American Diamond Mines: The Excavation of the Black Athlete

Today when we look at two of the world’s highest revenue generating professional sports leagues; the National Football League and the National Basketball Association, the obsession with the human body by scouts, coaches, general managers and owners can never be underscored. An NFL quarterback prospect can lose out on millions of dollars in potential earnings if his hands are too small or if he is not over 6 feet in stature. Power, speed, agility and jumping ability or the lack thereof, can either launch an athlete’s career or stifle it. Though mental toughness, strong work-ethic, discipline and good character are valuable intangibles, there are some things that will always prevail in the eyes of those who have the power and privilege to appraise ones physical net worth.

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A draft prospect’s height being measured during the NFL combine.
NFL Combine Football
A draft prospect’s hands being measured during the NFL combines.

Jimmy Johnson, the great college football coach, who won a National Championship with the Miami Hurricanes in the late 1980’s and then went on to win back-to-back Super Bowls with the Dallas Cowboys in the early 1990’s, had a simple philosophy. “You can’t coach speed.” He began to recruit speed like no one else had done before, which brought him great success. This approach changed the nature of college football and eventually the NFL forever. Where size and power were once the ideal combination, the game shifted its focus to speed, speed and more speed. For the past 30 years, team speed has become the prime factor in professional sports.

Notre Dame v Miami
MIAMI – NOVEMBER 28: University of Miami Hurricanes head coach Jimmy Johnson celebrates with Michael Irvin #47 following the game against the Notre Dame Fighting Irish at the Orange Bowl on November 28, 1987 in Miami, Florida. Miami defeated Notre Dame 24-0. (Photo by Focus on Sport/Getty Images)

As revenue and popularity have grown in NCAA College Football and the NFL, so has the emergence of the black athlete. Two of the most dominate NCAA basketball and NCAA football programs have gone from segregated institutions of higher learning, to schools that have rosters that hold 80% black student-athletes. Essentially the grandparents of 2016 University of Kentucky basketball team’s starting five players, might not have been allowed to set foot on the school’s campus, unless they were part of the custodial or cook staff. The same can be said about the University of Alabama Crimson Tide football program. Today coaches like Nick Saban and John Calipari enjoy the privilege of coaching the most elite high school talent in the nation. In the end, integration was a blessing to their respective schools.

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1960 University of Alabama football team.
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2016 University of Alabama football team.
In January 2013, CNN suggested that Alabama might be college football’s new dynasty,[23] and in May 2013, Athlon Sports ranked Alabama’s ongoing dynasty as the fourth-best since 1934, behind Oklahoma (1948–58), Miami (1986–92), and Nebraska (1993–97).[24]

So where were black college athletes 50 years ago? Well, they were at schools like Kentucky State, Alabama A & M and Tuskegee, Historically Black Colleges and Universities. As black families fought for equal access to education at the primary and secondary levels, it was only a matter of time before colleges and universities would be impacted. Initially, there was a huge backlash by the white community. In some states like Virginia, the governor actually shut down all public schools in the entire state as an affront to integration see Closing of Virginia Public Schools (1959). Governor George Wallace actually stood in the doorway of the University of Alabama to prevent black students from entering the school (1963).

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1960 University of Kentucky basketball team
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University of Kentucky basketball team.University of Kentucky 2016 Southeastern Conference Champions.

Kentucky is the most successful NCAA Division I basketball program in history in terms of both all-time wins (2,237) and all-time winning percentage (.765).  

Nonetheless, the Supreme Court ruling on Plessy v. Ferguson (1954) stated that segregated schools based on race were unconstitutional. As a result all public schools in the land had to desegregate. Over the next decade, Americans fought, rioted and even died, so that black children could attend historically all-white schools. After all, the white schools had better facilities, more resources and allegedly stronger educators.

Early on, it was a disaster. The black students were harassed, bullied and in some cases physically assaulted. But eventually some of the black students were actually allowed to join the schools’ athletic teams; track & field, baseball, basketball and football. The raw talent and skill that many of the black student athletes possessed became an immediate asset to their respective teams. Teams with black athletes eventually began to have great success, due largely in part to the contribution of their black players. These children had the kind of power, speed and agility that for some reason, was not as commonly found in their white-counter parts. Their complexions were not socially accepted, but the talent that their bodies possessed most definitely was. And so there it began. The slow trickle of black student athletes from Historically Black Colleges and Universities, to a mass exodus into Predominantly White Institutions. Today, black neighborhoods are mines for college athletics. During the football recruiting season, you will find the highest paid coach in all of college football, sitting in the living room in a housing project in Huntsville, Alabama or a bungalow in the 7th Ward of New Orleans, Louisiana. He and thousands of coaches mine the “hood,” because that’s where the talent lies.

The bodies of black children are sought after like diamonds and precious metals. They are raw, covered in hardship, but with some refinement and polishing, they become extremely valuable. The profits gained from these cherished resources rarely filter back to the communities in which they were excavated from; instead they are sold for great fortunes by foreigners in a foreign lands. From the bayous of Louisiana to Midtown Manhattan, from the muck of South Florida to Lambeau Field, this is how black diamonds are made.

 

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