When my mom died, the 76ers and Patti LaBelle helped get me through the holidays Her death at age 53 from dementia left me looking for solace

“That was what one person could do for another, fix him up — sew up the problem, make him all right again. …”— Beneatha Younger in A Raisin in the Sun, explaining why she wants to be a physician.


My mother died on the 12th of December, 1977: early onset dementia. She was 53. Bit by bit, she lost herself. Toward the end, she didn’t know who I was. She called me “that man.” And I didn’t know who I was either. All my life, I’d been Ruth Rivers’ son, a card-carrying mama’s boy. But to my mother, I was just some strange man who wouldn’t let her run out of the house and into the street to who knows where.

Tuesday, I’ll reflect upon her proud and resilient life. Tuesday, I’ll look back at Mom’s death and the misery that led up to it. Tuesday, I’ll remember the time that, in a soft and beseeching voice, I told my mother that even if she didn’t know who I was, I loved her just the same. And Mom reached out and kissed my hand, giving me the strength to face another day.

But Tuesday, I’ll also think of the Philadelphia 76ers’ 1976-78 seasons. Led by future Hall of Fame forwards Julius (Dr. J) Erving and George McGinnis, the 76ers presented a dazzling group of players but a flawed team plagued by spotty outside shooting and defense. Consequently, the constellation of Philly stars was dimmed by playoff losses both years, including in the 1977 NBA Finals to the Portland Trail Blazers.

Still, I was riveted by every moment.

At home, I watched or listened to all their games. I read all the 76er stories in all the Philly newspapers. And sometimes, when I could steal away, I went to the games in person, a crucial respite from going through life holding my breath.

Rooting for that team in those two NBA seasons helped me get through the months that led up to my mother’s death and the months that followed it.

Tuesday, I’ll think of Patti LaBelle, and how, for a few hours in 1977, I placed my mother’s troubles and my anguish on the stage at Philly’s Academy of Music, when Patti sang “You are My Friend” and I swooped and soared with her majestic vocal.

Many people are bolstered by friends, family and faith in bad times. But for others, it’s the entertainers and athletes who help us survive challenging times.

Forty years ago, Patti and the 76ers helped pull me through. Today, everyone from Beyoncé to the Houston Rockets help salve the wounds of countless others.

The nation’s great athletes and entertainers earn a lot of money, at least for a time. But they enrich our society in ways that can go far beyond wins and losses, hit recordings and sold-out arenas.

Sometimes, the right play in the big game or the right note in the big concert stops people living besieged lives from slipping into darkness.

Sometimes, the athletes and entertainers, Dr. J to Patti LaBelle, fix us up, make things right again, if only for a thrilling moment.

If only we could find the words to tell our stars how much they can mean to us. If only they knew.

This is what happens when a black cop calls out racism in her own department

Lt. Yulanda Williams The truth teller 27 years in uniform

“I’m black and I will never be blue enough. I will never be able to prove to some that I deserve to wear the same uniform as they do.”“I’m black and I will never be blue enough. I will never be able to prove to some that I deserve to wear the same uniform as they do.”

Black and Blue: Meet San Francisco PD’s Lt. Yulanda Williams

On her day of reckoning, Sgt. Yulanda Williams did not wear the blue. Stomach churning, too nervous to eat much breakfast, she drove across the Bay Bridge into the city. Her mother had pleaded with her to reconsider, but she had given her word: She was going to tell the world about the racism in the San Francisco Police Department.

Williams entered the massive white stone library on Larkin Street, within sight of City Hall. A blue-ribbon panel organized by the district attorney was investigating a shocking string of racist text messages exchanged by 14 officers. Williams would be the only black police officer to testify in public. Others were too afraid.

Waiting to speak, Williams, 61, thought about the years of struggle between black and blue in San Francisco. About promotions denied, slurs hurled, disparate discipline. About complaints filed by the black Officers for Justice organization, and warnings to keep quiet from the police officers union, which wielded considerable influence inside the department. About the text messages from fellow officers that called her a n—– b—-.

Then Williams told her truth: The police force suffered from systemic and institutionalized racism. Not all cops are racist, she said, but the culture of the department allowed racism to fester, to corrupt, and sometimes to explode.

“I’m black, and I will never be blue enough,” she testified. “I will never be able to prove to some that I deserve to wear the same uniform as they do.”

The date was Jan. 14, 2016. Within weeks, the president of the police union all but branded her a traitor in a public letter, making Williams fear for her safety on the job. Internal affairs investigators accused her of several questionable violations, including wearing her uniform while shopping off-duty in a Walmart. Someone broke into her house and stole her laptop, but ignored her jewelry and six guns.

As the problems mounted, Williams took the lieutenant’s exam in late 2016 and scored ninth out of 145 candidates. That should have made her a lock for advancement — but officers cannot be promoted with unresolved disciplinary actions.

“Blue is a profession and a career. Blue pays my bills. Blue is my retirement,” Williams said over the summer as she waited for a decision on her promotion. “However, when I sleep, I don’t sleep in blue, I sleep in black, with black, and I know I am black and I’m reminded of that when I’m not in blue.

“Blue is a color,” she said. “Black is my self, my skin. And that cannot change.”

No more than a toehold

San Francisco’s black neighborhoods are in the southeast corner of the city, against the shipyards and docks that in the 1940s and ‘50s attracted refugees from the Jim Crow South. But unlike other urban endpoints of the Great Migration, African-Americans never secured more than a toehold inside San Francisco’s city limits. In the 1960s, even as the city’s reputation for liberalism and tolerance grew, African-Americans were segregated into the Bayview, Hunters Point and Potrero Hill neighborhoods.

Conditions there were so oppressive that famed essayist and novelist James Baldwin said during a 1963 trip to the city that “there is no moral distance, which is to say no distance, between the facts of life in San Francisco and the facts of life in Birmingham.” In 1966, Hunters Point residents rioted for three days after a white cop shot an unarmed teen running from a stolen car. The city’s black population peaked at 13 percent in 1970, then steadily declined to its current 6 percent.

Williams grew up with three siblings in a two-story home in Potrero Hill that her father, a city plumber and assistant church pastor, built himself. Her mother, now 95, still lives there. Williams attended the University of California, Berkeley and worked her way up to a position as regional credit manager for Holiday Inn. In the late ’80s, divorced with two young daughters, she bought her first home, near the corner of Third Street and Newcomb Avenue in the Bayview.

This was the height of the crack epidemic. The drug traffic on her corner was crazy, and the police seemed ineffective. Williams sent her daughters to stay with her mother and helped organize a “take back our streets” march along Third Street that drew hundreds of citizens, clergy and politicians.

Williams speaks with a young man who approached her on the streets of San Francisco.

After the march, she began working with the local police and met several members of Officers for Justice, which had successfully sued the city in 1973 to increase diversity on the force. They urged Williams to sign up.

“I didn’t want to lose my feminine qualities by doing something I considered was primarily a man’s job,” she recalled during an interview at the OFJ headquarters while wearing large hoop earrings, a tiny diamond nose stud, eight rings, nine bracelets, and long, glittery nails with pointed white tips.

The pay was about the same as her hotel position, but the benefits were better. “I told [OFJ] I was not willing to cut my hair, I was not willing to not wear makeup, I wasn’t willing to give up my manicures and my pedicures.” She hit the Bayview streets on foot patrol in June 1990, with her hair pinned up in a bun beneath her cap.

Williams loved being able to help her people. The drug trade persisted, of course, and some nights she had to leave her house wearing a robe and carrying her gun to talk to the boys on Third Street. But everyone knew she cared, and she earned the street nickname “Auntie.”

Black and Blue: San Francisco’s Bayview neighborhood

The OFJ headquarters was four blocks down Third from Williams’ home. When she first joined the force, she thought OFJ had already won the battle for equality. In 1965, only 55 of 1,726 officers were black, three were Asian-American, and almost every police chief since the start of the century had been a white, Catholic man. The OFJ’s lawsuit changed that. The 2,200-member department is now 50 percent white, 16 percent Hispanic, 10 percent black, 6 percent Filipino and 17 percent other Asian.

Williams figured everything was kumbaya. Soon, though, she started to notice things.

On patrol, she saw cops targeting African-Americans. White officers seemed to get lighter discipline — especially if they had gone to high school at Archbishop Riordan, Sacred Heart or St. Ignatius, the source of generations of the city’s cops. She heard of a lieutenant who told a black officer wearing gold chains, “What are you doing wearing that n—– jewelry?” When tests were administered for promotions, black officers rarely advanced. After taking the lieutenant’s exam, she wondered whether she would be another casualty of the system.

Williams put in 11 years on the street, then moved on to work as an academy instructor, field training officer, precinct captain’s assistant and school resource officer. She sold her house in the Bayview and moved to a four-bedroom home in a suburban East Bay neighborhood. She made sergeant in 2012 after placing 46th out of 382 officers who took the exam. She was elected vice president and then president of Officers for Justice and also served on the board of the police union.

Police in uber-expensive San Francisco are among the highest-paid in the country, and Williams’ annual base pay reached $144,000. She indulged her passion for Mercedes automobiles, eventually collecting five used but pristine Benzes. She remarried, enjoyed her six grandchildren, continued to advocate for officers of color and prepared to retire on a pension that will provide 95 percent of her salary for the rest of her life.

Then Sgt. Ian Furminger got arrested for robbing drug dealers.

A horrifying exchange

“My [wife’s] friend is over with their kids and her husband is black!” Furminger texted another cop. “[He is] an Attorney but should I be worried?”

“Get ur pocket gun. Keep it available in case the monkey returns to his roots … not against the law to put an animal down,” was the response.

“Well said!” Furminger texted back.

“You may have to kill the half-breeds too. Don’t worry. Their (sic) an abomination of nature anyway,” his fellow officer responded.

Those were some of the milder bigoted messages exchanged by 14 San Francisco Police Department officers on their personal phones over nine months in 2011 and 2012. Equally horrifying was that so many references to N-words, savages and cross-burnings remained under wraps for years, only coming to light in 2015 because of an appeals court filing in Furminger’s conviction.

The case scandalized famously diverse and progressive San Francisco. How could the police department’s culture allow such virulent racism to persist?

To find out, District Attorney George Gascon, who had briefly been chief of the Police Department, formed the Blue Ribbon Panel on Transparency, Accountability, and Fairness in Law Enforcement. Denied city funding for an exhaustive investigation, Gascon secured the pro bono services of judges, law firms and law schools and started gathering evidence.

His every step was resisted by the San Francisco Police Officers Association.

“I feel pride right now in knowing that I gave it my all and when I needed to be tested, instead of just whimpering down and going off and huddle away from everyone, I instead just decided to stand my ground.”“I feel pride right now in knowing that I gave it my all and when I needed to be tested, instead of just whimpering down and going off and huddle away from everyone, I instead just decided to stand my ground.”

Blurred lines

When Williams testified about institutional racism, she fired a direct shot at a historic foe.

The officers’ union fought the 1973 lawsuit to end discriminatory hiring practices. As far as the union was concerned, any lack of minority representation was the result of a lack of ability among the minorities themselves. “Our attornies (sic) are confident they can refute all charges,” soon-to-be union president Bob Barry wrote in the June 1978 issue of the union newspaper.

Police unions across the country serve as a combination guard dog, priest and defense attorney for cops. Circling the wagons is the default. In San Francisco, the union fought case after case in which African-Americans were slain by police under questionable circumstances, from George Baskett in 1968 to Aaron Williams in 1997 to Mario Woods in 2016. Recently, the union beat back reforms such as more access to police disciplinary records, stricter use-of-force guidelines, and rules to prevent officers from watching body camera footage before writing arrest reports.

In 2016, union consultant and former president Gary Delagnes complained on Facebook about officers reporting another cop’s offensive racial remarks: “Officers are now being encouraged to be trained snitches. … This officer did nothing wrong other than making an ill-advised statement and now they want to hang him and then brag about it to the media. Disgusting!”

The San Francisco Police Department is run by the police chief, who is chosen by the mayor. But the union represents officers up to the rank of captain, giving it a huge amount of influence over promotions, work assignments and the culture of the department.

“The lines were blurred between the department itself and the union,” said Gascon, the district attorney and former chief. “They became so blurred, they were basically working in concert.”

The San Francisco police union does many good deeds, including giving money to officers in need, donating to organizations in minority communities, paying the expenses of tourists struck by tragedy in the city and sponsoring a trip to Africa for black youths.

But its primary function is to defend cops.

From the start of the Blue Ribbon Panel’s work, the association told its members not to talk without a union lawyer present — even though they were not under criminal investigation, according to the panel’s executive director, Anand Subramanian. Except for Williams, he said, no officers of color would testify on the record: “They felt like their career advancement and day-to-day interaction was threatened and jeopardized by public participation in this process.”

“I have never seen so much resistance to reform in a police department as I’ve seen in San Francisco,” said LaDoris H. Cordell, a retired California Superior Court judge who has worked on police oversight cases nationwide and served on the Blue Ribbon Panel.

Union president Martin Halloran did not respond to phone calls and emails for this story. Last year, he told the San Francisco Chronicle that the union isn’t opposed to reform: “Any time there is a little bit of pushback from the POA … the perception according to certain politicians is that we’re the elephant in the room, that we’re the obstructionists. We’re not. We just want to make sure this is done right.”

But his combative views are clear in acidic union newspaper editorials and frequent public letters — such as his response to Colin Kaepernick’s protest.

In August 2016, the then-San Francisco 49ers quarterback cited police killings and cops “getting paid leave and getting away with murder” as a reason he would not stand for the national anthem. Halloran’s response sent to NFL commissioner Roger Goodell accused Kaepernick of pushing “a false narrative and misinformation that lacks any factual basis.”

“Perhaps he could lend his commentary to the over 8,000 murders that African Americans inflicted on one another in 2015,” Halloran wrote.

Williams doesn’t follow sports, but she noticed Kaepernick’s protest and the movement that now engulfs the NFL. She didn’t take Kaepernick’s protest personally: “I know he’s not talking about me.” She saw his stance as speaking up for the voiceless in the black community, and she was delighted when NFL players responded to President Donald Trump’s profane insult by increasing their protests.

The parallels to her own faceoff with the union were inescapable.

“I felt a kinship with Kaepernick because of the fact that, here’s a man who had the conviction to stand for something he believed in. Whether it was right or wrong, it was his belief, and it was his feelings and he expressed them, and he explained why. I did the same thing, and then look what happens to us,” Williams said.

“I felt like he was a whistleblower for what he was talking about, and I was a whistleblower. And the whistleblowers unfortunately seem to never win. They seem to be ostracized, and people try and fight against them and shut them down.”

Worried about her safety

The worst part of her ordeal, Williams said, came from the letter Halloran published in the union newspaper about her testimony, characterizing her statements as “uninformed, inflammatory and disparaging” and insisting there was no evidence of widespread racism in the department.

“Yolanda,” Halloran wrote, not only addressing the 61-year-old officer by her first name but misspelling it, “the references to you in the text messages were disgusting. However, I find your testimony to the Panel to be largely self-centered and grossly unfair.”

She resigned from the union, and her decision was plastered on precinct fliers. She had to explain to her subordinates that she hadn’t called them racists. She feared that if she needed backup, other officers would not respond.

“When you work with someone in this type of environment, your life’s on the line every day,” she said. “You expect people to come for backup. … You trust them with your life. You depend on them for your life.”

As the Blue Ribbon Panel investigation proceeded, cellphone footage of the shooting of Mario Woods fueled national outrage. Three months later, another batch of racist texts was discovered, from a separate set of officers.

In February 2016, the Department of Justice announced a review of the department. On May 19, police killed an unarmed black woman in a stolen car in the Bayview. Hours after that shooting, Police Chief Greg Suhr lost his job — despite strong support from the union.

In July 2016, the Blue Ribbon Panel released its final report. It concluded that the Police Department lacked transparency and oversight, needed to rebuild community trust and should pay greater attention to the potential for racial bias. The report noted that black and Hispanic people were more likely to be searched without consent but were less likely to be found with contraband than other ethnic and racial groups.

“Blue pays my bills. Blue is my retirement. However, when I sleep, I don’t sleep in blue, I sleep in black, with black, and I know I am black and I’m reminded of that when I’m not in blue.”“Blue pays my bills. Blue is my retirement. However, when I sleep, I don’t sleep in blue, I sleep in black, with black, and I know I am black and I’m reminded of that when I’m not in blue.”

In October 2016, the Justice Department released its report, recommending 272 changes designed to correct “deficiencies in every operational area assessed: use of force; bias; community policing practices; accountability measures; and recruitment, hiring, and promotion practices.” The report also identified “numerous indicators of implicit and institutionalized bias against minority groups” — exactly what Williams had testified about seven months earlier.

But vindication in the Justice Department’s 414-page document was cold comfort. A decision on Williams’ promotion was still pending.

After Suhr’s departure, the union urged Mayor Ed Lee to replace him with interim chief Toney Chaplin, a black career San Francisco officer. Instead, Lee chose an outsider: William Scott, the highest-ranking African-American in the Los Angeles Police Department. Scott pledged to fulfill the recommendations of the Justice Department report. In an email to union members, Halloran said the mayor had “turned his back on the rank and file police officers.”

On Sept. 25, Williams learned that Scott would promote her to lieutenant.

Williams’ work in the community ranges from meeting residents to mentoring youths to trying to open a dialogue between the police force and residents.

A new lieutenant at last

On a brilliant Saturday in October, the soon-to-be Lt. Williams left her house for a community event in the Bayview, her old neighborhood. She chose her black 2006 Mercedes S430 sedan with YOOLOGY plates and the glass tinted dark. She calls the car Black Beauty.

Sipping a smoothie behind the wheel, nails cut short because of a new departmental directive requiring them to be no more than an eighth of an inch long — she refers to it as the “Yulanda Rule” — Williams reflected on her journey.

“It feels a little victorious. I don’t want to claim that there’s nothing else to be done,” she said. “I feel pride right now in knowing that I gave it my all and when I needed to be tested, instead of just whimpering down and going off and huddle away from everyone, I instead just decided to stand my ground.”

She parked outside the Bayview Opera House, where several dozen community organizations and a lively crowd had gathered for Neighborfest. Williams’ old house was across the street, within sight of the corner where drug drama pushed her into policing almost 30 years ago. She kept her gun in her purse.

People inquired about her mother and congratulated her on the promotion. She spoke briefly to the crowd, urging everyone to consider a career with the police department. The band played Sly and the Family Stone.

“Auntie!” cried Vincent Tally, known as Tally-Ho. He used to roam the corner drunk, loud and disorderly. Williams would send him home, but she never arrested him. Now he’s been sober for two years.

“She loves everybody. She treats everybody the same. She doesn’t discriminate,” Tally-Ho said. He kissed Williams’ hand. “One thing she will do, though. She see you out of pocket? You in trouble!”

Two weeks later, Williams and two other black sergeants were sworn in and received the gold collar bars of a lieutenant. Three black lieutenants were elevated to captain.

There are now 19 black officers in leadership positions — the most in the 168-year history of the San Francisco Police Department.

‘This Is Us’ recognizes the power of Howard University As a senior, I know exactly how the show’s character Randall Pearson felt visiting The Mecca for the first time

If you didn’t catch the midseason finale of the NBC series This Is Us, you missed seeing on national television the moment a young black boy full of joy arrives on the main campus of Howard University, a place where blackness is unapologetic and excellence is vivacious.

One of the most touching moments of the show’s second season is a throwback to the ’90s in which high school junior Randall Pearson (Niles Fitch) asks his adoptive father, Jack Pearson (Milo Ventimiglia), if he could visit the historically black university after initially filling out an application for Harvard University. Randall has been trying to figure out for a while where he would like to go to college.

Phi Beta Sigma Fraternity Inc. Alpha chapter performs a stroll during “First Friday” on The Yard of Howard University. These were the very first people I met during my first time visiting Howard on April 26, 2013.

Photo by Paul Holston

After Jack agrees to plan a trip to Howard with Randall, the episode soon shifts to The Yard, the symbolic heart of the campus. The environment and the Afrocentric energy that thrives throughout The Mecca immediately overwhelms Randall. Randall and Jack then walk to the Valley on campus and are greeted by Keith, a friend of Randall’s who is a Howard freshman, and Craig, another student who is a member of my fraternity, Phi Beta Sigma (shout out to the MAB!). Keith offers to give Randall a tour, and to Randall’s surprise, he gets the comfort of being at an HBCU (historically black college or university). From walking the halls of Founders Library to eyeing a young woman who walks by him on The Yard to chilling in one of the dormitories with Nas and Lauryn Hill’s If I Ruled The World gliding in the background, the show does a great job of showing how many Howard students feel during their first experiences at The Mecca.

As a soon-to-be Howard alumnus (December), this show immediately reminded me of my first time at The Mecca on April 26, 2013. It was “First Friday,” and the first people who caught my eye on The Yard were Sigmas in their blue and white paraphernalia strolling to some of the latest hip-hop tracks. Who knew then that I would later become a part of black Greek life and gain a lifetime of brotherhood with that same fraternity? And after walking and talking with some of the students and faculty from the School of Communications, witnessing an on-campus protest for unarmed black victims of police brutality and just soaking up all of the blackness that Howard embodies, I knew that The Mecca came into my life for a reason.

In an interview with Entertainment Weekly, This Is Us executive producer Isaac Aptaker said this of the episode: “When we started talking about the college stories and where our Big Three would want to go, our writer Kay Oyegun came in with the idea that Randall would potentially be very interested in Howard [University], and we thought that that was such a rich story: that a black kid who was raised in a very, very white world with a few notable exceptions, being Yvette (Ryan Michelle Bathe) and her son, would be very interested in seeking out the total opposite and immersing himself in this culture that he never fully got to be a part of because of his adopted family.”

The storyline reflects the experience of some students at Howard — it is their first time at a place that appreciates you for not only your blackness but also your brilliance. And although no HBCU is perfect, professor Jules Harrell stated perfectly this semester that “Howard University is the students and the faculty. Everyone else is here to support.” I couldn’t have agreed more.

Howard’s up close and personal moment was a chance for millions of TV viewers to see what an HBCU can offer, and to see a black boy finding something he’d been truly seeking: a place he could call home. Even when Randall talks with Jack on the ride home about the trip and the awkwardness of not introducing his adoptive white father to his friends, Jack knew Randall would make the right decision in his choice of school because he always made the right decisions in life.

When the show returns in January, let’s hope not just for more real HBCU cameos but for other popular shows to follow suit and include these institutions so the nation can see the brilliance that lives at HBCUs.

H-U!

Reactions to ‘This Is Us’ coming to Howard

Thanksgiving is a day to celebrate, no matter our problems Black Americans, as always, will stand as exemplars of America’s resilience, spirit and promise

Thanksgiving is a day to celebrate, no matter our problems. Let others dismiss Thanksgiving as an occasion where warmed-over family resentments and simmering political antagonisms are passed around the holiday tables as we stuff ourselves with turkey, apple pie and football.

But for those of us who look forward to the holiday, we know that Thanksgiving is the start of the season of giving and gratitude, a time when we seek to share our blessings and good cheer, a time when we seek to care for people who are neglected the rest of the year.

Which is to say Thanksgiving, like other national holidays, can be whatever we need and want it to be.

For some of us this Thanksgiving, our holiday family will be those who happen to be with us on or behind the line at the homeless shelter. For others, our Thanksgiving families will be composed of the men and women who will join us in workplace potlucks.

But for still others, especially the most fortunate African-American families, Thanksgiving will be a multigenerational celebration: a time when the Little Bobbys, Juniors and Treys commune with the Big Bobbys, the Nanas and the Aunties.

Consequently, we will be able to look around our Thanksgiving tables and see in the faces of others assembled there who we have been and who we will be, from the toddlers to the elders. And we will feel the presence of the ancestors in the retelling of old and precious stories.

To be sure, all Americans contribute to the nation’s greatness. We all own a piece of Plymouth Rock, the Liberty Bell and the Statue of Liberty. We’ve all inherited the nation’s myths and traditions and transformed them.

On Thursday, we’ll sit around one long communal table, from sea to shining sea, but in a house divided by race, class and politics.

Nevertheless, black families have a lot to teach America this Thanksgiving and throughout the year. After all, black families are among the nation’s oldest and most diverse. Our genetic heritage is primarily African, European and Native American, though usually not as much of the latter as the elders have sometimes claimed.

Like America, black folks are defined by stark contrasts and contradictions. Our complexions range from parchment to obsidian. Our women are the nation’s best educated and least respected. Our men are the most feared and the most vulnerable, plagued by chronic illnesses, early death and mass incarceration.

Everything from the loss of farmland to the loss of factory jobs happened in our families first or most acutely, and we have survived. Our families have embraced our Muslim brothers and sisters along with other religious traditions from across the continents and around the world. Some may continue to struggle to embrace our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters, just as others do, but our arms have been open.

We have loved America and fought to defend its highest ideals, from the battlefields to the voting booths, courts and picket lines. Far too often, we’ve been rebuked and scorned by an America that’s been blessed by our hard work, creativity and patriotism.

And long before the term “fake news” was invented, black Americans suffered the cruel lash of lies about what we’ve done and who we are.

We’ve survived that too.

Indeed, Thanksgiving is the great American holiday that celebrates survival and acclimation, endurance and transformation.

On Thursday, the nation gathers together and yet apart. Many will sit among family and friends and enjoy a feast of good fortune. And black Americans, as always, will stand as exemplars of America’s resilience, spirit and promise.

Happy Thanksgiving.

The message to NFL players: Dance for us, but don’t kneel Demonizing black protest while allowing black celebration has a deep historical context

This NFL season, the usual game-day messaging of beer and sneaker ads and uplifting videos about community or military service has been augmented by a special kind of cultural telegraph.

Sent from white NFL owners and fans to black NFL players, it goes like this:

You can Milly Rock, Juju on that Beat or fake play pingpong in the end zone. (STOP) But we can’t abide you kneeling on the sidelines. (STOP) Dance to your heart’s content, but you best not raise a fist in protest. (STOP)

It’s a historically layered message about what’s allowable, laudable or even tolerable for black men to do with their bodies. It’s an adjudication centered in the white gaze, projected onto black limbs, televised to millions of eyes. Politicians, business leaders and NFL leadership have reached peak freak-out about players tackling racism and police brutality during the national anthem. But even as a divided populace watches football on a hair trigger, the league has newly relaxed its rules about touchdown celebrations.

Every pressurized system needs a release. Cue Mr. Bojangles.

Or can talented players simply be allowed to celebrate athletic achievement and the joy of expression, like any free people, without the echoes of white supremacy? I’m asking for the culture.


White fear of the black male body is part of the subtext of the rage over the NFL protests (and actually any form of black protest). That fear, stemming from perceptions of black lawlessness and criminality, can also be understood as a projection of white rage.

The angst and anger over the protests during the national anthem, which began last year with then-San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, recently ticked up dramatically. President Donald Trump cursed NFL players who protested and called for them to be fired. Houston Texans owner Robert McNair said, “We can’t have inmates running the prison” during a meeting of NFL owners and league executives. TV viewership was down 7.5 percent through the season’s first six weeks compared with the same period last year, and every week brings tension, threats of boycotts and boos directed at players and teams who do anything other than stand and salute.

But end zone dances and celebrations have ticked up dramatically too. Highlights of the most creative are ranked weekly on websites and social media. “We know that you love the spontaneous displays of emotion that come after a spectacular touchdown. And players have told us they want more freedom to be able to express themselves and celebrate their athletic achievements,” NFL commissioner Roger Goodell wrote in an open letter to fans earlier this year.

That position is new.

Last year, Newsweek reported that players had been fined 18 times for excessive celebrations through 14 weeks, more than 2.5 times the fines issued for all of 2015 and part of a leaguewide crackdown. This included Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver Antonio Brown, whose professional-grade twerking in the Washington end zone, along with other pelvis-intensive dances, cost him nearly $60,000. Oakland Raiders punter Marquette King danced with an official’s penalty flag after the opposing team was called for roughing the kicker, costing him more than $12,000. And when then-New York Giants wide receiver Victor Cruz danced a salsa and teammate Odell Beckham Jr. pretended to take pictures, that choreography cost them more than $12,000 each.

In an explanatory video last year, Dean Blandino, then senior vice president of officiating for the NFL, said there were long-standing rules against excessive demonstrations (which earned it the “No Fun League” nickname) but penalties were up because “it’s been a point of emphasis.” Hugs and salutes were fine, he said, as were limited dancing and going to the ground in prayer (presumably unless it involved praying for police to stop shooting black people).

In the offseason, however, the league changed course to allow group choreography, props and rolling on the ground. This year has witnessed the Peter Piper dance and an homage to Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em Robot on Monday Night Football. There’s been faux bench-pressing and fake home run hitting.

“We’re allowed to celebrate now,” Brown enthused in a preseason tweet. Along with other players, Brown (who last year finished in the top five on Dancing with the Stars) previewed possible dance moves on The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon at the beginning of the season. He helped tout the new dance rules in a Pepsi commercial.

Both freedom of expression in black protest, which has been demonized, and freedom of expression in black dance — which, this year at least, is more OK — have complex and often contradictory messaging. But it all relates to questions of power and control of the black-body politic.

“We’re allowed to celebrate now.” — Antonio Brown

Former NFL Pro Bowler Keyshawn Johnson has experienced those attempts at control firsthand. In 1996, Johnson was a New York Jets rookie wide receiver when he scored his first NFL touchdown. He ripped off his helmet, spiked the football and started dancing. Teammates joined in celebration and tackled him to the ground. Former quarterback Joe Theismann, then an ESPN analyst, called him a jerk.

Though Johnson never went in for celebration dances after that — he threw balls in the stands until the fines got prohibitive, then just handed the ball to kids in the front row — it wasn’t because of Theismann’s criticism.

“I looked at it as this is a white dude that don’t like a black man doing something totally different than what the narrative is supposed to be, which is you’re supposed to play football and be quiet and be happy,” he said.

A segment of fans will always think celebrations are wrong, Johnson said. “They just think that showboating is basically like clowning.” It takes their mind to “if you celebrate, you’re disrespectful, because they want to control what you do. Part of controlling what you do is, ‘We prefer him to do this versus that.’ ”

When white players perform celebration rituals, they are understood differently, said Johnson. The quarterback position “is dominated by mainly white dudes with the pumping of the fist and the screaming out loud and guys shouting to the air when they throw a touchdown,” Johnson said. Fans and analysts say, “Oh, look at Tom Brady … he’s exuberant. He’s passionate about that throw to [Rob] Gronkowski. You’re like, ‘Wait a minute, he’s celebrating.

The nature of the guys who often take the ball into the end zone contributes to the creativity of the dances, Johnson points out. Wide receivers have to be fast, and speed is its own form of beauty. Receivers are “isolated. They’re the furthest position on offense, detached from their teammates,” said Johnson. They touch the ball less often than running backs and quarterbacks, so when they do get their hands on it, they want to make it count. Plus, “we happen to be, you know, sports car guys. We ain’t no big old truck dude. We ain’t no lineman. You look in the car lot, they’re going to have Bentleys, Ferraris, they’re going to have all that.”

Johnson likes dances being choreographed and creative but with limits on sexual suggestiveness, or implied violence such as throat-slashing. He believes that dances are allowed while protests are contested because of money. “When it starts to affect the bottom line, they’re like, ‘Oh, no, man. We’ve got to put a stop to this.’ ” He believes in criminal justice reform. “But I also understand Jerry Jones [Dallas Cowboys owner, who threatened to bench players last month who he said “disrespect the flag”] because I, too, am a business owner, so I understand when you start messing with my money. … ”


Dwandalyn Reece, curator of music and performing arts at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture, sees the players’ dance moves — the boasting, mimicry and pantomime, the circle formation, the use of props — as definitive hallmarks of the African-American dance aesthetic.

Dancing and singing were one of the few areas where the dominant white culture allowed the enslaved freedom of expression. Then, of course, blacks got stereotyped as always dancing and singing, said Reece. This contributes to the multiple gazes operating on the field when it comes to football dances.

In one political moment, it’s showboating, overly stylized, expressing individualism at the expense of sportsmanship. (And, as a popular Key and Peele skit suggests, no touchdown dance is complete without at least three pelvic thrusts.)

In another political moment, dance is safe and entertaining — something white folks have historically enjoyed watching happy blacks do. In turn, that sight line evokes minstrel show dancing and “cooning” for white audiences.

The dances “can be spectacle, depending on the arena that it’s in, but the roots of it are quite meaningful and quite rooted in a cultural tradition,” said Robert Battle, artistic director of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. Battle, who says he doesn’t do the latest dances, “the Dougie, or whatever,” sees football players expressing grace, athleticism and even their inner child as they move their bodies to punctuate their joy. But black dance has always been a contested cultural signifier. NFL dances are about rejecting old strictures and reclaiming personal expression. It’s the idea “that you dance in spite of how you’re being perceived because you know the inherent joy in that.” Or, Just because it’s a stereotype, I’m not going to stop eating fried chicken at the company picnic.

The dances are meant to push buttons, Battle said. It’s meant for “the naysayers or the ones that would be threatened. It’s meant to say, well, you should be threatened because I’m that damned good!”

Black social dancing has always been an extension of dances that came to the Americas with the enslaved, said Kyle Abraham, artistic director of the Abraham.In.Motion dance company and a MacArthur Fellow. “The ways the pelvis is used in the dancing, the way it’s much more grounded, can evoke fear to some but can deliver power to others.”

As for black dance being loaded with shade, Abraham references the cake walk. It was an elaborate, high-stepping prance that began before the Civil War and mocked the high society pretensions of whites and slaveholders, subversively, on the low, to their faces, as they clapped along.

“It’s meant to say, well, you should be threatened, because I’m that damned good!”

“There is always a possibility that there is a game being played within a game and that we are actually in control,” said Abraham. “Look at me, I’m entertaining you. Are you entertained? Am I what you want me to be, while at the same time I’m making you notice.”

The handcuffs are off and players are going to want to step up their moves, especially in an age where they can go viral. “Maybe part of this illusion in this modern-day cake walk is that you actually think you have ownership over who I am and how I will be presented … but in actuality, I have full ownership of who I am and how I choose to speak and move and dance. And when I will make those extra 10 yards!” Abraham said.

Damion Thomas, curator of sports for the National Museum of African American History and Culture, remembers watching the Houston Oilers’ Billy “White Shoes” Johnson, an NFL dancing pioneer who became legendary for his flapping-leg touchdown celebration in the late 1970s and 1980s. Thomas calls Hall of Fame cornerback Deion “Primetime” Sanders, who in the 1990s helped usher in the modern celebrity football player era, his all-time favorite player and dancer and points out that his signature, flashy stiff-arm and high steps mimic movements from Detroit ballroom dancing.

He notes that white players, such as the Jets’ Mark Gastineau and his sack dance, historically have been part of the creative NFL culture. Today, white players have been involved in some fan favorites, including a game of duck, duck goose. Travis Kelce, tight end for the Kansas City Chiefs, is a serial end zone dancer and originator of Week 9’s potato sack race, one of the season’s best group celebrations.

Although both dancing and protest have gotten attention this year, Thomas contends they occupy separate spaces. Players let you know when they are protesting, he said, and they reserve political acts for certain moments in a prescribed space while keeping the end zone as a “part of the field they are not engaging with social issues.” The exception: “When Odell Beckham Jr. scored a touchdown, went on all fours and raised his leg like he was a dog — and then later said that was in relationship to Donald Trump.”

Reece, the music and performing arts curator, sees multiple narratives “being enacted as we struggle with trying to get beyond the lens of the way that people look at us, and interpret us and define us.”

These will continue to play out as fans struggle, as football players struggle, as the nation struggles with this political moment and the long, complicated history of the black body politic.

Paramount comes to the rescue with Taraji P. Henson movie explaining ‘What Men Want’ With men in charge of, uh, almost everything, it’s really, really hard to know what they’re thinking

You know, I want to be part of the solution and not the problem, and so I’m publicly announcing my commitment to doing a better job of amplifying men’s voices. Because, according to Paramount, we must be living in a matriarchy in which men’s inner thoughts, desires, and insights are a huge mystery. And that’s just not fair.

According to a report this week in entertainment industry publication Deadline, Paramount is remaking the 2000 Mel Gibson film What Women Want with Taraji P. Henson playing Gibson’s role. In The Before Time, when girls did not run the world, Gibson starred in this movie as Nick Marshall, an arrogant, womanizing man’s man of an ad executive who only sees women as potential sexual conquests, ego fluffers or maids. He never bothers to consider women as people with their own thoughts and lives that have nothing to do with him until a bit of magic gives him the ability to hear all those thoughts. Suddenly, Nick realizes, the world does not revolve around him, at which point he becomes a marketing genius because he just starts stealing women’s ideas.

Now Paramount is remaking this movie, and with Taraji P. Henson, who is a woman. Here’s how Deadline describes What Men Want: “The new version follows a female sports agent (Henson) who has been constantly boxed out by her male colleagues. When she gains the power to hear men’s thoughts, she is able to shift the paradigm to her advantage as she races to sign the NBA’s next superstar.”

Man, that whole witch hunt thing went QUICK!

If only we had some magic way to know what men are thinking. Apparently none of them are left to run media companies or Silicon Valley or transportation authorities or real estate empires or universities or four-star restaurant kitchens or law firms or city councils or movie studios or architecture firms or investment banks or any of that stuff.

As an ally, I gotta tell you: Men — you in danger, boys.

It’s so obvious that women are to blame. And so now that the ladies are leaving all their men at home because the workplace is jumping, jumping, I want to extend a hand and say, “I get it.”

Why can no one see that men are the real victims here? That’s why we’ve had 45 straight presidencies — by men. They have to keep running the country because it’s the only way anyone will pay attention to them.

And so to the oh-so-perceptive people running Paramount, I say, you go! Way to be generous! Because if there’s anything the world desperately needs right now, it’s a movie that tells us what men want.

Today’s troubles ‘ain’t nothing new’ Lessons my grandmother found in the Good Book

When I was a child, my grandmother would sometimes allow me to come into her kitchen and lick her big wooden spoon after she mixed the batter for one thing or the other, a sweet moment in our often bitter relationship.

She was so mean, dispensing daily doses of disapproval to her household, especially to me. Besides, we were so different.

I was a city boy and a child of books, imagination and ambition. She was born in the country and became an old woman of the Bible, prayer and endurance. I would never have made it in her rural past. She’d have no place in my urban and urbane future.

My grandmother was a child of God and a conjure woman. She knew everything she needed to know. The sun rose and the sun set. God was in His heaven. And on earth, as it was in heaven, nothing that really mattered ever changed.

When I was a child, there was so much I wanted to know in a time that was changing, with still more change to come.

“Boy,” my grandmother would say, “ain’t nothing new under the sun,” a pearl of wisdom she’d scooped up from the Bible and then dropped from her righteous pedestal.

Black folks were marching in the streets then. They were dancing in the streets too.

But for my grandmother, the evil men of the early to mid-1960s were just the latest incarnations of the pharaohs of the Old Testament and King Herod as the new hand puppets of the devil. For my grandmother, the dances of my youth were no more than a new generation shuffling their feet over the same things invented and forgotten eons ago.

Nothing worth thinking about. Nothing worth talking about. Nothing new.

Still, from time to time my grandmother would ask my grandfather, who read several newspapers a day, to tell her about the people, places and things that had gotten the world in a tizzy. After my grandfather gave his wife his latest current events update, my grandmother would search her Bible for context and further explanation.

“Ain’t nothing new under the sun.”

More than 50 years ago, my grandmother found everything neatly explained in her Bible, from Bull Connor to the Vietnam War: “There will always be war and rumors of war,” grandmom said of the latter.

If she were alive today, grandmom would find explanations for everything from global climate change to the resurgence of white supremacy in America and in Europe in her Good Book.

Society’s travails, my grandmother would say, are the consequences of people mocking God and his commandments of how we should live in accordance with nature and one another.

As far as I know, my grandmother never voted or took to the streets to protest the trouble the world was in or the men and women who made it so. Instead, she found solace and sanctuary in her faith, secure in the notion that nothing really changed.

But sometimes my grandmother, who never hugged me, would invite me into her kitchen and let me lick her big wooden spoon, a tacit embrace of my hopes and dreams for a better future. It’s a sweet memory that bolsters me in bitter times, which, as always, are changing.

We can’t let depression and anxiety silently take our joy and the lives of those we love My daughter’s undefeated attitude saved her life and may save others

Over the past six years, the journey for my 21-year-old daughter Kennedy has taught me that life isn’t necessarily about what happens to you, but how you respond to what happens.

My wife, Cheryl, and I did everything we could to prepare our four children for success. We exposed them to as much culture, particularly black culture, as we could to give them a positive self-image. We introduced them to sports to help them understand the importance of teamwork and cooperation. Like all parents, we wanted their road to success to be as smooth as possible. We also wanted to protect them from the trials and tribulations that may come their way on that journey.

Eventually we were disabused of this notion and learned that life doesn’t work that way. Try as you might, you simply can’t protect your children from difficulties and dangers they will encounter, both seen and unseen. All you can do is help them deal with those difficulties, dangers and defeats and, as Maya Angelou says, “not be defeated” by them.

A few days ago, despite her circumstances, Kennedy decided to heed Angelou’s words and go undefeated.

Six years ago, clinical depression came roaring into our lives as an uninvited — and, at the time, unknown — guest. It all started one morning when Kennedy was in the 10th grade. She absolutely refused to get out of bed to go to school. What we thought was obstinacy and defiance was a teenager’s best way of dealing with the alternate reality that had taken up residence in her brain.

Kennedy describes what she was going through at the time in a letter she recently wrote to her 15-year-old self: “Six years ago you were ready to give up. You thought that the only option you had was to escape. The battle your body was fighting against your mind had hit its peak, and you couldn’t take it anymore. 106 pounds, no sunlight, no school and isolation. The whole concept of interacting with people reduced you to tears. You spent weeks in the bed and couldn’t experience high school as other students had. You didn’t eat and the thought of food disgusted you. You had no purpose to live.”

“I want the world to know what I’ve been through and what I struggle with every day.”

It took us a couple of months to figure out what was going on. I struggled at first not to make Kennedy’s situation about me and how I may have failed her as a father. Was there something that I could have done or not done to prevent this from happening? It was hard for me to come out of my initial denial and resist the urge to find a narrative that somehow absolved me of any blame for or, even worse, made me the victim of her illness. But in the end, I realized that it wasn’t about me and none of that mattered.

We were at the intersection of depression and anxiety. Kennedy was standing there in the pouring rain, at the peak of rush hour, with horns blaring all around her with tears streaming down her face.

Cheryl and I couldn’t prevent it, but we had to deal with it, and we are not alone. One in five adults has a mental health condition. More than 11 percent of youths suffered from depression in 2014, up from 8.5 percent in 2011. Anxiety disorders are the most common mental illness, and although these disorders are highly treatable, only 36.9 percent of those suffering receive treatment.

As with most statistics, these are exacerbated in the black community. The stigma and a lack of knowledge of mental illness, along with the dearth of black mental health professionals, conspire to keep many in our communities suffering and shrouded in darkness alone.

Cheryl and I did as much research as we could and talked to as many professionals as possible to educate ourselves about what was going on with Kennedy. We were very open with our family and friends. Once we understood better, we took corrective measures through health care and counseling to help adjust her emotional rudder to guide her to some semblance of stability. We were fortunate to eventually find a black female therapist whom Kennedy could relate to.

Care and counseling aren’t a magical solution. Kennedy had to participate and buy into the process enough to be able to see beyond the horizon of her current condition and not give in to her FEAR (False Evidence Appearing Real). At 16, she wasn’t quite there yet. She just wanted it all to stop. Thankfully, through the process, she was able to build up the strength to deal with this as an ongoing concern.

She continues on in her letter to herself: “Your depressed mind thought it had won the battle but it was wrong. It gets better. The small things you never appreciated are the things that bring you joy now. Your parents stood by your side through everything.”

Over the past few years, things have gotten much better, but at the same time there are still serious struggles and there will continue to be. The difference is now she is up to the fight. She’s a dean’s list student in college, and from the outside looking in everything looks great.

Just as she finally had a game plan in place to help her deal with her ongoing battle with depression and anxiety, something else devastating happened to her — she was raped.

Words cannot describe how heart-wrenching it is to hear your daughter utter the words, “Daddy, I was raped.” Had I not had the experience of dealing with her depression, I am certain that I would have either completely shut down and gone into denial or, worse, I could have become some brute macho stereotype looking to exact some kind of extrajudicial revenge.

But again, this wasn’t about me. It was about her. I quickly had to come to grips with the fact that the how and the what of the situation were much less important than helping my daughter. More than ever, I needed to be her father and be there for her. As with the depression, Cheryl and I encouraged her to go to counseling. She resisted at first, but once she looked back on the mountains that she had conquered and realized that counseling was a major part of her ascent, she acquiesced.

Life is a perpetually moving series of nows. The past is behind us, and we don’t know what the future holds. All we can really do is deal with the nows that we find ourselves in. Kennedy didn’t ask for any of this, but she is doing her best — with the help of family, friends and health care and mental health professionals — to maximize her series of nows.

I was talking to her while I was writing the piece about Colin Kaepernick as The Accidental Activist. She told me that she thought the protests had gotten off message and through watching the whole thing unfold over the past year she actually decided, and is now actively standing up “on purpose,” to be an advocate for those living in the shadows of mental illness and sexual assault.

I am so very proud of Kennedy for her courage and conviction and how she is putting herself on the line to help others. Part of the reason that she came to this decision is because of her love for sports and her witnessing all the activity and attention that athletes like Kap have brought to the national conversation. That led me to share with her Maya Angelou’s quote that was the basis for the name of The Undefeated.

“You see, we may encounter many defeats, but we must not be defeated. It may even be necessary to encounter the defeat, so that we can know who we are. So that we can see, oh, that happened, and I rose. I did get knocked down flat in front of the whole world, and I rose. I didn’t run away — I rose right where I’d been knocked down. And then that’s how you get to know yourself. You say, hmm, I can get up! I have enough of life in me to make somebody jealous enough to want to knock me down. I have so much courage in me that I have the effrontery, the incredible gall to stand up. That’s it. That’s how you get to know who you are.”

I told her that she was the epitome of that quote. I then got a wild idea. I asked her, “What do you think about me writing about your story?”

America is comfortable with protesting athletes on their screens, but not in their stadiums In the movies and on TV, white players join in and no one demands athletes kneel on their own time

From Curt Flood to John Carlos and Tommie Smith to Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf to Colin Kaepernick, there’s a long tradition of black athletes standing up for themselves and the rights of others.

Such protests are highly controversial, both with authority figures in sports and with fans: Carlos and Smith were immediately banned from the Olympic Village, Abdul-Rauf’s NBA career came to an early end and President Donald Trump called players who kneel during the national anthem “sons of b—-es” and demanded they be fired. Some of those still-employed kneeling players met with NFL owners earlier this week to discuss a path forward.

Yet when America sees protesting athletes in movies and on TV, the dynamic is different from what happens in real life. Really, really different.

In the idealized settings of television and film, just as in real life, the protests come with great cost and risk. Still, when screen athletes stand up for their principles, not only do they win, they’re clearly identified as the “good guys.”

Audiences are comfortable with fictional athletes who stand up to corporate bullies, in part because movies and TV demand character development. Even when fictional players begin as compliant automatons, being told what to do and how to do it, their personal journeys are characterized by growth and self-awareness. There’s an expectation that once athletes discover their power and witness injustice, they will be compelled to act. After all, a bunch of guys looking at a problem and shrugging their shoulders doesn’t make for good drama.

But those expectations don’t translate well to real life, as polling data on NFL player protests has shown.

When fans and political critics demand that players “stick to sports,” they’re saying they want the excitement of games and terrific athletic ability, but they want it divorced from players’ full humanity. They want the action sequences, but no plot or character development. Which is how we get people saying athletes should protest “on their own time” — essentially, after the credits have run and no one’s watching.

In TV and film, once we’ve gotten to know characters as people who have the same emotional needs as we do, it becomes easier to digest the necessity of their protests. Their motivations drive our sympathy. We want them to win.

The racial dynamic is different on-screen as white characters are cast as protest leaders. And these works also communicate why the element of public spectacle is so important: It raises the stakes. Public or near-public showdowns are a key trope in these stories because they’re seen as necessary to achieving the desired results.

Here’s a look at some of the movies and television shows in which athletes stood up to the man(agement):

Survivor’s Remorse (2014-17)

Courtesy of Starz

The recently canceled Starz comedy starred Jessie T. Usher as Cam Calloway and Chris Bauer as Jimmy Flaherty, the owner of Cam’s professional basketball team in Atlanta. The two have a few standoffs, but the disagreement between Cam and Jimmy that carries special resonance these days comes after Flaherty signs a $5 million contract with a firm to put advertising patches on players’ jerseys. The problem is that the company is the second-largest funder of private prisons in the country. Cam, flanked by his lawyer and manager, tells Flaherty he won’t play as long as the patches are on the jerseys. Every great fortune may have a great crime behind it, but this is where he draws the line.

This standoff takes place in the arena, hours before tipoff, and Flaherty, who knows he can’t win without Cam, backs down. This confrontation takes place not in the first season but at the end of the fourth, after we’ve had plenty of episodes to witness how Cam’s activism has been inspired by the suffering he sees around him, and after we know that Cam’s commitment to criminal justice reform is motivated in part by his own father’s imprisonment. Not only that, we know that Cam is generous to a fault. His manager is constantly trying to talk him out of giving away more of his money. If Cam hadn’t taken a stand on the patches, it would seem unnatural given what we’ve learned about the content of his character.

Varsity Blues (1999)

The cast of Varsity Blues.

Getty Images

I forgive you if the only thing you can remember about this movie is Ali Larter in a whipped-cream bra, but it really did have a bigger message.

James Van Der Beek starred as Jonathan Moxon, a backup quarterback for a Texas high school football team that has won two state titles under coach Bud Kilmer (Jon Voight). But Kilmer is merciless, racist and megalomaniacal — traits the school and community at large are happy to overlook so long as he keeps adding wins to West Canaan High’s record books.

Kilmer uses his star black running back, Wendell (Eliel Swinton), as little more than a mule, repeatedly deploying him for physically taxing runs but never allowing him to score a touchdown. The audience is treated to a bruising up-close-and-personal experience of those hits and the toll they exact on Wendell’s body. They’re gruesome.

Moxon is talented but not nearly as invested in football as his father or his coach are. And he hates Kilmer’s racism and mercenary disregard for the health of his players. Moxon gets tapped to lead the team because first-stringer and all-state quarterback Lance Harbor (Paul Walker) suffers a career-ending injury. It’s Kilmer’s fault — he insisted on pumping Harbor full of cortisone and forcing him to play until he was no longer physically able, costing him a college football scholarship.

When Moxon starts calling his own plays, gets Wendell into the end zone and generally pisses off his coach while still winning, Kilmer goes ballistic. He threatens to alter Moxon’s transcripts and derail his plan to attend college on an academic scholarship. But Moxon’s teammates have had enough of Kilmer’s antics, and they mutiny during halftime of the final game of the season. Kilmer’s team will only take the field of the second half without him, and the coach must relent or risk further public humiliation. The team wins the game, and Kilmer is forced to leave West Canaan and football for good.

The Longest Yard (2005)

In this remake of the original 1974 film that starred Burt Reynolds, prison inmates play a football game against a group of racist, sadistic prison guards who are constantly abusing their power.

In the 2005 version, Adam Sandler plays Reynolds’ role of washed-up quarterback Paul Crewe. Crewe isn’t an easy person to root for. Besides point-shaving, Crewe endangers himself and others when he gets drunk and leads police on a high-speed car chase in his girlfriend’s Bentley.

When he gets to prison, the warden, Rudolph Hazen (James Cromwell), forces Crewe to assemble a ragtag team of prisoners to give the guards an easy, confidence-boosting win before their season playing against guards from other prisons begins. The other prisoners sign on because they see an opportunity to give the guards a taste of their own depraved behavior. They’re comically bad at first, but under Crewe’s stewardship, they pull together. They start to develop hope and confidence of their own. Maybe they can really win this thing!

The black prisoners, led by Cheeseburger Eddy (Terry Crews), are loath to join the team until another prisoner, Megget (Nelly), is forced to swallow his dignity and pride. The guards confront Megget in the prison library and repeatedly call him “n—–,” in an attempt to cajole him into a fight. Megget resists the bait but relishes the opportunity to get his revenge on the field.

Once game day arrives, the prisoners are unaware that Hazen has made a deal with Crewe to throw the game. Crewe must comply or face life in prison for a murder he didn’t commit, one that resulted in the death of his closest jail friend, Caretaker (Chris Rock).

When the big day arrives, Crewe starts out leading the prisoners in what looks like a rout of the guards. Hazen reminds Crewe what he has to lose, and Crewe begins to throw the game. But he has a crisis of conscience and tells his teammates what’s happening. He decides to try to beat the guards anyway, leading the prisoners to a game-tying touchdown and a two-point conversion to win as the clock runs out.

In both Varsity Blues and The Longest Yard, the protests are led by charismatic white quarterbacks who have their own grievances but are happy to loop in those of black players as well. Would kneeling be more acceptable if Aaron Rodgers and Tom Brady had started doing it first, citing the same reasons as Kaepernick? Would Brady and Rodgers be criticized as un-American and unpatriotic, or praised for their compassion and for using their privilege to help minorities? And if the reactions to them would be different from those to Kaepernick or other black players, what does that say?

Both The Longest Yard and Varsity Blues feature unambiguously terrible antagonists in the warden, prison guards and Kilmer. They paint pictures of racists as unsubtle, selfish and uncultivated. They portray bigotry as a problem of individual extremists rather than something that’s endemic to the country. Again, we’re faced with the luxuries afforded by (admittedly uncomplicated) character development. If we don’t know NFL players and owners as well as we know the characters in these movies, how do we judge their actions?

The White Shadow (1978-81)

Ken Howard (right) portrayed high school basketball coach Ken Reeves and Byron Stewart (left) portrayed student and athlete Warren “Cool” Coolidge in the CBS series The White Shadow.

CBS Photo Archive/Getty Images

Ken Howard stars as Ken Reeves, a former player for the Chicago Bulls who injured his knee, ending his professional career. One of his college teammates, Jim Willis (Ed Bernard), offers him a job coaching basketball at the dilapidated, majority-black Carver High School in Los Angeles. The team is a band of undisciplined misfits — Reeves has a bad habit of referring to them as “animals.”

Carver’s star player, James Hayward (Thomas Carter), needs a job to care for his mother, who has ulcers, and his siblings because their father is dead. Another player, Curtis Jackson, doesn’t want to face the fact that he has a drinking problem.

Unlike the other examples here, the relationship between Reeves and the team is more symbiotic than purely adversarial. The chief conflict doesn’t hinge on Reeves being a bad person. Rather, Reeves is blindly navigating his new job and everything it entails. He’s in charge of a group of players who talk back and who are skeptical of authority because they’ve learned that no one expects much of them. The state of Carver’s campus — strewn with detritus, missing letters on its signage — communicates to its students that they don’t matter much. And if the students know they don’t matter, how is anyone going to be able to get them to care about school?

Vice principal Sybil Buchanan (Joan Pringle) acts as interpreter and student advocate in her interactions with Reeves, giving a credible voice to the players’ concerns. She tells Reeves he’s not a “white knight” and won’t be able to swoop in to the school and fix everything in 20 minutes. She’s indignant when Reeves enlists the team to move him into his new apartment on a Saturday for free, telling him the days of slave labor are over. Reeves and Buchanan are working toward the same goal, which is helping the students. But she and the basketball team are teaching a man who probably doesn’t think he’s racist not to behave like one. Created by Bruce Paltrow, The White Shadow offers a more nuanced view of race and racism than The Longest Yard or Varsity Blues. And it also says something about what it takes to be a useful ally.

Eddie (1996)

Whoopi Goldberg (center) starred in Eddie.

Getty Images

Eddie (Whoopi Goldberg) is a limo dispatcher and devoted New York Knicks fan who wins a public relations contest to coach the floundering team. There’s a twist though: Eddie’s a pretty decent coach. Fans like her.

Eddie becomes more than a novelty act. She quickly discovers there’s more to coaching than calling plays. She’s the team’s chief haranguer, marriage counselor, therapist and mother. Her pestering and rule-setting pays off, and the team starts not only winning but also enjoying basketball again. They lose their arrogance and sense of entitlement once they realize they have a person who cares about them as more than ball-dribbling widgets to be yelled at, traded and cut. She’s a real coach.

Meanwhile, the team’s owner, “Wild Bill” Burgess (Frank Langella), a Texas billionaire oil baron, has decided to convert the Knicks’ unbelievable good fortune into profits — by secretly negotiating a move that would send the team to St. Louis.

Eddie, once she gets wind of the plan, stands up to the man whose ego is about as inflated as the 10-gallon Stetson on his head. Burgess sees the Knicks as chess pieces he can move about the country at his pleasure. When he won’t listen to Eddie privately, she takes their disagreement public, revealing Burgess’ plans to a packed house at Madison Square Garden and daring him to censure her for it. After Eddie risks the job she loves and the cushiest salary she’s ever had in her life, it’s not just her team who backs her up. It’s the city of New York.

In Varsity Blues and The Longest Yard, the athletes in question are not millionaires. The audience doesn’t have to overcome feelings of class resentment to sympathize with them. But what happens when that’s not the case? What happens when the players in revolt are professionals who make piles and piles of money?

You use an intermediary.

Eddie received terrible reviews when it was released in 1996, but it’s really smart about one thing: It uses Eddie first as a vehicle for criticizing spoiled players. And then, once it’s clear that Eddie is a sports fan, just like the audience, the perspective of who is “good” and “bad” begins to shift. Once we see Eddie and the Knicks players as part of the same team, working toward the same goal of making the NBA playoffs, we’re willing to accept their revolt — which, again, is public — against Wild Bill.

There’s a delicate balance that’s achieved, and there’s a thoughtfulness in positioning Eddie this way. When she stands up to Wild Bill, she’s a fan advocating for other fans. Eddie comes the closest of these shows to placing fans (particularly the ones who have been vocal about wanting athletes to sit down and shut up) on the same side as the pro athletes who make so much more than they do. Even though the movie isn’t directly about race, it illustrates how being rich doesn’t automatically zero out the balance on life’s problems. It doesn’t matter how much money you make if your boss simply sees you as a moneymaking property, and that’s a sentiment any populist can get behind.

Colin Kaepernick goes from the accidental activist to the perfect plaintiff Suspecting collusion is one thing, proving it is quite another

A little over a year ago when asked by Steve Wyche about his decision to sit during the national anthem during a San Francisco 49ers preseason game, Colin Kaepernick responded, “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color.” These and subsequent comments have set the sports world on fire and have thrust Kap into his role as the Accidental Activist.

This and the firestorm of media attention that has surrounded Kaepernick and the NFL over the past year have made it nearly impossible for a consistent narrative to emerge about the underlying issue of why Kap decided to silently sit out the anthem in the first place: police brutality and oppression.

President Donald Trump recently hijacked the discussion by creating a narrative that serves his agenda of distraction by division. Trump created a false binary choice around NFL players’ decision to protest by kneeling during the anthem. You either stand or you’re not a patriot. You either stand or you are disrespecting the flag, the country and the military.

Kaepernick has taken Trump’s narrative along with some comments he made during an event in Kentucky in March — “NFL owners don’t want to pick him up because they don’t want to get a nasty tweet from Donald Trump.” — as the basis for a lawsuit against the NFL for collusion.

This lawsuit allows us to separate the issue of Kap’s employment from the issue of police and brutality and oppression that is at the heart of the players’ protest.

Kap is the perfect plaintiff for this case, even though he has an uphill battle in proving the claim, because of his ubiquity.

All owners, general managers and coaches in the league are well within their legal rights to pass on Kap if they believe that the downside due to the distractions associated with having him on the roster outweigh any benefits that his talent would bring to his team and teammates. It’s even cool if each and every one of them came to this conclusion completely on their own.

The problem is if any two people from two different teams or the league office had a discussion about the pros and cons of Kap and collectively came to a decision to pass.

The Undefeated’s senior NFL writer Jason Reid quoted American University Washington College of Law professor Susan D. Carle saying:

“[Kaepernick] would have to show that each of the teams, that they didn’t just on their own decide not to sign him but that at least two of them somehow had a communication and said, ‘We’re not going to pick him because he’s trouble. Let’s just kind of blackball him.’ He would have to have some evidence to show that.

“It doesn’t have to be a written memo. It could be an oral communication that somebody’s willing to testify about. If he had an ally on one of the teams who could say, ‘Yeah, I heard these [officials from two teams] say we’re going to stay away from him.’ That could be enough.”

The rules of engagement, as outlined by Carle, frame the claim in a way that we can now begin to discuss it without the emotions that often accompany it.

The issue around Kap’s case is not an individual team deciding that he’s bad for business or 32 teams independently coming to that conclusion on their own. It’s about whether or not two or more came to that conclusion collectively.

This is where the ubiquity of Kap works to his advantage. It would be difficult to believe that among the 32 owners, general managers, coaches and officials in the league office, including the commissioner himself, that at least one conversation didn’t take place regarding the distraction and business liability that Kap would bring to a franchise. If at least one of those conversations did indeed take place and it rose to the level of “I’m not going to touch him, and you shouldn’t either because he’s bad for business,” then that would definitely end up being REALLY bad for business.

Suspecting collusion is one thing, proving it is quite another. At least we now have a way of framing this issue in a way that can eventually bring it to a conclusion. Only time will tell.