The top 25 blackest sports moments of 2017 If you don’t understand why these moments are important, you might need more black friends

Black Friday. The day when people decide that the only way they can make themselves feel better about whatever they just went through with their families on Thanksgiving is with a whole lot of retail therapy. It’s the unofficial kickoff of the holiday shopping season, and according to the National Retail Federation, Americans are expected to spend an average of $967.13 each before the end of the year. That adds up to a cool $682 billion.

But forget all that. We black. So we’ll take this opportunity to reclaim our time and get back to using ham-handed puns for the culture. A point of clarification: There are a variety of items on this list. Some are groundbreaking accomplishments. Others are moments that made us laugh. A few are things that we might actually regret.

By the by, we’re doing this bad boy college football style. If you don’t understand why these moments are important, you might need more black friends.

Receiving votes

• Mississippi State’s Morgan William beats UConn with a buzzer-beater that shocked the college basketball world. Three years earlier, her stepfather, whom she called her dad, had passed away. He taught her how to ball.

• Bubba Wallace becomes the first black NASCAR Cup Series driver since Bill Lester in 2006. No, Bubba is not his given name. It’s Darrell. Insert your own conclusions as to why he needed a nickname at all.

No. 25: The Gonzalez twins bounce on UNLV

Instagram Photo

If you’ve somehow missed the Instagram megastars Dylan and Dakota Gonzalez, who transferred to Vegas from Kansas, where have you been? They’re the ones who Drake once showed up at a Pepperdine gym to see play. That aside, they make music. And it’s very good. So instead of battling over their final seasons of eligibility with the NCAA, who’d been hating from the get-go about the entire situation regarding their recording careers, they went pro. In singing. Don’t worry, grandma, they had already graduated anyways.

No. 24: Trey Songz tries his hand at NFL analysis

You might recall that after beating Washington’s NFL team, the New York Football Giants had a playoff game the next week against the Green Bay Packers. The Giants’ secondary didn’t look great, so Trigga Trey (who is a Skins fan, btw) decided to weigh in with the classic tweet: “DB’s weren’t on the yacht. Just a lil FYI.”

First of all, “just a lil fyi” is A-level Auntie Shade on full display as a matter of course, but let’s get back to that picture. OBJ is wearing fur-lined Timbs on a boat. Enough said.

No. 23: Cardale stunts on the haters

Remember when then-Ohio State Buckeye Cardale Jones basically intonated that he didn’t care about school? Or at least, that’s what y’all thought? Well, the current Los Angeles Chargers quarterback graduated this year, and none of you all can take that from him. *kisses fingers* Beautiful.

No. 22: Allen IVERSON returns to crush the Confederacy

We all remember the 2001 NBA Finals when Bubbachuck banged a trey in Tyronn Lue’s face, leading Lue to fall down, followed by Iverson giving him the stepover heard ’round the world. But to think to resurrect that for a toppled Confederate statue is nothing short of brilliant. I was legitimately moved.

No. 21: You ‘gon learn today, son

There are so many things going on in this video. It’s bunch ball kids hoops, which means that traveling and double dribble are not enforced, because kids just don’t get those rules early on. But you know what is enforced? Basket integrity. What you’re not gonna do is score on your own hoop. Now, mind you, this dude is already doing a lot for this level of coaching.

He’s wearing a tie for reasons that cannot be explained. He’s screaming his head off and waving his hands like it’s the NCAA tournament; and that’s before the kid takes off the wrong way with the rock. What happens next is a lesson that child will never, ever forget: the day his coach put him on his butt with a rejection so vicious that the grown man considered jumping to do it. Seriously, watch it again. Homey was ready to elevate.

No. 20: Bring. It. On.

I don’t follow cheerleading. All I know is that whenever I see these young folks flipping all over the place, it’s typically big, predominantly white institutions where the teams are used to being on TV, etc. Whatever. The ladies (and gentleman) of Savannah State University became the first historically black college or university to win the event, which began in 1997. My favorite part? They didn’t know that until after they took the crown.

No. 19: Nigel Hayes fights back

The Wisconsin hoopster wasn’t just playing in the NCAA tournament in March, he was also taking on the system in federal court over the concept of amateurism. He started off the season by saying, “We deserve to be paid,” still somehow a relatively controversial stance in the year of our Lord 2017. That aside, he had previously broken out the protest sign at ESPN GameDay with his Venmo account listed on it. By making noise in this year’s tournament, his cause got a lot more shine. He donated the money from the stunt to charity, so stop hating.

No. 18: The real Black Barbie

U.S. Olympic fencer Ibtihaj Muhammad was honored with her very own Barbie doll this year, complete with its own hijab. It’s not just about her having her own thing, it’s about what she said at the Glamour Women of the Year Summit. “There is so much focus on Muslim women in hijab, and oppression and being docile. This is flipping this entire bigoted narrative on its head,” she said, according to The New York Times.

No. 17: Oakley being Oakley

The former Knicks great did something that many fans of the team have been wanting to do for years. He popped off in front of the team owner and got a borderline face mush in while he did it. Of course, he also got dragged out of Madison Square Garden in cuffs, which is not a good look. Clearly, this was foul on many levels, but the fact that he was willing to take the whole team to court over the matter makes things that much funnier.

No. 16: The check cleared

Remember when Sloane Stephens won the US Open, and when they showed her the check, her whole situation changed? Yeah, that will happen when someone drops a couple million bucks on you. Playing tennis is great and all, but yeesh. That’s big money. And when she finally put out her official trophy photos, if you will, the caption was absolutely priceless.

No. 15: Chance and migos shooting hoops

For a certain generation, the photo of Jesse Jackson and Marvin Gaye playing hoops is a classic like none other. Two people otherwise known for different things out here hooping it up like any other Saturday. It’s almost uncanny how very similar these two photos are, in terms of subjects and style. My favorite part about it, though, clearly, is Offset. His mind is elsewhere but very focused.

No. 14: Black girl magic

If you don’t know who Carla Williams is, you should. She’s the University of Virginia’s new athletic director, the first black woman to hold the position at a Power 5 school. Considering what else has gone down in Charlottesville — and by that I mean white supremacists rallying and people ending up dead — this is a step in a direction we can all look forward to.

No. 13: Mike Jones. Who? MIKE JONES.

There are some phone numbers you’ll just never forget. 281-330-8004. You might recall that when Jimmy Butler went from the Chicago Bulls to the Minnesota Timberwolves, things got a bit awkward. So, in true “come see me” mode, he straight-up gave out his phone number during his introductory news conference in Minneapolis. Clearly, he’s changed his number since then. But if you’re looking for a way to ditch a lot of people in your life, this is a hilarious way to set up a legit “new phone, who dis” excuse.

No. 12: That’s Dr. Rolle to you, sir

Myron Rolle had a surefire NFL career ahead of him. But league execs got wind that he might not be all the way into the game, and his draft stock fell. Mind you, he was a freaking Rhodes scholar — it’s not like he wanted to become some traveling magician. Anyways, he decided to leave the NFL to become a doctor. This year he graduated from medical school. Maybe one day he can find a way to prevent concussions in football. No, seriously, he’s a neurosurgery resident.

No. 11: Field of Dreams

Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

When Gift Ngoepe finally broke through to the bigs this season, he became the first African-born player to do so in the history of major league baseball. And this wasn’t some “born in Africa, but really grew up in New Jersey” situation. Homeboy went to high school in Johannesburg. To top it off, he got a hit in his first MLB at-bat, which is statistically still an amazing feat on its own too.

No. 10: I said what I said

Kyle Lowry is a great dad and a fun dude, and he don’t play when it comes to his words. So when President Donald Trump put a ban on people from other countries who practice Islam from trying to set foot in this country, quite a few people spoke up. And this particular moment wasn’t just about the fact that he spoke up and cussed on the mic. It’s about the fact that when the oh-so-polite Canadian media asked him if he wanted to clean up his language, he broke them off.

No. 9: The real MVP

AP Photo/Eric Risberg

In 1999, when the U.S. women’s national soccer team won the World Cup, Brandi Chastain got a large bulk of the shine for hitting the penalty kick that sealed it. Many forget, however, that Briana Scurry made a save beforehand that made all that possible. She had an illustrious career overall, but eventually her life was nearly ruined by the effects of concussions. This year, she was elected to the National Soccer Hall of Fame, becoming the first black woman to earn that honor.

No. 8: She stayed as long as she wanted

AP Photo/Alex Brandon

Claire Smith is not only a pioneer as a black woman, she’s the first woman, period, who ever covered a major league baseball beat full time. The old story is that the Padres’ Steve Garvey, when Smith was routinely exiled by other players in MLB locker rooms, once stuck up for her, sticking around and publicly letting it be known, so she could get her job done. All these years later, Smith, now an ESPN employee, was given the J.G. Taylor Spink Award, the top honor for a baseball writer, this year during Hall of Fame weekend.

No. 7: He’s still gotten fined a couple times, tho

Marshawn Lynch is an American legend. He’s the first entry of our “people who just had tremendous years in blackness,” so they’ll get one entry with multiple examples of such. First of all, homeboy was eating chicken wings while he walked out on the field at a preseason game. And his reality show, as shown above, is the realest thing ever. Lastly, him dancing on the sideline for Oakland during a game is such a great moment.

No. 6: Let him celebrate

Look. I know he works for a rival network. But Shannon Sharpe is the man. His discussion about the situation in the NFL regarding pregame protests has been nothing short of incredible. But let’s be clear. We know why he’s on this list. His completely out-of-the-blue viral moment regarding Black & Milds and Cognac, with a side of Hennessy thrown in, has an outside argument for the medal stand on this list, if we’re being honest. Also, shouts to DJ Suede for this banger.

No. 5: Farewell, Mr. President

With President Barack Obama leaving office, there were quite a few moments that many people will treasure, but there were a couple of teams that definitely valued the fact that they were going to get to see 44 one more time before he left the White House. One was the San Antonio Spurs’ Kawhi Leonard, whose lovely artistic tweet expressed exactly how much it meant to him. But the most vicious move came from Dexter Fowler, who brought Obama a pair of custom Jordan brand sneakers as a gift. What a boss.

No. 4: UndefEATED. Never lost.

It’s almost impossible to overstate how big of a year this has been for the Ball family in general. Beyond Lonzo getting drafted No. 2 overall by the Los Angeles Lakers, the family launching a reality show, LaMelo getting his own signature shoe (and dropping an actual N-bomb during a WWE broadcast), the Big Baller Brand has actually been pretty successful, if their pop-up shops are any indication. But they took a knock when LiAngelo and his teammates were put under house arrest for a shoplifting incident in China.

But LaVar, being the man that he is, managed to flip that situation into an all-out verbal brawl with President Trump that landed Ball on CNN. What a marketing genius.

No. 3: Ante up

Look, when I first decided to make this list, I was going to put Aqib Talib at the top. I’m not even joking. When he decided that he was going to snatch Michael Crabtree’s chain on an NFL football field, I decided right then and there that this list needed to happen in whole. That said, the incident itself was amazing.

He didn’t even get penalized, because what’s a ref going to call? Chain snatching is a violation in the streets, not on the field. I’m sure there are still people who viewed this as a harmless prank, but the level of disrespect here is so high. And Aqib is a very active member of not only the hands community but also the toolie community, which means that people don’t want that action. Crabtree had no chance.

No. 2: She’s the G.O.A.T.

Once again, in any other year, and perhaps even in this one, in a singular sense, my favorite athlete of all time would be atop these rankings. Serena Williams has had an incredible year. She won her 10th Grand Slam since turning 30. She showed up randomly to a tennis court to hit balls with a couple of bros who were completely awestruck. She then appeared on the cover of Vanity Fair, revealing that she was pregnant when she won the Australian Open earlier in the year.

The baby has now joined us, and Alexis Olympia is adorbs, clearly. Serena is so awesome. Oh, yeah, and her wedding was completely bananas.

No. 1: Colin Kaepernick

There was no responsible way around saying that Colin Kaepernick’s had the blackest year in sports. His actions regarding the national anthem in football have set off a flurry of activity so huge that every person in America has an opinion about his actions. On that strength alone, you’d have to say his protest was effective. I don’t care about the interior chalk talk of whether or not police are actually less racist. That’s not Kap’s job to fix.

Demonstrations. Jerry Jones nearly losing his mind. The president going completely haywire at a speaking event. Hockey players, 8-year-olds, cheerleaders, high schoolers, basketball players and, yo, German soccer players all found their way to make a statement.

Oh yeah, GQ named him the Citizen of the Year. Even Tomi Lahren understands why.

 

Are we entering the end times for the NFL? Professional basketball offers the NFL a blueprint for success: embrace the black culture of the majority of your players

The National Football League, the American sport that comes closest to resembling a religion, has its end times in sight: the year 2021. “The likelihood,” NFL Players Association executive director DeMaurice Smith said in August, “of either a strike, or a lockout is in ’21 a virtual certainty.”

Doomsdays. Humanity has always been obsessed with them.

Every religious text has mention of the end times. In just the past 30 years, we’ve survived Halley’s comet, Y2K, the end of the Mayan calendar and the rapture that was supposed to happen in September. But nothing lasts forever. The NFL has survived lockouts and strikes before and has seemed like Teflon for the past decade with sky-high broadcast ratings, massive revenues and an annual American holiday called Super Bowl Sunday. But the league has serious competition for American pastime status from the National Basketball Association.

This may seem far-fetched now, while the NFL’s television ratings lead the NBA’s by a wide margin (although numbers were down last season, and some wonder whether television ratings, in a streaming world, matter as much as they used to). And the NBA doesn’t have anything close to dominating a whole day in America like the Super Bowl. But the NBA, which is as popular as ever in this social media era, continues to embrace an important fact about American culture: Black culture and black people determine cool. Cool resists linear structures. If the NFL wants to maintain its dominance, it needs to embrace black culture or get left behind. Just like baseball.


Let’s be clear: The 2017 NBA Finals between the Golden State Warriors and the Cleveland Cavaliers was the league’s most watched Finals since Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls played the Utah Jazz in 1998. But the average 20.4 million viewers who tuned into each game is equal to the average viewership for a single Sunday Night Football game in 2016. And the NFL is still an unmitigated cash cow, with a net worth of more than $13 billion, dwarfing the NBA’s $6 billion figure. The average NFL franchise is worth $2.5 billion. Worth of the average NBA franchise: $1.36 billion, a 3.5-fold increase over the past five years. Over at Major League Baseball, the average team is worth $1.54 billion, but 50 percent of viewers are 55 or older, up from 41 percent in 2010. And in its defense, the MLB can still captivate the country when it has historic World Series matchups like last year’s battle between Cinderellas in the Chicago Cubs and Cleveland Indians. And they almost doubled back with a monster championship series between the Yankees and Dodgers if the former hadn’t lost to the Houston Astros. ESPN data shows the average age of baseball viewers at 53. The average age is 47 for the NFL, and it’s rising. The average age is 37 for the NBA, and it seems to be staying there. Baseball’s television ratings continue to trend downward.

Howard Bryant, ESPN senior writer and author of Shut Out: A Story of Race and Baseball in Boston, summarizes the NFL’s stance in relation to the NBA and MLB: “Post-ABA merger,” he says, “basketball has done by far the best job of adapting to the people who play the sport, baseball the worst. The NFL has been in between, leaning towards a bad job.”

Why might the NFL be on its way to becoming MLB? Because the NFL is looking at a 2021 season that may not even be played. Because the NFL’s ostensibly mainstream stars — Tom Brady, Drew Brees and Eli Manning — who have dominated the past decade, are getting old. And many kids are being steered away from playing the game in its tackle form. “Participation has dropped,” Mark Murphy said in January. He’s president and CEO of the Green Bay Packers and a board member at USA Football. “There’s concern among parents about when is the right age to start playing tackle, if at all.” In a recent (nonrandom) study of NFL players, 110 out of 111 brains examined showed signs of the degenerative brain disease chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE).

But the NFL could spiral mostly because, perhaps more than at any other time in pro football history, the league is at a crossroads when it comes to race. League news right now leads with racial conflict. Players are protesting. NFL commissioner Roger Goodell and owners are somewhere between demanding and begging them not to. And in the middle, fans fight over whose boycott of the NFL is actually having an impact on the ratings, if any at all.

“The NBA has caught up or passed the NFL on the cool factor. Whether that translates on the revenue side, that’s hard to know.” — Andrew Brandt, director, Moorad Center for Sports Law at Villanova

Free agent Colin Kaepernick, to bring attention to systemic racism and police brutality, opted on Aug. 14, 2016, not to stand for the national anthem. This has placed the NFL at the center of a discussion about race and sports. Kaepernick’s protest has spread around the world, from European soccer games to Midwestern high school football games. By most accounts, the NFL has botched the handling of the protests. A year later, Kaepernick isn’t in the league despite evidence of him being good enough to start on some teams, and he could surely be a backup.

The reason the anti-protest backlash has become so impactful for the black community is because there’s an understanding of what the fervor about protests is really about—silence. There are contradictions in just about every sentiment of outrage about the protests. Just look at the viral image of an NFL fan wearing a “I stand for the National Anthem” shirt while sitting on a flag. And at the fact that the NFL didn’t even start requiring players to stand for the Anthem until 2009—after the Department of Defense paid the league $5.4 million for “paid patriotism.” And at the fact the NFL actually violates flag codes in some of their representations of patriotism. Jerry Jones himself sat during the anthem at his first Cowboys game, in 1989. And Donald Trump’s finger-pointing at players (and owners) doesn’t erase the fact he insulted John McCain for being a prisoner of war and has lied about calling Gold Star military families who lost soldiers in battle this year. The anger over protests isn’t about patriotism, it’s about silencing black athletes. Steps the NFL may or may not make to quell protests will be seen as an endorsement of that silence.

On Oct. 15, Kaepernick filed a formal grievance against the NFL alleging collusion by team owners. “I think he should be on a roster right now, the Packers’ Aaron Rodgers said in August. “I think because of his protests, he’s not.” Jay-Z rocks a custom Kaepernick jersey on Saturday Night Live, and his actual jersey leads the 49ers’ sales, even though he hasn’t taken a snap for them this season. Kaepernick’s likeness rules the streets. All the while, Kaep rarely speaks, instead continuing his push to donate a million dollars of his own money to various charities across the country, volunteering to donate backpacks to students and suits to parolees. Without so much as a news conference, Kaepernick is part of a daily news cycle, thanks to a massive social media following that watches his every move.

What Kaepernick is learning is something NBA players have known for years: Their social media channels are the best ways to get their points across. So when NBA commissioner Adam Silver sent out a memo reinforcing the rule that players had to stand for the anthem, NBA players (J.R. Smith notwithstanding) mostly took it in stride. That’s because they understand their social impact reaches further than the average NFL player’s. (Odell Beckham Jr., with 9 million Instagram followers, has the most by far of any NFL player.)

LeBron James, who has 39 million Twitter followers and 33 million Instagram followers, expressed that much in a news conference after he called Donald Trump a “bum” on Twitter: “My voice … is more important than my knee. What I say should hit home for a lot of people [to] know where I stand. I don’t believe I have to get on my knee to further what I’m talking about.”

The NBA, its individual players, and fan community have used social media to become a 12-month sport.

Stephen Curry #30 of the Golden State Warriors goes to the basket against the Houston Rockets on October 17, 2017 at ORACLE Arena in Oakland, California.

Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images

And that’s where the NBA dominates the NFL: at social media, where everything is happening. On Facebook, Instagram and Twitter, NBA teams have an average of more than 7 million followers, while NFL franchises average 4.6 million. Even during the NFL’s last season, there were more hashtags on Twitter dedicated to the NBA. In 2016, Forbes ranked the top athletes on social media: Four of the top 10 players were from the NBA, and the rest were international soccer stars. NFL players didn’t crack the top 10. The NBA social media connection allows players to enter lives and households in new and intimate ways.

Another major reason for the NBA’s ability to lap the NFL in social media is the NFL’s draconian rules about sharing videos online. Last October, the league sent out a memo barring teams from posting clips or GIFs of games. Teams that did so would be fined up to $100,000. While teams such as the Atlanta Falcons use clips from Madden video games to “show” highlights every Sunday, the NFL’s hard line limits many teams’ ability to deeply connect with fans where they are — which is, so much of the time, on their phones.

“The NBA is the more progressive league when it comes to digital,” said Jaryd Wilson, digital content manager for the Atlanta Hawks. The Hawks have become an online darling thanks to creative Twitter posts and engagement with fans online. “In-game highlights are our highest digital performers and our most engaging types of content.”

The NFL’s limits on social media, and teams’ subsequent mockery of the decision, exposes a blind spot about American culture. African-Americans dominate what’s trendy on social media, and if “Black Twitter” determines that something is viral, it often becomes an American cultural phenomenon. Think of phrases such as “lit” and “on fleek” or crazes like the mannequin challenge — these began in blackness. On any given week, a new black-centered sensation, such as the NSFW #ForTheD challenge that dominated social media last month, takes over the country.

The NFL had that viral moment with Cam Newton doing his signature dabbing celebration in 2015, but he was as chastised for it as he was celebrated. Letters were written to newspapers about his “pelvic thrusts,” and Newton’s “arrogance” became the center of the story. And after a humbling Super Bowl loss to the Denver Broncos, Newton seemed put in his place. Instead of embracing him, the NFL demonstrated that it didn’t understand what moves the needle in American culture. It cut down one of its viral superstars — something the NBA just doesn’t do.

“The NBA has been significantly ahead of other leagues in diversity since the ’80s, and excitement has grown since.”

“Diversity is very important to us,” said the Hawks’ Wilson. “We know our demographic, and our audience, and it is about keeping up with those trends. We always think about how can we tap into diverse communities while trying to push ourselves forward.” It affects the Hawks’ bottom line significantly. The organization has taken things a step further by offering a full-on embrace of Atlanta music: acts such as T.I., Gucci Mane and Big Boi perform at halftimes throughout the season, which has resulted in increased ticket sales and price inflation every time a concert is announced. The Hawks’ Philips Arena is even now home to rapper Killer Mike’s Swag barbershop.

The NBA understands that rock is no longer the dominant genre of music. Last year’s Finals marketing soundtrack featured songs from Kendrick Lamar’s DAMN. while the NFL featured the return of Hank Williams Jr. — who was dropped from ESPN’s Monday Night Football six years ago for likening President Barack Obama to Adolf Hitler. And while the NBA features a list of rap stars and rhythm and blues singers during All-Star Weekend festivities, this year the Super Bowl will feature Justin Timberlake, whose last, 2004 Super Bowl performance featured him pulling off a piece of Janet Jackson’s clothing, exposing her breast. Whether or not the move was planned, it went awry, and Jackson caught the backlash as Timberlake’s career flourished. These kinds of things resonate, and the NFL’s de facto pardoning of Timberlake is another reminder to the black consumer that the league doesn’t cherish their concerns the way the NBA so often does.

“The NBA has caught up or passed the NFL on the cool factor,” said Andrew Brandt, director of the Moorad Center for the Study of Sports Law at the Villanova University and host of The Business Of Sports podcast. “Whether that translates on the revenue side, that’s hard to know.”

Yet, even as black America is ravaged by socioeconomic disparities, a 2015 Nielsen study explains that we’ve reached a tipping point with regard to black economic influence. “Today’s American mainstream is rapidly changing, and that change can be attributed in part to the growth and activities of African-Americans in the marketplace. Social media and the internet have become go-to communications platforms for African-American stories and content.” The study goes on to state that black consumer power is growing at unprecedented levels, reaching $1.2 trillion in 2015, a 275 percent increase from 1990. So the appeal to the black consumer is about more than just what’s “cool.” It’s about a consumer base that is increasingly vital.


The NBA season kicked off last Tuesday with a display of the chokehold professional basketball has on compelling storylines. LeBron James faced off against his former teammate and passive-aggressive foe Kyrie Irving. The Warriors lost a buzzer-beater to the newly constructed Houston Rockets that now boast Chris Paul — all while a Klay Thompson doppelgänger was the social media joke of the night. But the NBA’s offseason was almost as entertaining, full of memed stories and social media buzz, from the petty feud between Irving and James to Thompson’s Ferris Bueller’s Day Off-like adventures in China, Hoodie ’Melo and Kevin Durant’s bizarre Twitter dramas. The NBA, its individual players and fan community have used social media to become a 12-month sport.

Meanwhile, the NFL is years-deep into a seemingly never-ending barrage of Spygate, Bountygate and Deflategate. There was the Ray Rice domestic abuse case. Accusations about covering up CTE analysis. All of this, though, seemed only to slightly dent the NFL’s impenetrable shield: People seemed to have accepted the judge and jury status of Goodell, the misogyny and abusive history of too many players who continue to play despite domestic abuse cases, and folks kind of knew that playing football was damaging to athletes in the long term. But Kaepernick’s protest and its fallout illuminated a sharp and deep conflict within the NFL—and among its fans—that many weren’t expecting.

“Go back to Ken Griffey Jr. wearing his hat backwards in batting practice and they all lost their minds.” — Howard Bryant

An Oct. 11 study by The New York Times makes clear that the NFL is now one of the “most divisive” brands in America. The league doesn’t have to choose between its black players and white audience, but it does have to find a middle ground between black players and fans, and its white fans, a dilemma unique to the National Football League. The NFL is the only major male American sport that has mostly black players and a mostly white audience. The NFL is 67 percent black, but its audience is measured at 77 percent white. And although the league is two-thirds black, its top stars are white. In 2015, seven of the NFL’s nine top endorsement earners were white. Since then, black athletes such as Cam Newton and Odell Beckham Jr. have stormed the top ranks, but endorsements largely focus on quarterbacks. The New York Giants are the only team in the NFL that has never started a black quarterback. Of the 32 teams in the NFL, there were six black starting quarterbacks as of Week 7.

But by the time of the 2021 labor negotiations, the aforementioned Brady/Brees/Rodgers/Manning quadrumvirate will be out of the league. Andrew Luck, Derek Carr and Marcus Mariota are the quarterbacks most poised to be the league’s next torchbearers, and with them are Russell Wilson, Jameis Winston and Dak Prescott. So what happens when the faces of the league are as black as the rest of the players? How the NFL reacts will determine the future of the sport. Major League Baseball and the National Basketball Association have both been at the same racial crossroads. One league offers the NFL a blueprint for success, and the other a cautionary tale.


The NBA has had multiple eras in which it has had to realign based on demographics and its top stars. In 1979, three years after the NBA merged with the ABA, the league had a nearly identical demographic makeup as the NFL. Seventy-five percent of the NBA’s players were black, up from 60 percent a decade before, and only two of the league’s top 20 scorers were white. At the same time, 75 percent of the audience was white. Attendance was down, as were ratings, to the tune of a 26 percent decrease against the previous season. A 1979 Sports Illustrated article titled There’s An Ill Wind Blowing For The NBA laid out the question plainly: Is the NBA too black?

The article examined the feeling among fans and some owners that black athletes were “undisciplined,” “overpaid” and played “playground basketball” — all dog whistles. An unnamed executive was quoted: “The question is, are they [the black players] promotable? People see them dissipating their money, playing without discipline. How can you sell a black sport to a white public?”

There was a time when it seemed impossible for major league baseball to fall out of favor as the leading American sport.

The NBA answered that question two ways. One, David Stern became commissioner in 1984. “Stern said, ‘I’m just going to put the best people on the floor,’ and he said the same thing for the front office,” said Richard Lapchick, founder/director of The Institute for Diversity and Ethics In Sports (TIDES). “The NBA has been significantly ahead of other leagues in diversity since the ’80s, and excitement has grown since.”

The league also lucked up by being able to lean into its racial divide with a ready-made rivalry between the bombastic and very black Los Angeles Lakers, led by Magic Johnson, and Larry Bird’s Boston Celtics. Stern, to his credit, embraced the clash, marketing the rivalry and letting the racial subtext become one of the main storylines. The league rode that popularity through the ’80s and ’90s with respectable black stars like Michael Jordan who didn’t upset the American status quo. Jordan was, in many ways, the perfect black athlete for corporate America. He stayed out of politics, seemed nonthreatening, and was a money machine.

Then came the NBA’s next racial crossroads: Allen Iverson. AI, the anti-Jordan, had cornrows, tattoos, jewelry — and he just did it his way. Iverson tested the limits of Stern’s acceptance of black culture. Iverson was from the ’hood, had been embroiled in a nasty fight before going to college, and didn’t bother cleaning up his language. While the NBA struggled with Iverson’s imaging, Reebok embraced his persona, tying their AI shoe to urban culture. They called it The Answer, and it was a monumental success.

A generation of athletes looked up to Iverson. And as those players mimicked his style, the NBA cracked down. In 2005, Stern instituted a dress code for the NBA, making players drop the baggy clothes and dress business casual. LeBron James, just entering his third year, was amenable to the change: “No it’s not a big deal, not to me.” The usually reserved Tim Duncan had stronger thoughts: “I think it’s a load of crap.” Of course now NBA players are the most style-forward athletes in the world. Every night is a runway show.

In 2014, when a tape of the Clippers’ then-owner Donald Sterling uttering racial slurs leaked online, new commissioner Silver was quick and decisive, issuing a lifetime ban. It was the only viable option. The fans were ready for Sterling (who had a long history of animus toward African-Americans) to go, and the Warriors’ Stephen Curry had planned on walking out during a game if Sterling kept his status. There could be no wiggle room. In fairness, the NBA had to work out many of its racial battles before the era of social media. So while the league’s virtual expulsion of Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf in the mid-’90s was just as despicable as what’s happening to Kaepernick, the league didn’t have to fight those issues in real time on social media, like the NFL does now.

“There’s a cottage industry in predicting and hoping for some sort of downfall in the NFL due to concussions, or domestic violence or whatever the latest crisis people seem to make of it,” said Brandt. “I kind of smile when I hear that, because we’ve been talking about that for a long time and NFL continues to grow financially.”

But it’s important to remember that there was a time when it seemed impossible for major league baseball to fall out of favor as the leading American sport. There are numerous reasons for baseball’s dwindling cultural impact: steroid scandals, strikes and shrinking attention spans. However, it’s undeniable that baseball’s lack of connection with America as a whole is directly tied to its refusal to embrace black culture.

“You go back to Ken Griffey Jr. wearing his hat backwards in batting practice and they all lost their minds,” said ESPN’s Bryant. “It was the greatest threat to the integrity of the game because the best player in the game, who all the young people loved and wanted to emulate, was doing something cool, and they shot it down. That was baseball’s last opportunity to catch people and be hip to Madison Avenue, because drugs ruined the game for the next 25 years.”

Baseball’s tacit insistence upon “tradition” and unspoken rules are all too often coded language for a refusal to accept cultural norms that aren’t firmly white American. Bat flips and celebrations are seen as being anti-baseball when they’re really bits of culture inserted by nonwhite athletes. In 2015, Chris Rock landed a scalding indictment of baseball’s popularity during a video for HBO’s Real Sports.

Calling himself an “endangered species, a black baseball fan,” Rock insists that baseball’s focus on its history, a history that excluded African-Americans for the first half of the 20th century, is a turnoff for black fans who aren’t into a time when only white players were allowed to play. And Rock suggests that baseball will fall further away from mainstream popularity as long as it continues to ignore the black fan and players. “Maybe if baseball can get a little hipper, a little cooler and just a little more black, the future can change,” he said in the monologue. “But until then, blacks and baseball just ain’t a good match anymore. Blacks don’t seem to care, but baseball should be terrified.”

The NFL may be gaining an understanding of its need to let black players express themselves to their fans. The league has loosened up the penalties for touchdown celebrations, which has so often been a vibrant space for black player expression and trash talk on the field. Now, players can celebrate while using the football as a prop, celebrate as a team and celebrate on the ground, which were previously 15-yard penalties. And the ESPN Twitter account promoted a Week 5 Packers vs. Cowboys game with a video of battle rappers DNA and K-Shine rhyming about their favorite teams at a barbershop. It’s a start, and a sign that the NFL is inching toward some of the cool points that the NBA snatched. But with Kaepernick still unemployed, the league, stuck in its ways, continues to scramble without a sophisticated strategy or uniform approach in place.

Doomsdays. Humanity has always been obsessed with them. But the NFL is at a crossroads at a time when black culture is simultaneously as powerful, relevant and under attack as at any point in American history. What side of that history is the NFL going to stand — or kneel — on? The almighty National Football League has decisions to make, and so do its players and fans.

Neil deGrasse Tyson to Kyrie Irving: “I’m glad you play basketball instead of serve as head of NASA” Astrophysicist is pop culture’s ultimate superfan

Celebrity astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson likes to talk. Loves it. When you ask the New York native and director of the Hayden Planetarium a question, his voice lights up. Whether it’s about science or popular culture, Tyson is eager to educate, often offering more than you even asked for.

The fourth season of National Geographic’s StarTalk, his hit late-night talk show (née podcast) that features the likes of Bill Clinton and Terry Crews, premieres Oct. 15. “I care deeply about what role pop culture plays in hearts, minds and souls,” said DeGrasse. StarTalk mixes science with comedy with interesting conversation for a show both entertaining and educational — but most importantly, accessible. “I can start where you are, what you bring to the table, and I just add to that,” he said. “I think that’s part of the successful recipe of StarTalk.”

What’s a bad habit that you have?

I’m always aware of bad habits, so I’ve probably gotten rid of it already. I have an unrealistic attraction to kettle chips. The crunchier chips, [fried] in peanut oil, no shortage of salt — is that a flaw? Is it a bad habit, or is it just a habit? The real question is, if anyone has a bad habit, why haven’t they done anything about it yet if they are self-aware it is bad? I used to twirl my hair when I was a kid, but then I stopped. I notice when other people are twirling their hair, it’s interesting. I empathize with them.

“Dwayne Johnson. I used to have a body that kind of resembled his body.”

Kyrie Irving once said that the world is flat, although he later admitted to (supposedly) trolling. What would you say to him about this?

We live in a free country, where you can think and feel what you want, provided it doesn’t violate someone else’s freedoms. I greatly value that. So to Kyrie Irving I would say, ‘I’m glad you play basketball instead of serve as head of NASA.’ It’s a reminder there are jobs for people who have no idea what science is or how and why it works. And in his case, basketball is serving him well. The problem comes about if you are not scientifically literate, hold nonscientific views and rise to power over legislation and laws that would then affect us all. That’s the recipe for social and cultural disaster.

What’s the last museum you visited? Do you find yourself going to museums often?

I very much enjoy museums. The last museum I went to that was not local in New York City … it was an art museum in Sydney, Australia. There was a whole section that had aboriginal art, not only of Australians but also some from the Maori tribes of New Zealand.

“I have an unrealistic attraction to kettle chips. The crunchier chips, fried in peanut oil, no shortage of salt — is that a flaw?”

What is your favorite social media spot?

Lately, I have to say Twitter because of the value I derive from it. I have these random thoughts every day, and Twitter is a means by which I share these thoughts with the public. And in an instant, I get to see people’s reactions. Were they offended? Did they laugh? Did they misinterpret it? Did they overinterpret it? So I get a neurosynaptic snapshot of how people react to thoughts that I have. And this deeply informs public talks that I give. It’s my way to get inside people’s heads without violating their space.

People go to your Twitter feed to learn, so it’s nice to hear that you enjoy learning from your followers.

It’s not like I’m Professor Neil on Twitter. I tweet about a lot of really random things. People say, ‘Why don’t you give us the latest news?’ I’m not a news source. If I don’t think about that news today, you ain’t getting a tweet about it. I don’t start the day saying, ‘What am I going to tweet today? Let me think something up.’ No, it’s random. … You just happen to be eavesdropping in my brain. Before the end of the month I’ll be engaging in my Instagram account. I’ve yet to post to it. I deeply value photographic arts. It’ll mostly be artsy things, more artsy than purely educational. Then I write my own little caption about it.

So no pictures of your dinner?

If the dinner evokes some cosmic thought, yes, you’ll get a picture of my dinner. Otherwise, no.

If you could be any athlete, dead or alive, who would you be?

I think about Jesse Owens often. I think about Jackie Robinson often. Simply because of how great they were at what they did, how honed they were in their performance and the fact that their existence meant more than their performance. In other words, the whole was greater than the sum of their parts: great athlete, at an important time, doing an important thing, having an influence on people in a positive direction.

Have you ever been starstruck?

I was a little bit starstruck when I interviewed Jeremy Irons. There are movies he’s been in where I just — how can you be this good in that role? How is that even possible? And just to shake his hand and interview him for StarTalk, that meant a lot to me. And here’s one you won’t expect. I’ve never met him, but I’d be delighted to. I’ve got him on my short list: Dwayne Johnson. I used to have a body that kind of resembled his body. He’s beefier in the last two years than he was about 10 years ago, when he was actually wrestling. He beefed up extra for the Fast and the Furious series, so not in that state, but in an earlier state, of Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson. When I looked like that, no one was interviewing me in the newspapers. No one was asking to publish my books. So he’s a modern reminder of a lost chapter of my life.

When you were wrestling in high school, did you want to become a pro wrestler?

No. No, no, no. No! You want to talk about physics — physics in pro wrestling is what allows things to look like they hurt when they don’t. But it’s the laws of physics exploited to fool you, rather than exploited to win.

What sport do you most enjoy watching, from a purely physical standpoint?

I like many. And there is physics in all sports, so I don’t rank them in this way. In fact, StarTalk because of the success of our shows where we cover sports, we spun off an entire branch called Playing With Science. It’s all the ways science has touched sports. We talk about famous catches, famous hits. We do talk about concussions. We brought in a neuroscientist to talk about [concussions] from football. We talk about NASCAR and the technology involved with that. We talk about the physics of driving around a track. There’s a lot of fun physics in essentially everything, you know why? Because there’s physics in everything.

This conversation has been edited for clarity and length.

‘Ballers’ recap: Oakland? Miami? Las Vegas? Spencer is home again In the season finale, everybody’s looking for a new start

SEASON THREE, EPISODE 10 | “YAY AREA” | SEPT. 24

There’s no question that Marshawn Lynch would pour up some Hennessy with Spencer Strasmore. Because, in the end, Spencer did everything he could to prevent the NFL from turning its back on The Town.

In the first nine episodes of season three of Ballers, Spencer (Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson) dedicates himself to leading the charge on relocating the Oakland Raiders from the Bay Area to Las Vegas (which was approved in the real-life NFL earlier this year). In Sunday’s season finale, however, Spencer experiences a huge change of heart after his business partner, Las Vegas hotel tycoon Wayne Hastings Jr. (Steve Guttenberg), pulls a last-minute okeydoke by pledging his checkbook and resources to a competing group also seeking to deliver the NFL to Sin City.

Yet in a presentation in front of NFL owners and executives, including the beautifully cutthroat Candace Brewer (Emayatzy Corinealdi) — the only woman and person of color on the committee of league representatives, mind you — Spencer, Joe Krutel (Rob Corddry), their boss Brett Anderson (Richard Schiff) and his deep-pockets little brother Julian Anderson (Steven Weber), who’s called in at the 11th hour for reinforcement, explain why “the reality is, the Oakland Raiders, they need to stay in Oakland.” His group argues against relocating a third NFL team in two years (after the Rams left St. Louis and the Chargers left San Diego) by proposing a new, state-of-the-art stadium to be built in Oakland, which would be privately funded.

After deliberation, the league approves the privately funded stadium — but in Las Vegas, not Oakland, leaving Spencer with a huge choice to make: Will he continue to support the Vegas push after the NFL screwed him out of his new Oakland plan? Or will he return to Miami to continue his work as the beloved financial and social adviser to NFL players?

Before the episode gets to what the future holds for Spencer, two of his clients, Ricky Jerret (John David Washington) and Charles Greane (Omar Benson Miller), reach the brink of huge decisions themselves. Charles takes a meeting with the Los Angeles Rams for the team’s open general manager position, while Ricky takes to his Instagram Stories, with his pregnant girlfriend, Amber, to announce his retirement from the NFL, telling the world that he’s picking a new life as a father over a “roller coaster of a career” full of concussions.

Although Brett and Julian Anderson don’t want to pass up on the opportunity to spearhead the construction of a new Raiders stadium in Las Vegas, Spencer chooses loyalty over money and power by backing out of the deal. He and Joe return to the Anderson Sports Management offices in Miami, where his team is packing up boxes under the impression that the company will be sold to fund the Las Vegas stadium. Yet Spencer announces that not only will the company be retained, but expansion across the country and to encompass more athletes from different sports is also in store.

But maybe as Charles moves up in the front-office ranks of the NFL, and Ricky moves on to a life after football, they won’t need an adviser anymore. We all know, however, that Spencer will still need them.

Why this mom allows her 12-year-old son to play tackle football CTE and head injuries are terrifying, but the team dynamics help the whole family

I have learned to dread the month of August. The sticky, swampy heat that blankets Washington, D.C., doesn’t bother me much, nor do I dread the countdown to summer’s end. Like many parents, I’ll trade a stretch of 90-degree weather for the peace, quiet and order of having my children where they belong: in a classroom.

Every day in August, my son Blake, 12, suits up in pads, helmet and mouthguard for football practice in his 115-pound division in our local tackle league. It’s his third year in the league, and his first playing slot back on offense and defensive end for the team. Weekly scrimmages have started, game films are being watched and studied, and updated copies of the head coach’s playbook arrive in my email inbox on the regular.

To be clear, I’m not a fan of Blake playing tackle football. His father (my ex-husband) and I argue about it every year — before, during and after the season. The risks for kids getting hurt are too great, I say, especially as they get older and play against bigger, faster and meaner opponents. My ex and I agree that the data about chronic traumatic encephalopathy (also known as CTE, a degenerative brain disease found in athletes, military veterans and others with repetitive brain trauma) and neurological injuries in professional players are horrific. Recent findings by Boston University are terrifying: CTE was found in the brains of nearly all of the deceased professional football players studied. More and more professional football players, as well as athletes in other sports, are now refusing to let their own children play tackle.

To be clear: I’m not a fan of my son playing tackle football.

Yet, despite weeks of arguing, pleading and attempts at bribery, I gave in. I’m once again on board the tackle train. Why? Because Blake loves the game and wants to play. And my ex makes a valid point that the game of football has changed since we were kids. He says it’s being taught differently, and measures are in place to avoid excessive hitting, especially during practice.

Still, my elder son, Cole, went on the record years ago about hating tackle, much to the dismay of every football coach we’ve ever met. Cole is a 6-foot-5, 190-pound bruiser at age 14, but he’s made no bones about not liking the violent contact required by the sport. Good to know, my G. Because if you hate hitting or being hit, football cannot be your thing.

The problem is that there are few sports that can guarantee a zero risk of injury, including gymnastics, cheerleading (it apparently ranks very high in catastrophic sports injuries), baseball, lacrosse and soccer. Just this past season, two of Blake’s AAU basketball teammates got concussions after diving for loose balls and hitting their heads on the hard court. That’s one more than his football team suffered all last year. Head injuries happen in sports, obviously. One friend’s 16-year-old soccer-obsessed son got a concussion from a header during a game. Doctors eventually inserted a permanent metal rod into his right arm after two bad breaks from rough play. Another friend’s son played rugby at Middlebury College; his on-field concussion was severe enough that he has since quit the sport for good.

Mama has been seated on the sidelines for the past two seasons chasing a Xanax with peppermint latte.

But while Mama has been seated on the sidelines for the past two seasons chasing a Xanax with peppermint latte, football has been teaching Blake valuable skills. He’s learned about teamwork, pushing through emotional pain, being a gracious loser and sticking together with colleagues through adversity. He has respect for the trustworthy older men who are coaches and assistant coaches. As an African-American woman, my concerns for my black sons can be overwhelming. Having additional adult role models in my “village” helps ease my anxiety (somewhat) about the risks to teenage boys, including racial strife, unethical police and judicial officers, and the high rates of drug use among black youth.

Another upside to letting the lad play tackle football? What he’s not doing. The hours that Blake spends on the field at games and practice are hours away from a television and cable TV, wireless devices and social media.

Toni L. Sandys/The Washington Post via Getty Images

Talking to Blake about getting injured while playing football turned out to be a great opportunity to discuss things we often take for granted, such as good health and true sportsmanship. Seeing a whole team take a knee on the field when a player is hurt can be profoundly touching. It’s the type of kind, empathetic gesture I wish happened in many other areas of our daily lives.

But I don’t need a list of excuses to let my kid play football. I’m not a head-in-the-sand kind of mother. I balance worry with being the kind of parent who is mindful and encouraging. At least until next summer when the battle begins again. Maybe that’s the summer Mama wins.