically, although even you must recognize that sports is good for developing strong bodies.

However in real life experience, as opposed to the ideological drivel of non-sports fans, sports turned out to be the best thing that could have happened to my son.  When he was five the preschool he attended, which was partially funded by the Dave Winfield Foundation, Samori went on a field trip to Yankee Stadium, to watch their benefactor, star centerfielder Dave Winfield  play, he gave Samori a baseball glove and it magically transformed his life.  The Harlem Little League was just forming, and the next year he was one of their players.

Once he made the baseball team I witnessed a marvelous metamorphosis in him.  He became more self-confident and grew steadily stronger physically.  I had no trouble getting him to eat right, and he became very organized, because that’s what it took to excel in a demanding school and play ball…which was contingent upon his performance in the classroom. I hosted an evening drive time radio show on WBAI FM that dealt with a variety of topics involving politics and culture, and by the time he was nine years old he began writing sports commentaries for the radio.

I began to give him the sports section from the New York Times to read to insure that he was reading the best writers, and people of all races remarked about this little kid riding the subway with his head stuck in the New York Times.  And when he visited his Aunt Claudia, an avid sports fan who directed a large job training program in Carlisle Pennsylvania,  her mostly white employees told him how they wished they could get their kids to read a newspaper.  And they were speechless when my sister let them hear his radio commentaries via the internet!

All of this gave him tremendous confidence in himself and his abilities. Then one day the great Peter Westbrook watched him playing baseball and approached me about enrolling him in his fencing program.  Where he was one of the few black kids competing in fencing in New York City.   In his first year of high school he started a Sports News Letter, posting a notice on the bulletin board for potential writers to submit a sample of their writing to him., who as Senior Editor would decide who made the cut.  Samori’s involvement with sports coupled with his studies, left no time for idleness and I never had a moment’s trouble with him during his teenage years despite the fact that we lived in Harlem during the height of crack and gangsta rap!

By his senior year Samori was the Captain of both the baseball and the fencing team…and he was the only black kid on either team.  Both Samori and Makeda, who are twins, graduated with honors from the prestigious Beacon School in Manhattan, a first rate academic school in the New York City public school system.  After a stint at Norfolk State University he would become the Sports Editor of WBAI, the station he read commentaries on as a child, and he is now finishing his degree and an important book on the disappearing Afro-American athlete in Baseball, a book from which you could learn much about Afro-American history.  But I have seen no evidence that you are inclined to read serious books by black authors.

 Intrepid Sports Reporter Samori Benjamin
 Samori and Reggie Jackson
 Interviewing Hall of Fame Yankee Reggie Jackson

 If the past is any guide to the future I suspect that this essay will have no discernable effect on your opinions about sports, as muddled as they are.   I say this because of your response to “On Race Culture and Sports;” I cannot imagine how you could have gotten less from that broadly learned treatise had you not bothered to read it at all.

If you had been assigned to read and respond to it in the Journalism and Media Studies seminar I taught at Long Island University, you would have received a failing grade. But beyond your failure to present a convincing critique that spoke to the arguments in my essay, I am genuinely puzzled at how you fail to see the beauty, grace, drama and prowess in the performance of Afro-American athletes: the greatest show on earth!   Your failure to recognize such magnificence is compelling testimony to the power of dogmatic ideology to distort reality!

It is even more puzzling that you fail to see that the real danger to the survival and progress of black youth are the decadent, self-destructive values propagated through the thug life ethos of certain genres of Rap Music!  By contrast the values propagated through sports are a God send!

Alas, as the old adage reminds us: “There are none so blind as he who refuses to see.” Although I am not in the habit of wasting my time and energy on lost causes, you insisted that I read and critique your essay….now you have it.  I sincerely hope you found it an enlightening read for I gave it my best effort….in any case, this is my last word on the subject.

 *************************

 

*See: “Thug Life,” and “Is Russell Wilson Black Enough?” ( Both on this blog)
** Hear the Coach that recruited Snoop Dog’s Son  http://www.nfl.com/videos/nfl-videos/0ap3000000469772/RES-Jim-Mora-on-recruiting-Snoop-Dogg-s-son
 Playthell G. Benjamin
On the Road
February 2, 2015

 

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