The Undefeated does 2017 The highs, the lows and the must-reads

Here at The Undefeated, we spent a trying 2017 attempting to cover the world through your eyes. We had the Colin Kaepernick saga on lock, the NFL protests covered. We learned from Timberwolves center Gorgui Dieng that “the biggest misconception is people thinking Muslims are terrorists.” We reveled at Whitley Gilbert’s wardrobe and watched Tarik Cohen shine at North Carolina A&T before he was a rookie standout with the Chicago Bears. We showed you chic street style at Afropunk, brought back Drumline and demonstrated that love knows no color. 2017 was a tough year, but TU brought it to you, warts and all.

Hey, 2017, we’d hate to miss you but love to watch you leave.

Experiences

Collage of significant black Americans

The Undefeated 44 most influential black Americans in history A collection of dreamers and doers, noisy geniuses and quiet innovators, record-breakers and symbols of pride and aspiration.

Sports

Artist rendition of LeBron James making his way to the court from the locker rooms

LeBron Is Crowned On a Detroit night, about a decade ago — via 48 points in double overtime — LeBron graduated from ‘phenom’ to ‘grown man’

Culture

Artist rendition of Whitley

Whitley’s World “You can’t unsee A Different World. You’ve seen it, it’s kind of engraved in your psyche.”

HBCUs

Photo of the Honey Beez performing

Alabama State Honey Beez bring positive plus-size attitude to HBCU dance scene “Where one of us lacks, the other one will pick up. We’re plus-size girls and we still go through bullying in college. But we’re more confident now, so it’s not as bad. But we have a real sisterhood, and this is our home away from home. The Honey Beez took me all the way out of my shell, and I love it.”

The Uplift

Serge Ibaka and his daughter in a pool

NBA standout Serge Ibaka is a standout single father too “Since I was young I always dreamed of myself traveling, envisioned at least three, four kids, five. And then, I’m living my dream right now and something I always love to do, and it’s fun. It’s really changed my life. It’s changed everything about me. The way I think and the way I live my life. It changed everything.”

Videos

Leon Bridges at his piano

Leon Bridges sings his rendition of the national anthem The critically acclaimed soul singer explores the themes of the anthem, creating a beautiful rendition that feels like both a hymn and a benediction

Original Photography

Woman with a wig made of pink flowers

Inside Afropunk “They’re just the ‘standard of beauty’ and here you can be what you want and THAT’S beauty.”

Podcasts

The Plug podcast logo

The Plug It’s the debut of The Plug, hosted by Chiney Ogwumike, Kayla Johnson, Justin Tinsley and Tesfaye Negussie. In episode 1, the crew dives into current events, discuss LaVar Ball’s latest news, NFL social activism and more. Plus, hip-hop icons Jadakiss and Fabolous join.

  • All Day – The Undefeated Podcast: Clinton Yates spent a day in New York profiling various parts of the culture, when news broke that a legend had died. After spending the morning with the creators of Jopwell, a startup helping students of color in the tech industry, the the afternoon with Nike for a new shoe release, he ends up in Queens to talk with a family friend and musician about the life and influence of Mobb Deep’s Prodigy.
  • America’s Black History Museum: 9/20/16 – Jill Hudson, Justin Tinsley and Clinton Yates talk about the National Museum of African American History and Culture and the 86th Emmy Awards. Plus, Mike Wise discusses his story about Joe Paterno.
  • Morning Roast – The gang is all together, talking national anthem protests, possible NFL players strike, potential renaming of Yawkey Way and latest Bachelor in Paradise drama.
  • The Morning Roast & Live at NABJ – Clinton Yates is in for Bomani, and in hour three he is joined by Marc Spears and Myron Medcalf to discuss all the happenings at the National Association of Black Journalists convention.
  • Rhoden Fellows: HBCU 468: 5/11/17 – Stephen A. Smith praised Isaiah Thomas’ compelling effort in the playoffs and explained Kevin Durant’s impact on Golden State. He also talked about attending a historically black university.
  • O.J.: Made in America: 6/11/16 – Domonique Foxworth is joined by guests Jason Reid, Raina Kelley, Ezra Edelman, Sarah Spain and Carl Douglas as they take a look at O.J.: Made in America.

Remembering Mamie ‘Peanut’ Johnson The first woman to pitch in the Negro Leagues dies at 82

Hank Bayliss must have thought he was doing something. The Kansas City Monarchs third baseman was having himself a day running his mouth as he stood opposite of 5-foot-3, 115-pound Mamie Johnson.

He exclaimed that the right-handed pitcher was “no bigger than a peanut.” And he was no better at hitting after talking all that trash. Johnson, a Ridgeway, South Carolina, native, struck him out and turned the jab into her nickname.

She took all of the slights in stride, including when the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League, an all-white league, turned Johnson away. She decided to play three seasons with the Indianapolis Clowns in the Negro Leagues from 1953-55.

“They didn’t let us try out,” Johnson said in a 2003 interview with NPR. “They just looked at us like we were crazy, as if to say, ‘What do you want?’ ”

Johnson, the first woman to pitch in the Negro Leagues and a mentee of Negro Leagues baseball legend and Baseball Hall of Famer Satchel Paige, died on Dec. 19. She was 82. Bob Kendrick, the president of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum, announced her death. She was the last of the three women who played in the Negro Leagues to die. Toni Stone and Connie Morgan died in 1996.

“It’s a sad day for all of us,” Kendrick said Tuesday. “We lost a member of our family. She was truly a pioneer.

“It’s representative of the inclusive nature of the Negro Leagues, that it created an opportunity for women to do things that they weren’t allowed to do in the rest of the country.”

The Clowns, Hank Aaron’s team before he joined Major League Baseball, recruited Johnson to play on the team. Johnson compiled a 33-8 record in her three seasons with a .270 batting average.

Johnson credited Paige for her unhittable curveball.

“Tell you the truth, I didn’t know of his greatness that much. He was just another ballplayer to me at that particular time,” Johnson told The State (Columbia, South Carolina). “Later on, I found out exactly who he was.

“I got to meet and be with some of the best baseball players that ever picked up a bat, so I’m very proud about that,” Johnson said in an NPR interview.

It took many years for people to see Johnson, who was born in 1935, as a trailblazer. But when she finally started to get her due, it came in droves.

When she was out of season, Johnson attended New York University and eventually received a nursing degree from North Carolina A&T State University. At the conclusion of her career, Johnson focused on raising her son, Charles, and practiced as a nurse for three decades.

The 2002 book A Strong Right Arm, by Michelle Y. Green, is based on Johnson’s story. The White House hosted Johnson in 1999, and that same year, Columbia, South Carolina, Mayor Bob Coble presented Johnson with a proclamation. A decade later, the Library of Congress welcomed her as a guest lecturer for a symposium.

A year before her Library of Congress lecture in 2008, Johnson and other living alumni from the Negro Leagues era were drafted by major league franchises. The Washington Nationals drafted Johnson, as she spent most of her adult life in the nation’s capital. The Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York, has Johnson in two exhibits: one dedicated to members of the Negro Leagues and another for women who have pioneered in the sport.

Ridgeway presented Johnson with a key to her hometown and named a street in her honor. In 2012, Mo’ne Davis, the phenom pitcher for the Little League World Series’ Anderson Monarchs, was introduced to Johnson.

As a child, Johnson had such a passion for pitching that she would forgo her work with the crops to play baseball. Her uncle, Leo “Bones” Belton, taught her how to throw by tossing stones at crows that sat perched on her grandparents’ fence.

“It’s what people do in the country,” Johnson told The State in 2010. “You use what you had.”

Said Kendrick: “We lost a voice with her passing, but her legacy plays on at the Negro Leagues Museum. Hers is a story of hope, a story of perseverance and an example of how to overcome adversity and achieve your dreams.”

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.

 

The Notre Dame vs. Miami rivalry is the most relevant in this monstrous weekend of college football The storied matchup proves the woes of the country are rarely far from the field

Outside of championship rings, the most famous piece of jewelry in sports this year belongs to the University of Miami Hurricanes. “The U” turnover chain — comically huge, made of 10-karat gold and flooded with sapphires — has since the start of the season been momentarily given to defensive players who cause fumbles, recover fumbles or grab interceptions. This new age reward system is, in many ways, a relic of its yester-decade swagger, when The U’s players proclaimed their own greatness and then lived up to it. The team reveled in its bad boy image and intimidated All-Americans even before the coin toss.

On Nov. 4, as the waning seconds ticked off the scoreboard at Hard Rock Stadium in Miami Gardens, Florida, it was clear that “The U” is back. The field was in shambles. They remain undefeated. Alex Rodriguez even wore his own version of the Hurricanes’ turnover chain while cheering Miami on last week — beside his girlfriend, Jennifer Lopez. Its iconic “The U” nickname — bestowed upon the Hurricanes for their rebellious, tyrannical, infectious and infamous dominance over college football in the ’80s and again in the early 2000s — is once again part of the national conversation. Nov. 8’s 28-10 drubbing of ACC foe (and then 13th-ranked) Virginia Tech was a statement win. And as destiny mapped out in its own high-stakes GPS navigation, the Hurricanes now have a chance at revenge against the last team to defeat them and perhaps, historically, their most notorious rival: Notre Dame, which won 30-27 vs. The U on Oct. 29, 2016.


Saturday’s showdown, also at Hard Rock Stadium, is urgent for a litany of reasons. Future Sunday talent resides on both squads — Miami’s star safety and reigning ACC Defensive Back of the Week Jaquan Johnson and Notre Dame’s star running back and long-shot Heisman Trophy hopeful Josh Adams are the tip of the proverbial iceberg. Both teams are ranked in the Top 10, meaning very real college playoff implications will be decided before a nationally televised audience. The No. 3 (Notre Dame) vs. No. 7 (Miami) clash is just a third of what will be a monstrous weekend in college football, with No. 1 Georgia taking on No. 10 Auburn and No. 6 TCU squaring off against No. 5 Oklahoma.

Players on both teams are, of course, cognizant of the Miami and Notre Dame lineage. Miami head coach Mark Richt makes it plain: “This is why I came back to my alma mater.” But none of his current players was alive when barely coded lines such as “playing the game the right way” and “Thug U” were a part of the national conversation. “Catholics vs. Convicts,” a T-shirt slogan created by a Notre Dame student and later the title of an ESPN 30 for 30 documentary, is a phrase firmly supplanted in football lore, describing their October 1988 clash — a titan of a sporting event surpassed only by a chaotically beautiful and controversial fourth quarter. Saturday’s game is important for what it means for the near future of both programs. Yet, the game itself takes a back seat to the hatreds it took to get here.

To understand Miami/Notre Dame is to understand the cultural dichotomies of the ’80s. President Ronald Reagan’s blueprint to “Make America Great Again” divided an already divided country that was neck-deep in recession. Crack cocaine flooded poor neighborhoods , setting off an epidemic that ripped apart black America. Inner-city plight was the backdrop for political campaigning and newscasts thirsty to capitalize on pain (but not the source). Race was still the straw stirring America’s proverbial drink. Sports were a big part of the cocktail.

“[The American public] likes narratives, and narratives are constructed in a lot of ways in sports. Sometimes it’s good guy vs. bad guy. Sometimes it’s black guy vs. white guy,” said University of North Carolina sports history professor Matthew Andrews. “Those … narratives historically have gotten a lot of juice.” Notre Dame and Miami, in many respects, would follow this same blueprint in the decade of Reagan, N.W.A and Showtime. But not before others paved the way first.

No fight, in the ’80s, represented black vs. white more than the June 11, 1982, Larry Holmes vs. Gerry Cooney clash. “It was a dumb thing to do,” Cooney said later. He vehemently opposed the title of “Great White Hope.” Holmes walked away victorious after a 13th-round stoppage — and later became close friends with Cooney. “I made a lot of money that night,” Cooney told The Washington Times this year, “but the rest was all distasteful.”

The rivalry of the decade, between Magic Johnson’s Los Angeles Lakers and Larry Bird’s Boston Celtics, represented two Americas despite the presence of black and white players on both squads. “People can say all they want about ‘it was just basketball.’ No, it was racial drama. That was part of the allure. Different styles of play, different places. Boston has its racial history. We saw that recently again with the whole Adam Jones incident,” said Andrews. “There was a lot of meaning and narrative in there.” Notre Dame and Miami followed a path already emboldened.


The Notre Dame/Miami matchup is 62 years old; a 14-0 shutout by the Fighting Irish in 1955 marks their first meeting. Notre Dame won 12 of the first 13 matchups, including a 40-15 thrashing at the Mirage Bowl in 1979 in Tokyo. Until the ’80s and the arrival of coach Howard Schnellenberger, Miami was a school with no conference, no tradition and nearly no football team altogether, as the school seriously considered dropping the sport because of funding and lack of overall interest.

Under Schnellenberger, Miami won the 1983 national championship. The arrival of coach Jimmy Johnson, and a 58-7 thrashing of a once-proud Notre Dame in 1985, changed both programs. Johnson represented Miami. A young, handsome, outspoken leader of men who could’ve been a Miami Vice regular, Johnson had players instantly enamored with his coaching style. He cornered a talent-rich region of South Florida, recruited young men from poor neighborhoods and placed them in what seemed the utopian Coral Gables campus. “A lot of my kids come from inner-city backgrounds,” Johnson said. “That’s one of the reasons Miami doesn’t get a lot of respect, because your average football fan might not relate to that.”

The U seemingly tallied as many penalty yards as points, yards and wins.

In Miami/Notre Dame’s 1985 meeting, Johnson refused to take the foot off the gas, though often lost to history is the fact that Johnson played reserves the majority of the fourth quarter and a blocked punt came with only 10 players on the field. The Fighting Irish were in the midst of a coaching change, from beleaguered Gerry Faust to Lou Holtz. Johnson and Miami could not care less. From that moment on, hatred was cultivated. And Miami bathed in it.

As Miami’s program ballooned into a national powerhouse, so did its reputation. They were the bad boys of college football — an image that followed them throughout the decade and beyond. They bullied, trash-talked and ran by and through opponents. Numerous off-field incidents, alleged recruiting violations and rendezvous with law enforcement hung over the program. In January 1987, many members of the team exited a plane in Phoenix wearing Army fatigues — days before playing Penn State in the national championship. They lost 14-10. In a quote still embedded with the program, defensive tackle Jerome Brown notoriously asked, in what was supposed to be a skit, “Did the Japanese sit down and eat dinner with Pearl Harbor before they bombed it?” This was before the entire team walked out of a dinner catered for Miami and Penn State players. Regardless of their loss to Penn State, 34 players on that 1986 team were drafted. Twenty-eight went on to play in the NFL. By 1988’s meeting between Notre Dame and Miami, the game itself was billed as one of the biggest of the decade: “Catholics vs. Convicts.”


“Notre Dame hasn’t cornered the market on Catholic football players,” then-Miami quarterback Steve Walsh said before the game. Yet, the four Miami quarterbacks who defined the ’80s were all white and Catholic: Jim Kelly, Bernie Kosar, Vinny Testaverde and Walsh. At the time, Miami’s entire starting offensive line and tight end Rob Chudzinski were too. Notre Dame ranked fourth in the country and was viewed as the college responsible for producing arguably the most NFL’s most recognizable megastar in San Francisco 49ers quarterback Joe Montana. The Irish were viewed as the classier squad, the Irish-Catholics who “played the game the right way.”

Meanwhile, the reigning champion Hurricanes rode a 36-game winning streak that spanned three seasons. The U seemingly tallied as many penalty yards as points, yards and wins. The Hurricanes were as explicit as hometown heroes 2 Live Crew and, in their own way, as militant as Public Enemy. Miami football, Mike Tyson, the 1985 Chicago Bears defense and the “Bad Boy” Detroit Pistons — these four balls of energy ruled during a decade when America struggled to find its footing economically, racially and culturally.

Preceded by a raucous pregame brawl, the Saturday heavens favored Notre Dame in a highly debated 31-30 finish with controversial touchdowns and two-point conversions. Miami and Notre Dame played four consecutive years between 1987 and 1990. Miami lived up to its own hype, capturing national titles in 1987 and 1989 — the latter being Jimmy Johnson’s final request before moving on to the NFL ranks, where he’d soon ignite another generation-defining dynasty in the Dallas Cowboys. Notre Dame, immortalized by its 1988 victory over Miami, capped off its season with a title of its own. After the 1990 season, Miami would join the Big East, putting the rivalry on ice for 20 years. The two institutions have played twice since 2010, with Notre Dame winning both times and owning an overall 17-7 series lead.

The stereotypes of both schools remain. And with Miami’s resurgence has come the revival of the wicked narrative of “The U” being no more than a collection of correctional center All-Americans. Yet, in this decade there has been unfavorable publicity from South Bend to Coral Gables — Notre Dame during the embarrassing Manti Te’o debacle and ugly sexual assault and cheating scandals. The latter forced the university to vacate 21 victories from its 2012-13 seasons, including a 12-0 campaign that propelled the school to a national title matchup versus Alabama. And Miami with its crippling battle with former booster Nevin Shapiro that led to a self-imposed postseason ban and a 2013 ruling of losing nine scholarships after an NCAA investigation. Miami, though, has revamped its image in recent years. The team is a current co-recipient of the American Football Coaches Association Academic Achievement Award, and its No. 3 ranking in the NCAA Community Service Top 25 is the highest in the ACC.

Now, the series shifts to its most important meeting in two and a half decades. National championship dreams and season-altering nightmares await both teams. The U’s chain will glisten under the prime-time lights of South Florida for the second consecutive week. Although Notre Dame’s game plan calls for the chain to be a moot point rather than a star attraction, as it was last week when Miami’s defense forced four Virginia Tech turnovers. It’s a fitting revival of a rivalry to serve center stage during a period of American unrest, as it did 30 years before.

History provides the foundation that gives this 2017 installment something no other game on Saturday’s schedule boasts. Notre Dame vs. Miami isn’t what it once was. And maybe that’s a good thing in some ways. But that doesn’t mean Saturday night can’t be the start of something real and relevant. Again.

Ric Flair and black fandom in wrestling The ‘Nature Boy’ is one man in a long, complex history for professional wrestling

About halfway through Nature Boy, ESPN’s 30 for 30 documentary (Nov. 7, 10 p.m. EST, ESPN) on WWE legend Ric Flair, the conversation turns to Flair’s transcending impact on popular culture. The flamboyant grappler, known for his loud fashion sense, “heel” tactics, braggadocio and quick tongue, was reminiscent of a young Cassius Clay/Muhammad Ali, captivating audiences not only with his physical dexterity but also with his ability to sell himself.

And Flair most surely sold himself. He was the man whom women wanted to be with and men wanted to be like. He was the 16-time world champion, no matter how much he would cheat to win, and made sure you never forgot it.

“I mean, why did people like Ali?” Flair asks in the documentary. “No one has marketed themselves in boxing like Ali.”

Moments later, rapper Snoop Dogg appears on the screen and explains how Flair pulled from and was an inspiration of the early roots of hip-hop and black culture. “As a kid growing up watching Ric Flair, he was very inspirational to myself and a lot of other hip-hop artists because he represented what we wanted to be,” Snoop Dogg said. “We wanted to be Ric Flair; we wanted to be flamboyant and the ‘kiss-stealin, wheelin-and-dealin,’ we wanted to be all of that.

“He was a part of our culture and our life. That’s why we love him and we cherish him. We’ve always held him high in the black community, because Ric is one of us.”

Snoop Dogg, who has hosted and appeared on WWE’s flagship show Monday Night Raw on multiple occasions and was inducted into the company’s Hall of Fame in 2016, paints a peculiar portrait of Flair, he of white working-class roots, bleach-blond hair and 1 percenter persona, as “one of us.” But between the luxurious clothes, brash delivery and unmitigated swagger, how was Flair any different, color aside, from an Ali or Denzel Washington or N.W.A.?

Flair was one of the greatest heels, or bad guys, in professional wrestling history, making you want to hate him as easily as Floyd “Money” Mayweather would some three decades later. But unlike Mayweather, Flair had the charm, personality and lifestyle to make every man envy him. He was also an early adopter of the overindulgent persona that took over 2000s hip-hop. To borrow from Jay-Z, Flair flaunted the “Money, Cash, H–s,” at one point owning 15 $10,000 robes, a pair of $600 custom-made shoes (gators, presumably) and a $15,000 Rolex. Not to mention all of the women.

“You see the Rolex watch, you see the glasses, you see the beautiful women, Baby Doll and Precious,” said Glen Thomas, 39, co-host of the Wrestling Marks of Excellence podcast. “You hear Ric Flair talking about the night they had in Vegas … and you see the sunglasses and the $5,000 Armani suits and shoes and you see the belt, you desire to be that. I didn’t know about Disney World, but I knew about Space Mountain.”

In recent years, the 68-year-old has been reborn as an apparent icon of black culture. Indianapolis Colts players mimicked Flair’s famous “Rolex-wearin’ ” promo during a postgame speech in 2015; rapper Pusha T shouted his trademark “Woo” catchphrase on 2012’s “Don’t Like”; and Flair “ran” for president with rapper Waka Flocka Flame in 2016.

But Flair, who hasn’t been a regular performer since retiring from WWE in 2008, is just one man in a long, complex history of professional wrestling. The “Nature Boy,” as a character, lives in a universe of offensive, sexist, anti-gay and, most glaringly, racist content — there are multiple instances of blackface being used in WWE. Which begs the question: Why do black fans continue to tune in?

There are many reasons, it turns out. Wrestling combines the visual presentation of cinema, the never-ending continuity of television and the pure athleticism of professional sports. In between the perilous stunts and knee-slapping comedy also lie real-world consequences, as evidenced by former wrestler Daniel Bryan having to retire because of repeated concussions. A bit of nostalgia is baked in as well. The average age of a pro wrestling viewer is 54 years old, compared with just 40 for the NBA, with many current viewers having watched the product since its heyday in the late 20th century.

“It’s one of those things where I can’t remember the start date,” said Camille Davis, 28, co-host of the Milwaukee-based TECKnical Foul sports podcast. “It’s kind of like when I think back about why I started sports: It’s just something that was always around.”

Whether it was a parent, aunt, uncle, cousin or deacon from church, most fans of wrestling had a familial introduction to the National Wrestling Alliance, World Championship Wrestling or WWE. Like anyone who grew up a fan of other sports, it wasn’t out of the norm to be a wrestling fan.

Black fans followed the established stars of the 1980s and 1990s like everyone else: Flair, Randy Savage, The Ultimate Warrior, Shawn Michaels, Bret Hart and Hulk Hogan. It didn’t even matter that none of these stars weren’t black; wrestling wasn’t immediately about race for those who grew up watching it.

But as black fans got older, many started to also gravitate to the male and female performers who looked like them. For older fans, there was Koko B. Ware, “Iceman” King Parsons, Bobo Brazil and “Sailor” Art Thomas. The most popular and transcendent of the early black wrestlers, though, was Junkyard Dog, who co-starred in Hogan’s Saturday morning cartoon show, Hulk Hogan’s Rock ‘n’ Wrestling.

For younger fans who grew up in the 1990s, professional wrestling’s renaissance era, they had what felt like an abundance of talent to root for. There was Harlem Heat, composed of real-life brothers Booker T and Stevie Ray; strongman Ahmed Johnson; black nationalist stable Nation of Domination; female grappler Jacqueline Moore; and, of course, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson.

The Rock, who debuted in WWE in 1996, was the biggest star in the company’s history, winning multiple championships and eventually becoming the highest-paid actor in Hollywood. As half-Samoan, half-black, The Rock was one of the most visible black people in the country, a role model for many young people.

“The Rock was more of an inspiration,” said Brian Waters, 31, who’s hosted internet radio show The Wrestling Wrealm since 2011. “Knowing that he was half-black, half-Samoan, I was like, well, it don’t matter, he’s black. It’s kind of like Barack Obama. It don’t matter, he got a little black in him.”

Once black fans become aware of their own blackness, they would tend to root for the black wrestlers, no different from rooting for the Doug Williamses and Mike Vicks of football, the Williams sisters of tennis or the Tiger Woodses of golf.

This partially explains the ascent of The New Day, an all-black trio of wrestlers who have been a fan favorite for going on three years straight. But, surprisingly, race wasn’t the only factor in the popularity.

“I didn’t like New Day because they were black,” said Davis. “It was more so because they were funny. And even then I’m like not really big on The New Day train. There’s no real black wrestlers I feel like that they even give a chance to achieve.”

For black female fans, like Davis, the female wrestlers weren’t given much of an opportunity to achieve either. There have been only five black women’s champions in WWE history: Moore, Jazz, Alicia Fox, Naomi and Sasha Banks. Moore, in 2016, became the first and only African-American woman to be inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame.

Even with this black female representation for young women, the wrestlers had such unrealistic body proportions, from Moore’s bust to Jazz’s bulk, that not all viewers could relate to them.

“None of the women wrestlers are technically going to look like me, because their bodies are never going to look like how my body looked or was going to look,” said LaToya Ferguson, 29, who writes about wrestling for pop culture blog Uproxx. “I could enjoy them and appreciate them, but I don’t think I ever really had that connection a lot of girls wanted to have of the Divas.”

While children normally learn about race as young as 6 months old, research shows that they don’t learn about “racism” until they’re teenagers or young adults. For African-Americans who watched wrestling, this meant many didn’t notice the problematic storylines in WWE involving African-Americans until they were adults. And there were plenty.

In 1990, white wrestler “Rowdy” Roddy Piper donned blackface while in a storyline with black performer Bad News Brown, who was supposed to be the bad guy in the feud. Less than a decade later, all-white stable D-Generation X, who, like Piper, were the supposed good guys, painted their skin black while facing off with The Rock and the Nation of Domination. In the 2000s, Shelton Benjamin, one of the most gifted athletes in the company’s history, was accompanied to the ring by a Hattie McDaniel-like “momma” character, while all-black duo Cryme Tyme sported cornrows and platinum grills and stole from other wrestlers as their gimmick.

But two incidents stand out the most. In 2003, white wrestler Triple H delivered a racially charged promo against Booker T, calling the black performer’s hair “nappy” and telling him that “people like him” don’t win championships in the WWE. “He almost called him everything except for the N-word,” Thomas said.

And it didn’t end there for Booker T. Two years later, WWE chairman and CEO Vince McMahon called John Cena, who is white and replaced The Rock as the company’s most prominent star, the N-word on live television as a perplexed Booker T walked past.

Despite these incidents, and many more in American professional wrestling’s nearly 200-year history, black fans haven’t wavered. They still make up nearly a quarter of WWE’s total audience, according to Nielsen, and have many reasons for not jumping ship.

Professional wrestling, like the NFL or MLB, is a form of communal entertainment, with fans tuning in live every week because their close friends or family members are following along as well. If they aren’t one of the 3 million people watching Monday Night Raw on the USA Network, they’re filling up more basketball arena seats than the NBA team that owns the building or watching thousands of hours of content on the WWE Network. Like any parent, wrestling fans can also pass down their fandom to their kids. There are times when the product will let you down or offend you, but how is that any different from a fan pushing his or her kids to root for the Cleveland Browns?

There is a lack of diversity and problematic storylines for wrestlers of color, but black viewers tolerate those same issues in other forms of entertainment. Many African-Americans watched network dramas in the decades before Kerry Washington became the first black female lead in a television show since 1974 when she starred in Scandal. Movie ticket sales still sold in the billions in the years leading up to the #OscarsSoWhite campaign. And in sports, despite boycott threats from African-American NFL fans over treatment of black athletes, namely Colin Kaepernick, in response to player protests during the national anthem, NFL games still draw in tens of millions of viewers.

Fans of wrestling just want to be entertained. It’s the golden age of wrestling right now, with the most gifted performers in the history of the “sport” performing right now, whether in WWE or on the independent circuit, including Kentucky-raised Ricochet, the most popular non-WWE black wrestler in the world. And depending on who you talk to, wrestling can be both this amazing art form — “I feel like it’s one of the last true performance arts,” Ferguson said — and guilty pleasure.

“It’s the best soap opera I’ve seen, the best television,” Waters said. “I guess I’m one of those people that if you told me I could only have one channel, it would be USA [Network].”

Thomas added: “People watch Scandal, they watch How To Get Away With Murder, they watch Law & Order: SVU. That’s your TV show, that’s your escape for two hours. That’s your soap opera. Wrestling is my soap opera, where I can suspend my disbelief for three hours on a Monday or two hours on a Tuesday.”

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.

Bernie Mac, his ‘Mr. 3000,’ and black baseball’s field of dreams On what would have been his 60th birthday, Mac is remembered for his love of all of Chicago’s games

Mitch Rosen walks into an elegantly furnished condo in Chicago’s South Loop. He doesn’t know what to expect. It’s the spring of 2008, and the longtime program director of influential local sports radio station 670 The Score is about to make a pitch.

Just a day earlier, Rosen had asked a friend for a contact for Bernie Mac, the beloved stand-up comedian, television icon (Fox’s The Bernie Mac Show, 2001-06) and big-screen scene-stealer (Friday, The Players Club and the Ocean’s Eleven trilogy). In 2004, Mac co-starred with Angela Bassett (as an ESPN reporter) in Mr. 3000, a film about a retired Milwaukee Brewer Stan Ross, who comes back to major league baseball to go for 3,000 hits. Even before Mac’s star-making 1994 national television debut on the first iteration of HBO’s Def Comedy Jam, Mac had taken the baton from Robin Harris (who died in 1990 at age 36) as the Windy City’s funniest homegrown talent.

It was well-known around Chicago that Mac, a chest-beating, born-and-raised South Sider, was a hard-core White Sox fan. “I always knew Bernie to be around the Sox’s ballpark,” said Rosen. “He’d rent a suite at [then U.S. Cellular Field] for a number of games. I knew he would be fun to have on the postgame show.”

When Rosen made the call, Mac’s daughter, Je’Niece McCullough, answered. “Hold on, please,” she said. Seconds later, a booming voice jumped on the line. “Mitch, this is Bernie. What are you doing tomorrow afternoon? Here’s my address. Come see me.” During their one-hour meeting, Rosen discovered that not only was Mac an unapologetic homer, he was also an animated listener of sports talk radio. Imagine the multimillionaire calling in to passionately debate why a random utility player on the Sox deserved more at-bats.

“Chicago was a different place in the late ’60s and ’70s. This was before the era of Michael Jordan. There was a Little League team in damn near every neighborhood. Bernie was a product of those times.”

“And he was a huge fan of Ozzie [Guillen],” Rosen said, referring to the outspoken White Sox shortstop and Gold Glover who in 2005 managed the team to World Series glory. “We left it at, ‘Hey, let’s follow up in a few weeks and see where the season goes.’ At the time I remember he had an oxygen tank … so it was obvious something was wrong. He told me he was doing a movie out west in California. But we never got the chance to do his segment because he became really sick.”

Mac’s creative work was often deeply rooted in sports fandom. He portrayed a homeless man in 1994’s Above The Rim. In Pride, the 2007 Jim Ellis biopic, Mac scored a role as assistant coach of the first all-black swimming team. The actor detailed his love of competitive sports during a 2007 ESPN SportsNation chat. “I wish I started playing golf earlier,” said the 6-foot-3 Mac, who possessed the frame of a tight end. “But I played baseball, basketball, football, volleyball, and I boxed. In high school,” he repeated wistfully, “I played baseball.”

On Aug. 9, 2008, Bernard Jeffrey McCullough died at the age of 50. He’d been secretly battling a rare immune disease called sarcoidosis. Today he would have been 60 years old.


Bernie Mac sings “Take me out to the Ballgame” during the 7th inning stretch of game six of the National League Championship Series between the Chicago Cubs and the Florida Marlins on October 14, 2003 at Wrigley Field in Chicago, Illinois.

Elsa/Getty Images

Bernie Mac made it out of the notorious Englewood neighborhood of Chicago to become one of the most successful comedians of the post-Eddie Murphy era. The onetime janitor, school bus driver and fast-food manager decided that comedy would be his family’s ticket out of the ’hood. During the day, Mac told jokes on the L train, where he often pulled in as much as $400 daily.

At night, he delivered those same routines in front of notoriously tough audiences — when he was even allowed to get onstage. It was only after winning a top prize of $3,000 at 1990’s Miller Genuine Draft Comedy Search that he decided to pursue stand-up full time. His popular Emmy- and Peabody-winning television series The Bernie Mac Show was a layered revelation that went beyond usual laugh-track-fueled sitcom high jinks.

Mac got to live out his high school dream of becoming a professional ballplayer when he starred in the family-friendly Mr. 3000. His comically arrogant character, Ross, finds out that because of a clerical error, he’d retired three hits shy of one of baseball’s most hallowed benchmarks. Only 31 real players are in the 3,000-hit club. Adrian Beltre is the most recently crowned member; Barry Bonds just missed the cut. Albert Pujols is currently closest, with 2,825 hits. Other players in the 3,000 community include Roberto Clemente, Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, Ichiro Suzuki, Rickey Henderson, Alex Rodriguez, George Brett and Derek Jeter. Quite the list.

The film is fun, but it’s Mr. 3000’s on-field scenes, shot at New Orleans’ Zephyr Field and the Brewers’ Miller Park, that jump off the screen like a love letter to the emotional highs and lows of baseball and its idiosyncratic rituals. “Bernie and I would always talk about the MLB player that didn’t know when to retire,” said Charles Stone III, director of Mr. 3000, Paid In Full and the upcoming basketball comedy Uncle Drew, which features the Boston Celtics’ Kyrie Irving, as well as Lisa Leslie, Nate Robinson, Reggie Miller and Chris Webber. “We even joked about doing an entire documentary about athletes who didn’t know when to walk away. It was obvious Bernie had a real passion for sports.”

Michael Wilbon, a Chicago native and co-host of ESPN’s Pardon the Interruption, made a cameo appearance in Mr. 3000. He first met Mac in 2001, at a Chicago Bulls game. They bonded. “We both grew up watching the Bears’ Gale Sayers and Walter Payton, the Cubs’ Ernie Banks and Billy Williams, and the White Sox’s [Walt] ‘No Neck’ Williams,” Wilbon said. “Chicago was a different place in the late ’60s and ’70s. This was before the era of Michael Jordan. There was a Little League team in damn near every neighborhood. Bernie was a product of those times.”

Which is one of the reasons that, when Mac was asked by the Chicago Cubs to sing “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” for the seventh-inning stretch at Wrigley Field, just months after wrapping Mr. 3000, it was a surreal moment. The prominent Chicago White Sox fan is forever connected to the infamous “Bartman” Game 6 of the 2003 National League Championship Series in which the North Siders suffered a monumental collapse. Some Cubs fans even blamed Mac for purposefully jinxing the team when, instead of singing, “Root, root, root for the Cubbies,” he sang, “Root, root, root for the champions!” Mac admitted to Wilbon that he grew up hating the Sox’s crosstown rivals.

Bernie Mac sings a “black version” of “Take Me Out To The Ball Game.”

“This is how you came up as a South Sider,” Wilbon said. “You hated the Cubs because back in the days they were not very hospitable to people that looked like my father. Bernie and I come from that tradition. But a lot of those great black Cubs players like Ernie Banks lived on the South Side with us, so while he didn’t always root for the Cubs, Bernie was a civic person. He didn’t actively root against them. When it came to the [playoffs], he rooted for all teams that had Chicago on their chest.”

Mac of course understood the historical significance of Mr. 3000’s lead character being African-American. Jackie Robinson’s peerless legacy is rich with immortals such as Roy Campanella, Mays, Bob Gibson, Reggie Jackson, Bonds and Ken Griffey Jr., as well as current stars like Giancarlo Stanton, Andrew McCutchen and Addison Russell. But African-American participation in professional baseball over the decades has steadily declined.

At its height in 1981, professional baseball boasted a robust 18.7 percentage of black players. Today that figure is 7.7 percent, according to MLB. “Blacks no longer being a huge part of baseball is something we’d always talk about,” said Chicago-based SportsCenter analyst Scoop Jackson. When Mac was cutting his teeth at local nightclubs such as All Jokes Aside in the early ’90s, the two would often discuss their mutual admiration for the underrated 1976 Negro Leagues baseball film The Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars & Motor Kings.

“We both loved that film,” said Jackson. “How important Bingo Long was … you had James Earl Jones, Billy Dee Williams and Richard Pryor speaking on the importance of the Negro League. It wasn’t just black history … it was baseball history. I know what a film like Mr. 3000 was rooted in.”

And there’s even more to the legacy of Bernie Mac the sportsman. Mac frequently sent messages to Kenny Williams, then the White Sox’s general manager (now the team’s executive vice president), imploring him to improve the staff’s pitching. Mac also grew up idolizing aforementioned legendary Pittsburgh Pirates right fielder Roberto Clemente. Mac’s standing as the quintessential sports guy was so high that even before he was starring in films alongside the Oscar-winning likes of George Clooney, Julia Roberts, Matt Damon and Billy Bob Thornton, he was given the unofficial title of 13th Man by the Jordan-led Chicago Bulls during their historic six-title ’90s run.

The Bulls adopted Mac’s signature “Who You With?!!!” catchphrase as their championship battle cry. “When Bernie came into the locker room, that’s all Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen and the others would scream,” Jackson said. “That meant a lot to Bernie personally. He never really left Chicago, or his love of its teams. … Bernie was a true sports fan.”

Ray Charles’ ‘America the Beautiful’ is our best hope for bringing us together If a patriotic song can divide us, this song can heal that divide

It would take a genius to ease the antagonisms surrounding the national anthem controversy. I know just the man for the job. His name is Ray Charles.

Often called “the Genius” during a long career, Ray Charles performed unique combinations of rock, country, rhythm and blues, soul, blues, jazz and gospel with such energy and style that he invited fans of one culture to cross over and taste the flavor of another. The fact that he was blind from childhood only added to the mystery of his mastery. He attracted appreciation from white folks and black folks, listeners from the country and the city, rich people and poor people, the up-and-coming and the down-and-out.

“This may sound like sacrilege,” said another piano man, Billy Joel, “but I think Ray Charles was more important than Elvis Presley.”

I remember well the day he died: June 10, 2004. I was in New Orleans, scheduled to deliver a professional workshop on writing and music. A day earlier, a young woman slammed a car door on my left hand. When it was time for the workshop and I sat down at the piano, I learned the meaning of playing with pain. Using just one finger to play the bass notes, I offered my best tribute to Charles, brief versions of “What I Say” and “Georgia on My Mind.”

This tribute wasn’t planned, but I was inspired by what I had seen that morning on the news. It turns out that former President Ronald Reagan had died just five days before Charles. The two had a fine moment together during the final minutes of the 1984 Republican National Convention. Ray delivered his gospel version of “America the Beautiful.”

The effect was mesmerizing. While the crowd was overwhelmingly white, you could not help but notice a change in its demeanor. Some cried. Some swayed. Some nodded and looked up as if it were their first visit to a black church. The Reagans and the Bushes looked on with a curiosity that turned to warmth and then delight. When it was over, Reagan and Vice President George Bush climbed down to where Charles had been at the piano and lifted him up to the top of the stage, where the love of the crowd could wash over him.

Move forward now to Oct. 28, 2001. It is the second game of the World Series between the Arizona Diamondbacks and the New York Yankees, a series delayed by the attacks of 9/11. The debris of the Twin Towers had fallen on a cross-section of Americans, and for a brief interval we were together in our misery, and resolved toward our recovery. Who better to express this emotion than the Genius. At a piano on home plate he once again performed “America the Beautiful.” As he sang and played with an easy soulful pace, people on the field, soldiers and first-responders unrolled a flag that covered the entire outfield. Cheers went up. When they created the illusion of the flag waving, cheers reached a crescendo. Charles rose from the piano bench. I am not sure I have ever seen a performer so moved by the response of an audience. It was almost a dance of delight, holding his face, hugging his body in recognition.

“The Star-Spangled Banner,” “God Bless America,” “This Land is Your Land” and “America the Beautiful” have all made a claim to be America’s song. Each has its strengths and weaknesses. Our national anthem (like the Pledge of Allegiance) too often carries with it a formalized test of patriotism: “Please rise and remove your caps …” (Hey, this is America. Don’t tell me what to do.)

Irving Berlin’s “God Bless America” is easier to sing, but it can be rendered and received in a way that seems cloyingly sentimental. Woody Guthrie wrote “This Land is Your Land” in response to Berlin’s anthem, with choruses that focus on the poor and dispossessed who do not feel so blessed. To my ear, “America the Beautiful — at least the version rendered by Charles — exceeds all of them in its ability to raise our collective spirits.

It was not just this song that allowed Charles to use his powers for healing and reconciliation. In 1966, the Georgia State Assembly refused to seat an elected African-American, Julian Bond, because of his supposedly unpatriotic opposition to the Vietnam War. It took a unanimous Supreme Court decision to seat him.

Turn the calendar forward 13 years to March 7, 1979, to that same body. In what was considered a symbol of reconciliation and racial progress, Charles performed his version of the Hoagy Carmichael ballad “Georgia on My Mind.” At the end the assembly rose as one in tribute. The speaker honored him with having performed a miracle, bringing political antagonists in the legislature together. One month later, they voted to adopt Charles’ version as Georgia’s official state song.

The song “America the Beautiful has its own rich and complex history, giving Charles the artistic freedom to make it his own. That history begins in 1893 when a young English professor from Wellesley College, Katharine Lee Bates, makes a trip across the country to Colorado. From the top of Pikes Peak, she is inspired by natural beauty she has seen. To honor that vision, she composes a poem, America, published in a church magazine for the Fourth of July. After some reworking, the stanzas of the poem become the lyrics of a song. A New Jersey composer, Samuel A. Ward, wrote the music. Over the first half of the 20th century, the popularity of “America the Beautiful” grew and grew, sung in churches, classrooms and patriotic festivals.

Charles recorded the song in 1972. In live performances he followed a consistent pattern, flavored by the improvisations we associate with gospel and soul music. He adds “I’m talkin’ about America” and “I love America, and you should too,” and “Sweet America,” fervent ornaments that offended the few but inspired the many — including my dad.

He begins his version, curiously, with the third of four verses, perhaps the least well-known.

O beautiful for heroes proved

In liberating strife,

Who more than self their country loved

And mercy more than life!

America!

America!

May God thy gold refine,

Till all success be nobleness,

And every gain divine!

Written just three decades after the end of the Civil War, those lines evoke the most traditional tropes of America’s civic religion. They include the heroes who give their lives to protect the country and keep it free. They remind us that we are an exceptional country, blessed by God but imperfect in his eyes. Its gold must be refined. The second stanza prays that “God mend” America’s “every flaw.”

What happens next in the Ray Charles version is especially interesting. He speaks directly to the audience over the music, “When I was in school we used to say it something like this. …” Only then does he sing the original first verse, familiar to generations.

O beautiful for spacious skies,

For amber waves of grain,

For purple mountain majesties

Above the fruited plain!

America!

America!

God shed His grace on thee

And crown thy good with brotherhood

From sea to shining sea!

It invites the audience to sing along, and we often do, a call-and-response pattern familiar in many churches and a powerful expression of unity, community, love of country — with all its flaws. Sisterhood and brotherhood — from the man who liked to be called not a genius, but “Brother Ray.”

It should be obvious by now that I love Ray’s version. When I sit down at my 100-year-old upright piano and try to play it the way he did, I always wind up crying. But I love “The Star-Spangled Banner” too, even with all those bombs bursting and its two challenging high notes.

There are hundreds of interesting versions, many available on YouTube, including ones in which African-Americans have offered their special take. We know what Jimi Hendrix did with his magical guitar in 1969 at Woodstock. In 1983, Marvin Gaye shocked the world with his slow-jam version before the NBA All-Star Game, the only version of the anthem I have ever seen in which the audience was moved to rhythmically clap along. Whitney Houston gave us the most elegant version before the 1991 Super Bowl. Maybe my favorite anthem moment was provided in 2003 by NBA coach Maurice Cheeks, who rushed to the rescue of a 13-year-old girl who forgot the lyrics. Mike Lupica once referred to this move, by the former point guard, as Cheeks’ “greatest assist.”

I am not advocating replacing the national anthem. I am proposing, instead, that some group (the NFL, MLB, Congress, the Georgia state legislature, ESPN) offer the Ray Charles version of “America the Beautiful” as our hymn of national unity and racial reconciliation. My dream is to one day attend an NFL football game when, at halftime, an image appears on the screen. It is Ray Charles at the piano. As he sings and swings, and hums and prays, we see a montage of images: Americans, including professional athletes, working to help each other through storm and strife. Working across difference to find unity and build community. From sea to shining sea.

Daily Dose: 9/25/17 Prayers for Puerto Rico

Happy Monday, kiddos. If you missed #TheRightTime on Friday, I explained why I feel that extending the nets at MLB ballparks will drastically affect the experience of any baseball game. Take a listen here.

President Donald Trump officially launched his beef with the NFL on Sunday. He did the usual throwing out of Twitter broadsides, and the league’s players responded much in kind. Even New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady said that Trump was doing too much. But one guy who works at the Buffalo Bills stadium was so mad about national anthem protests that he quit his ACTUAL job at the facility. That aside, let’s be careful how we use the word “unity” surrounding what the NFL is doing now, because, well, it’s not even really about that.

It’s a sad day in Nashville, Tennessee. And not because Vanderbilt got absolutely destroyed by Alabama, or because the Tennessee Titans couldn’t pull one out against the New England Patriots. A masked gunman entered a church parking lot and shot and killed someone and injured a handful of others inside the church. Obviously, this could have been a much bigger tragedy, but thankfully a church usher stepped in to confront the gunman. It’s not yet clear what the motivation for the shooting might have been; there will be a civil rights investigation.

Puerto Rico is part of the United States. In case you weren’t aware of that. Because some people aren’t. The island territory that’s brought so much to the culture, from music to sports to fashion, etc., is so completely devastated from Hurricane Maria that it’s starting over from scratch. Their crops have been completely banged out, the place is nearly unrecognizable, and now they’re worried about the status of a dam, whose failure is apparently imminent.

Everybody loves Darren Sproles. The little man who managed to make it in the NFL for so long after being a star at Kansas State was such a genuinely great story in terms of his success in hanging around the league. But on Sunday he was dealt a blow that will basically end his career, which is awful. The Philadelphia Eagles running back broke his arm and tore his ACL on the same play, ending his season. He was within earshot of 20,000 career all-purpose yards. Sad.

Free Food

Coffee Break: Baseball has a long season, so you’ve got to run a lot of short-range bits to keep yourself entertained when you’re on the road. You can mark down “Blue Jays players wearing Blue Jays players Snuggies” as an instant classic.

Snack Time: Offset has been doing a whole lot in the past year, and that doesn’t even include Cardi B. But, since you need it, here’s a list of his best guest verses of the year.

Dessert: Never forget the Little Rock Nine.

Trump vs. the wide world of sports: a timeline The president’s comments about Stephen Curry as well as the NFL are just the latest in a long and combative, but sometimes cozy, relationship between Trump and sports

As it stands right now, President Donald Trump is at odds with three of the most influential names in pop culture: Colin Kaepernick, Stephen Curry and LeBron James. This, though, is not Trump’s first go-round with the world of sports. The 45th president of the United States’ connection to teams, leagues, players, owners and sporting events has roots. Very deep roots.

Trump’s involvement in the short-lived United States Football League is the president’s introductory claim to sporting fame/infamy. The league lasted from just 1983 to 1985, and its demise is largely placed on Trump’s shoulders. During a 1984 interview, Trump noted that he “could have” purchased the Dallas Cowboys. He believed, however, that the New Jersey Generals were a better investment. As for the “poor guy” who would eventually buy the Cowboys: “It’s a no-win situation for him, because if he wins, well, so what, they’ve won through the years, and if he loses, which seems likely because they’re having troubles, he’ll be known to the world as a loser.” Jerry Jones purchased the Cowboys in 1989 for $140 million. Nearly three decades later, the Cowboys are the world’s most profitable franchise, valued at nearly $5 billion, and Jones, a Trump supporter to the tune of at least $1 million, is now a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

There’s also Trump’s longtime association with boxing. In 1990, Trump took the stand in a trial over contractual disputes with regard to a Mike Tyson-Buster Douglas rematch. (Atlantic City’s Trump Plaza, prior to its shuttering, had been a premiere destination for prizefights.) Golf, too, is a much-chronicled obsession of the president — he owns 17 clubs worldwide. His decades-long involvement in the sports world, which included a failed 2014 bid to purchase the Buffalo Bills, has won him legions of friends and supporters, including golfer John Daly, Dennis Rodman, Bobby Knight, Mike Ditka, retired mixed martial artist Tito Ortiz and UFC president Dana White, and that number has only grown since he announced his intention to run for president of the United States in June of 2015.

The following is a timeline of Trump’s increasingly antagonistic clashes with the world of sports since his candidacy and election.

July 14, 2015 — Candidate Trump takes on the LPGA

A week earlier, candidate Trump stood by controversial comments he’d made surrounding Mexican immigrants. The LPGA Tour was immediately forced to distance itself from the remarks since its British Open would be held at Trump’s Turnberry Alisa course in Scotland. Trump, in response, addressed a letter directly to tour commissioner Michael Wahn. “You have an absolutely binding contract to play the great Turnberry Ailsa course but, based on your rude comment to the press, please let this letter serve to represent that, subject to a conversation with me on the details, I would be willing to let you play the Women’s British Open in two weeks, at another course rather than magnificent Turnberry [which I own].”

Sept. 3, 2015 — Abdul-Jabbar calls Trump a bully; Trump shoots back

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar — the NBA’s all-time leading scorer, a six-time league MVP, author and civil rights activist — wrote a Washington Post column criticizing what he felt was Trump’s lack of respect for the media’s rights. Why is this so ironic? Well, for one, Abdul-Jabbar’s distant relationship with the media has long been documented. And two, Trump’s response was exactly what Abdul-Jabbar was talking about in the first place: attempting to bully a writer. “Now I know why the press has treated you so badly — they couldn’t stand you,” Trump wrote, also in the Post. “The fact is that you don’t have a clue about life and what has to be done to make America great again!”

Sept. 8, 2015 — That’s a “Make America Great Again” hat in Tom Brady’s locker

It’s the hat that’s dogged New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady ever since. In 2015, only three months into Trump’s candidacy, the #MAGA hat introduced itself to pop culture and hasn’t looked back. Brady probably had no clue how a Trump campaign and ultimately Trump’s presidency would play itself out on the fabric of American history. Back then, it was a gift from a friend who’d occasionally call and, per Brady’s own admission then, offer motivational speeches.

Sept. 18, 2015 — AHL executive: Prove to me you can run a hockey team before the country

One of the most known-unknown vocal Trump critics is Vance Lederman, chief financial officer of the American Hockey League’s Syracuse Crunch (an affiliate of the NHL’s Tampa Bay Lightning). Running a country isn’t exactly the same as running high-end hotels. That’s how Lederman saw it when he challenged Trump to come run his team. “You running for president is like a Brooklyn boy being a professional hockey coach,” he said in a YouTube video. “So, Donald, here is what I’m going to do: I got an invite for you. You’re a big man, you want to be all for the people. I invite you to come to Syracuse to learn how to be a professional hockey coach.” Trump never responded, prompting Lederman to amend his offer. Coaching was off the table. He now wanted Trump to prove he could run a sports team.

Nov. 2, 2015 — Following in George Steinbrenner’s footsteps

On the campaign trail, presidential candidate Trump stopped by Colin Cowherd’s show. Trump said he’s just fine with gambling in sports because “it’s happening anyway.” Fair enough. And, given the chance, he noted that if the circumstances were different, he’d like to buy the New York Yankees — and follow in the footsteps of his “great friend” George Steinbrenner. The Yankees are not for sale, and as the most valuable team in Major League Baseball, one would need in excess of $3.5 billion just to make an offer.

Dec. 7, 2015 — Trump forgets Muhammad Ali and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar ever existed

Dec. 14, 2015 — Trump comes to the defense of Pete Rose

President goes to bat for baseball’s all-time hits king.

July 7, 2016 — MLB’s Latin community wary of a Trump presidency

Major League Baseball has made a commitment to expand its game further into Mexico. One of Trump’s biggest campaign promises was to build a wall along the Mexican border. In a statement that becomes more prophetic by the day, then-San Francisco Giants infielder Ramiro Pena expressed concerns. “It does worry me a lot that he could be elected president,” he said. “For the Latin community … it would make things more difficult when it comes to immigration, based on what he has said. The comments he has made about Mexicans worry you.”

Aug. 29, 2016 — Trump says Kaepernick should find another country to live in

The biggest story in sports over the past year has been Colin Kaepernick and his refusal to stand for the national anthem (for the record, a controversial piece of music when taken literally) last season. “I think it’s a terrible thing, and, you know, maybe he should find a country that works better for him, let him try, it’s not gonna happen,” Trump said. This won’t be the last time the newbie politician addresses the quarterback.

Oct. 30, 2016 — Trump blames NFL ratings decline on the 2016 election … and Kaepernick

That’s because he would do it again two months later, just days before the 2016 election. When reports confirmed the NFL’s ratings had taken a double-digit hit, for Trump, only two things explained the trend. Politics was one, and in a sense he was right. The election was the story in America at the time. This was during the final weeks of the 2016 election, the most volatile and explosive perhaps in U.S. history. The second, Trump asserted, was, “Kaepernick. Kaepernick.”

Nov. 9, 2016 — LeBron searches for answers

LeBron James had officially endorsed Hillary Clinton for president. The day after the election, the four-time MVP joined millions across the country struggling to come to grips with the fact that candidate Trump was now officially President-elect Trump. With Kendrick Lamar’s classic rallying cry, “Alright,” as the soundtrack, ’Bron took to Instagram with an inspiring message. “Minorities and Women in all please know this isn’t the end, it’s just a very challenging obstacle that we will overcome!!” he said. “Even if who’s in office now doesn’t, Know that I LOVE [Y’ALL]!!” This wouldn’t be the last The King would address the 45th president.

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Nov. 16, 2016 — Mayweather visits Trump at Trump Tower

The photo of Floyd Mayweather, then sporting a 49-0 record, visiting Trump Tower did exactly what seems to be intended: ignite controversy stemming from both men’s past transgressions, in particular with women. Mayweather doubled down on the picture by attending the Trump inauguration two months later. As he’d said a week before to TMZ Sports, “Y’all gonna see me in D.C. looking good. I got a tux and everything ready.” More on Floyd/Trump shortly …

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Dec. 2, 2016 — Trump stiff-arms NFL’s ratings

President-elect Trump again relishes the NFL’s ratings debacle. “Down 20, 21 percent,” he gloated at a rally in Cincinnati, “and it was because of us.” Keyword there being us.

Dec. 5, 2016 — LeBron says no to a stay at a Trump hotel

Don’t expect to see LeBron James at Trump SoHo’s Bar d’Eau — or anyplace else on the property. James and several teammates refused the Trump accommodations during a New York road trip. When asked about his decision? “It’s just my personal preference,” he said.

Dec. 13, 2016 — Jim Brown, Ray Lewis have ‘fantastic’ meeting with Trump

Jim Brown and Ray Lewis are two of the greatest football players to ever live. The Hall of Fame running back and longtime activist and future first-ballot Hall of Fame linebacker have been two of Trump’s most prominent black supporters — and also two of the most prominent black athletes to denounce Kaepernick. Both apparently believe the Trump administration will stimulate economic development in urban areas and “change the whole scheme of what our kids see.” Brown and Lewis’ “fantastic” meeting with Trump two weeks before Christmas came just hours after Kanye West met with the president-elect.

Dec. 19, 2016 — Trump picks Florida Panthers owner Vincent Viola as nominee for Secretary of the Army

Billionaire Wall Street trader Vincent Viola, a 1977 West Point alum, served in the 101st Airborne Division and stayed in the U.S. Army Reserve after his active duty. Also? Viola is the owner of the NHL’s Florida Panthers. Two months later, Viola withdrew his name from consideration, citing the difficulty of “untangling himself from business ties.”

Feb. 8, 2017 — Stephen Curry wasn’t feeling Under Armour’s Trump love

First, Under Armour CEO Kevin Plank called President Trump an “asset” to the country. Second, and almost immediately, the company’s No. 1 ambassador, Steph Curry, denounced the company’s praise. Third, Under Armour released a statement saying the praise was meant from a business perspective only. Curry understood and appreciated the statement, but: “If there is a situation where I can look at myself in the mirror and say they don’t have my best intentions, they don’t have the right attitude about taking care of people,” Curry said. “If I can say the leadership is not in line with my core values, then there is no amount of money, there’s no platform I wouldn’t jump off if it wasn’t in line with who I am … that’s a decision I will make every single day when I wake up. If something is not in line with what I’m about, then, yeah, I definitely need to take a stance in that respect.” Bonus: Former WWE CEO and president Linda McMahon joined the administration in February 2017 as the head of the Small Business Administration.

March 21, 2017 — President Trump takes pride in Kaepernick’s exile

Four days before, Bleacher Report’s Mike Freeman reveals, per an unnamed AFC general manager, that some teams fear Trump’s response should Kaepernick be signed. This was all the 45th commander-in-chief needed to get him riled up. “Our inner cities will find a rebirth of hope, safety and opportunity,” he said during a speech in Kentucky. “Your San Francisco quarterback, I’m sure nobody ever heard of him.” He wasn’t done. “It was reported that NFL owners don’t want to pick him up because they don’t want to get a nasty tweet from Donald Trump. Do you believe that? I just saw that.”

April 19, 2017 — Half of the New England Patriots don’t make the trip to the White House

A total of 68 players were invited to pull up on President Trump at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. Only 34 made the trip. More than a few of them — most notably Martellus Bennett, who said so before even taking his shoulder pads off after the Patriots’ historic comeback victory in Super Bowl LI — were adamant their motivations for not going were strictly political. Tom Brady, a longtime Trump friend and proponent of Kaepernick’s return to the league, was a no-show as well.

May 14, 2017 — Popovich unloads on Trump

Legendary San Antonio Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich has a well-documented history of going directly at Trump. Pop’s pre-Spurs life — graduation from the Air Force Academy with a degree in Soviet Studies, time spent as an intelligence officer in Eastern Europe — gave added context to his criticisms of the president. Prior to Game 1 of the Western Conference finals vs. the Warriors, Pop gave his own impromptu State of the Union: “… To this day I feel like there’s a cloud, a pall, over the whole country, in a paranoid, surreal sort of way that’s got nothing to do with the Democrats losing the election,” he told reporters. “It’s got to do with the way one individual conducts himself. It’s embarrassing. It’s dangerous to our institutions and what we all stand for and what we expect the country to be. But for this individual, he’s at a game show and everything that happens begins and ends with him, not our people or our country. When he talks about those things, that’s just a ruse. That’s disingenuous, cynical and fake.” Tell ’em how you really feel, Pop.

June 14, 2017 — That’s gonna be a ‘no’ from Steph, dog

While the two-time MVP made news recently about not visiting the White House, let’s not act like he hasn’t been saying the same thing since the Warriors captured their second title in three years. “Somebody asked me about it a couple months ago, a hypothetical, if a championship were to happen: ‘What would I do?’ ” Curry said at his exit interview. “I answered that I wouldn’t go. That hasn’t changed.”

June 30, 2017 — Cubs reportedly wanted Trump to tell recently released catcher Miguel Montero he was “fired”

Backup Chicago Cubs catcher Miguel Montero was already going to be released. Three days prior, he threw starting pitcher Jake Arrieta under the bus after a stolen base fiasco. He was released from the team. On the surface, that was not necessarily a huge deal, but according to baseball savant Peter Gammons, some players and front-office personnel wanted to really rub it in on Montero by having Trump tell him, “You’re fired” (his Apprentice catchphrase) during an unofficial team White House visit. They ultimately decided against doing so.

Aug. 15, 2017 — LeBron, Steve Nash and the sports world react to Trump’s Charlottesville response

The entire country was fixated on the protests in Charlottesville that turned deadly. President Trump’s infamous comment about blame being on “both sides” doused gasoline on an already uncontrollable blaze, leading many athletes to voice their opinion.

Aug. 17, 2017 — Kevin Durant keeps it a buck

If there’s anyone who benefits from Trump going full Trump, it’s Kevin Durant — who recently has been the butt of jokes after his recent Twitter debacle. However, back in his hometown of Seat Pleasant, Maryland, last month, the 2017 Finals MVP let his feelings on visiting the White House be known. “Nah, I won’t do that,” he said. “I don’t respect who’s in office now.”

Sept. 13, 2017 — The White House calls for Jemele Hill’s job

The Six’s Jemele Hill sent the tweets heard ’round the world when she called Trump a white supremacist. The situation, however, spilled overboard when White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders dubbed the tweets “outrageous” and called for Hill’s job.

Sept. 15, 2017 — Mayweather co-signs Trump’s “locker room talk”

The biggest controversy Trump encountered on the campaign trail was, by far, the leaked audio from his 2005 Access Hollywood appearance, which included the phrase “grab them by the p—y.” Through a chain of events that no one saw coming, the gaffe didn’t cost Trump the election. And one person who didn’t have an issue with the comments was Floyd Mayweather. In the 50-0 champion’s eyes, Trump spoke how “real men” do. “Real men speak like, ‘Man, she had a fat a–. You see her a–? I had to squeeze her a–. I had to grab that fat a–.’ ” This is what Mayweather told Hollywood Unlocked. “So he’s talking locker room talk. Locker room talk. ‘I’m the man, you know what I’m saying? You know who I am. Yeah, I grabbed her by the p—y. And?’ ”

Sept. 22, 2017 — The ‘son of a bitch’ speech

For an administration that operates under anything but the veil of normal presidential decorum, last Friday’s speech was a special breed of aberrant. “Wouldn’t you love to see one of these NFL owners,” he said, “when somebody disrespects our flag, to say, ‘Get that son of a bitch off the field right now. Out. He’s fired! He’s fired!’ ”

Sept. 23, 2017 — Trump takes to Twitter to call out the sports world

On his platform of choice, Trump called out both Stephen Curry and the NFL for, essentially, not “sticking to sports.”

Sept. 23, 2017 — The NBA/NFL claps back at President Trump

While he would later post a video further expressing his thoughts, LeBron James caused all hell to break loose shortly before when he came to the defense of a man he’s squared off against during the past three NBA Finals. ’Bron, who is careful with his words, spared no feelings delivering a certified haymaker (which may or may not affect the fashion world):

Steph then saluted ’Bron for having his back and running the 2-on-1 political fast break with him. All while rhetorically wondering why the president chooses to demean certain individuals and not others.

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The responses came in droves. Dell Curry expressed unwavering support for his son. Kobe Bryant essentially said Trump lacks the #MambaMentality. Chris Paul responded with a two piece and a biscuit.

Draymond Green joined the party. As did his coach Steve Kerr. Kerr doubled back just in case his stance wasn’t clear the first time. Bradley Beal is still searching for answers. J.R. Smith is praying for Barack Obama’s return while seriously contemplating living in the gutter. Damian Lillard used a well-placed sleepover analogy. Commissioner Adam Silver was disappointed the Warriors opted out of a White House visit but said he was proud of the league’s players speaking out on issues resonating with them.

That’s just the NBA. Coincidentally, the University of North Carolina men’s basketball team announced it would no longer be visiting the White House. Oakland Athletics rookie catcher Bruce Maxwell became the first MLB player to kneel for the anthem. As for the NFL, the league released a lukewarm statement, whereas the NFLPA’s was far more direct. The league stands on the cusp of a truly monumental line in the sand. How the players respond Sunday and Monday night is a historic, generational defining moment that will assume immediate residency in the annals of the game’s legacy. Many wasted no time in expressing grievances, including Richard Sherman. Despite his comments regarding Kaepernick as a “distraction” last month, Bills running back LeSean McCoy tweeted, “It’s really sad man…our president is a asshole.” Others, like New Orleans Saints defensive end Cameron Jordan, called to mind Colin Kaepernick’s original protest. Yet, it’s Teresa Kaepernick whose response may have reverberated the most. She is, for the record, the mother of the athlete who helped light a fire to this entire movement.