How the Warriors become the wokest team in pro sports It’s a combination of all that winning, Oakland’s place in the black power movement and these unusual times

There’s a moment during his conversation about athletes and activism at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government when Golden State Warriors forward Draymond Green seems to shift his weight. Green, who was in town to face the Celtics later that November night, has altered his game day routine to be at the lunchtime event, which was initially scheduled for a classroom, but had to be moved to a conference center when more than 500 students signed up.

He takes the stage wearing high-top designer sneakers and a long-sleeved fishtail shirt. He folds his frame into a large wooden chair and fumbles with his microphone. “I wouldn’t pass up the opportunity to be speaking at Harvard. It’s like a dream come true,” says Green, before settling into his talk: Athletes should only champion issues they’re passionate about, he says. He discusses the pervasive tensions between young people and police, and the need to continue to educate himself about social justice.

When a student asks for a response to those who say he should stick to basketball, Green leans forward, drawing closer to the crowd. It’s an opening for Green to issue a philosophical declaration, a Contemplation on the Nature of Athlete and Society, although more social media–friendly.
And he delivers.

“That’s funny,” Green says, after pausing a moment. “People say athletes shouldn’t speak politics. Well, I find that funny, because everyone thinks they can speak basketball.” The crowd erupts in applause. It’s an authoritative answer from a guy with a 7-foot wingspan, extending to his full proportions in a completely different arena. And it’s representative of what we’ve been watching the Warriors do over and over, in high-profile ways, during the past year.

Black athlete-activists are not new, of course. Boxer Jack Johnson punched through racial barriers in the early 20th century, Jackie Robinson integrated baseball in 1947, Althea Gibson was the first person of color to win a grand slam title in 1956, and a dozen years later, Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised their black-gloved, black-power fists atop the medal stand in the Mexico City Olympics. In 2015, a protest by the Missouri football team over racism on campus forced the resignation of the university’s president, and the following year, LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony, Chris Paul and Dwyane Wade took the stage at the ESPY awards to urge athletes to speak out against injustice. A host of WNBA players, including Maya Moore and Tina Charles, have worn T-shirts supporting Black Lives Matter.

But these were individual athletes fighting for a cause, or teams engaging on one issue over a limited period of time.

The Warriors are something else entirely: They’re the NBA’s winningest team, in possibly the country’s most progressive market, with the most politically outspoken players and coach, during the most racially polarized period in two generations. It’s an evolutionary development in the power and influence of the American citizen-athlete, with commensurate risks to their reputations and livelihoods. (See: Kaepernick, Colin R.) The Dubs are not simply basketball superstars, they might just be the most progressive—the most woke—team in the history of professional sports.


It was a morning in late September, one day after Warriors guard Steph Curry told reporters at the team’s media day that he’d vote to skip the traditional NBA champions White House visit, and Curry’s wife, Ayesha, was waking him up, laughing.

“Trump tweeted about you,” Ayesha said.

“I reached up to grab my phone,” Curry remembers now, “and I had about 20 text messages.” President Donald Trump had rescinded the yet-to-be-issued White House invitation, tweeting at Curry that since he was hesitating, “invitation is withdrawn!”

Suddenly, Curry, the family-friendly face of the franchise, was at the center of one of the year’s biggest sports and politics stories.

The team had planned to meet that day at its Oakland practice facility to decide collectively about whether to make the trip. Instead, the day unfolded in a mixture of both gravity and weirdness. Curry recalls the next several hours being “surreal.”

“I’m like, ‘He said he’s not inviting you. We can still go,’” Green says with a laugh. “We really, honestly made a joke of it.”

More than three months later, before an early-January practice, Curry seems unbruised by the incident—and no less supportive of his team: “When I talk about just being informed and thoughtful and passionate about what you believe in, we have guys all up and down this roster who kind of fall into that category.” His own thoughtfulness springs from a childhood during which his mother, Sonya, shared experiences of growing up in a low-income neighborhood in Radford, Virginia. “The family as a whole had a lot of run-ins with police and things like that in Radford and a lot of racism growing up there,” Curry says, “so she has a lot of stories around that.”

“But what if we don’t win? Do these stories get written? Do these things get said?”—Warriors GM Bob Myers

His father, Dell Curry, is the all-time leading scorer for the Hornets. And while the family was well-off, Steph says he was always conscious of being black—and his obligations to the black people around him. He attended a small Christian high school; of the 360 kids there, maybe 14 were African-American.

“We all sat at the same lunch table,” he says, “so we had a very tight community group that understood we were different in that space. I think we learned to protect that identity a little bit and celebrate it and have each other’s back.” And when he played AAU basketball with black kids from area public schools, he came to understand the differences in the worlds they inhabited—how some families struggled to put gas in the tank for an out-of-town tournament, but also that “we all had some common ground that we could appreciate about each other.” It was a figure-it-out-together quality, for the team, for the culture, that he took into adulthood.

And though last fall’s Twitter firestorm was unusual because it pitted Curry against the president of the United States, it was only an extreme example of what many players on the Warriors are doing.

Last summer Curry and forward Andre Iguodala, who have invested in tech start-ups, organized a technology summit for NBA players. “I’m trying to bust down a door” for my people, Iguodala says. In October, after ESPN reported that Houston Texans owner Bob McNair had likened pro football protesters to “inmates running the prison,” Green posted on Instagram that because of its historical freight, the NFL should “stop using the word owner.” Other players, including forwards David West and Kevin Durant, have found purpose or purchase to speak about history and their growing racial awareness. Coach Steve Kerr routinely talks about politics at his news conferences, and last February he tweeted, “I subscribed to The Washington Post today because facts matter.”

Draymond Green and Andre Iguodala high five during game.

Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images

What gives them the cover and authority to stray so far and so publicly from the topics society typically wants to hear from people who play basketball for a living? One could say it’s their birthright as citizens to exercise the democratic mandates of civic participation and engagement in service of that foundational American imperative to form a more perfect union. But, sike nah. It’s all that winning they be doing.

Barring calamity, the Warriors are favored to advance to the Finals for the fourth consecutive year. And winning, Green says, strengthens them in a number of ways: “No. 1, you got so much attention at all times. No. 2, you’re a champion, they want to see what you got to say. You’re doing something so great that it gives you even more of a voice. … No one cares what a loser has to say.”

They’re a talented team, says general manager Bob Myers, “with a variety of leaders of high character,” and that affords them a degree of buy-in for their off-court views. “But at the same time, I think it’s something you have to protect. It seems to work for us because we win. But what if we don’t win? Do these stories get written? Do these things get said?”

America tells itself a story that success—in sports and elsewhere—is predicated upon competitiveness, discipline, hard work and character. Sports is as essential as religion to reinforcing those values to the nation, says Harry Edwards, an author, activist and consultant for the Warriors and 49ers, who organized the 1968 Olympic Project for Human Rights that ultimately led to the protest in Mexico City. It has scribes, departed saints (Vince Lombardi, Red Auerbach) and hallowed halls of fame. “It has sacred implements,” he says. “The ball that Hank [Aaron] hit over the fence when he broke Babe Ruth’s record, which people will pay millions for.”

When winning athletes—let alone winning black athletes—question the validity of mainstream definitions, it sets up an acute civic dissonance. Kaepernick or Carlos or Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf become heretics and are punished as such. But the all-I-do-is-win-win-win Warriors have amassed so much cultural capital that they are not only worshipped, they’re widely heard.

All that discipline, smarts, true-grit stuff? Their winning proves it works, Edwards says. But their activism challenges whether it works for people in Oakland and East St. Louis and the South Side of Chicago.

The fact that they get to keep saying it is not only because they’re winning—it’s because winning in the Bay Area is a whole other thing.


Outside his DOPE ERA clothing shop (During Oppression People Evolve, Everyone Rises Above) in North Oakland, Mistah F.A.B. (aka Stanley Cox) muses about whether the Warriors are, in fact, the most politically progressive team ever. He’s a rap artist and community activist who once did a freestyle rap about the Warriors that foreclosed that option to anyone who has thought about trying it since. Now he recalls Smith and Carlos and cites the Clippers wearing their warm-up jerseys reversed to protest racist remarks by then-team owner Donald Sterling in 2014. But “I can’t even think of a team in contention for social relevance,” he says, “in the way the Warriors are demonstrating now.”

Some of that stems from Oakland itself. For more than half a century, Oakland and the Bay Area have been synonymous with the black consciousness movement, Angela Davis and the Black Panthers. They’ve welcomed the Free Speech Movement, anti-war protests and the Haight-Ashbury counterculture. The cities by the bay have been an incubator for gay rights, anti-fascism and Black Lives Matter.

Sitting behind the baseline of Court One at their Oakland practice facility, Durant recalls the poor D.C.-area neighborhood where he grew up, noting the ways his head has changed in the time he’s traveled from there to here. “You can feel that culture when you get here,” says Durant, who signed with the Warriors in 2016 and was last year’s Finals MVP. As a child, he lived off Pennsylvania Avenue, “so you could drive 10 miles from the front of the White House … and you’re gonna run into where I grew up.” He knew where that street in front of his house led, who was living there and what it meant to be the head of state, he says, though he often tuned out all of those civics lessons, along with anything else that was happening off the court.

Kevin Durant waves to fans while holding the NBA Larry O’Brien Championship Trophy through the community that he grew up in Prince George’s County in Maryland.

Ting Shen for The Undefeated

He calls his neighborhood 95 percent black with “80 percent of us living in poverty” and says he was so hell-bent on getting out that he turned a blind eye to the ways people were struggling to make it. It was a part of his soul he kept on ice, and he sometimes wishes he could tell his younger self to open his eyes and offer a little more hope and joy “to people who struggled, the way I struggled.” Because black joy is resistance.

“Just walking around downtown Oakland, just driving around East Oakland, getting to the game every day, you could just tell that somebody fought and died for these streets that we were riding in,” Durant says. Once you know that, you can’t unknow it. Some wonder if that community connection will continue after the Warriors move to San Francisco’s Chase Center for the 2019-20 season. For now, though, Durant is focused on what’s before him: “You can appreciate the people that built this community. And it’s not because of the Warriors, but I think we do a really great job of adding onto something that was already incredible. The Warriors now, especially with the team we have, we are kind of carrying the torch for being the socially conscious team. There are a bunch of guys that just want to start a conversation about how we can be better as a nation, as a community.”


Before every practice or shootaround, the Warriors players gravitate to a group of 20 chairs in a corner of the gym near the weight room. Kerr stands in front of the group and talks about the practice plan, the upcoming schedule and other matters. Unlike most other NBA teams, “other matters” sometimes includes Trump’s latest tweets, the Alabama Senate election or the reign of the late Moammar Gadhafi in Libya.

It’s a little Woke U in front of the TV where they watch game film, a spur-of-the-moment conversation guided by the events of the day and the passions of those who feel like speaking up. They share what they know and bookmark what they don’t for further reading after they change out of practice shorts and shirts.

Kerr is part of a small contingent of white coaches with a reputation for being thoughtful and outspoken about race, politics and social justice. The group includes Spurs coach Gregg Popovich and former Bulls coach Phil Jackson, both of whom Kerr played for, as well as the Pistons’ Stan Van Gundy.

“When I came here, I had a feeling that Coach Kerr was kind of open-minded about everything,” Durant says. “And I heard the organization was that way. But once you get into it and we talk about Trump winning the election before practice and before a game, and if we won a championship, what would happen—that stuff gets your mind thinking about what is going on outside the gym.

“And it has all our minds moving and working. And now I’m just caught up on everything that’s going on in the world. When you’re naive and when you just think about what you’re passionate about and what you love every day, you tend to forget about what is outside. Coming in here gives you a taste of both: your love and passion but also the real world. I love it.”

“There are a bunch of guys that just want to start a conversation about how we can be better as a nation, as a community.”—Kevin Durant

Says West, a two-time All-Star: “Steve and I, when we interact, basketball’s like the last thing we talk about.” For years, without media attention, West has been engaged in his own demonstration during the national anthem. He stands last in line and a foot behind the rest of his team, in silent protest over issues of race, education, infant mortality and black life expectancy.

Before coming to the Warriors as a free agent in 2016, West says, he expected Green to be outspoken and had heard Curry was well-read. But Kerr’s interest in politics and his support of players’ curiosity and engagement was, for West, a revelation. “He just blurts out, like, ‘Morning, fellas, look at this crazy s— going on in Alabama.’ You know what I mean? Just like that, he jumps right out there.”

Golden State Warriors head coach Steve Kerr, left, talks with guard Stephen Curry during the second half of Game 2 of basketball’s NBA Finals against the Cleveland Cavaliers in Oakland, Calif., Sunday, June 4, 2017.

AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez

One day in mid-December, a reporter is sitting with Kerr along the Court One sideline and asks about Democrat Doug Jones’ win in the Alabama special election over Republican Roy Moore, who was accused of sexual misconduct with minors. Kerr starts cautiously, then builds momentum: “I think it’s interesting that it just felt like a moment that we could hold on to some hope. But I don’t want that to sound like a liberal/conservative issue, because it really is not for me. It’s character. And I don’t even know Doug Jones. I just know that he doesn’t molest young girls, and so that’s a victory.”

Against a background of bouncing balls and other ambient gym noise, Kerr begins a small tangent on the fall of the Roman Empire and the dangers of internal decay. The part of him not consumed by basketball is fixated on history and politics, and it’s a focus he encourages in others. “Not only is it important from the standpoint that we’re all citizens and human beings and we should know what’s going on in the world, but it’s also important for the players to have balance in their lives.”

Clearly, though, nothing animates him like gun control, some of which has to do with family history. His father, Malcolm Kerr, was president of the American University of Beirut when he was killed by gunmen in 1984. But Kerr says he’d feel passionately about the issue anyway. It’s insane, he says, “that we can’t come to a place where sensible gun control makes sense to people, that we can just live in a country where 500-plus people can be shot from a hotel room floor and yet the very next government measure is actually to loosen the gun measures.”

“Steve and I, when we interact, basketball’s like the last thing we talk about.”—David West on his relationship with his coach

Kerr says he’s guided by a Popovich expression—by an accident of birth—as in, “By an accident of birth, you’ve lived the life you’ve lived, I’ve lived the life I’ve lived. It’s important for all of us to put ourselves in somebody else’s shoes.” He says his ability to empathize has been shaped by travel and the diversity he’s experienced as a teammate of black and Latino players. “It’s like you’re thrown into this locker room with people who have lived a totally different life and see the world differently from you. It’s incredibly healthy.”

And the guy who hired Kerr? He cosigns it all. “Who am I to tell them what to feel, how to think?” Myers says. “All I would say and what we tell our guys is, educate yourself, try to speak intelligently on something. Research it, try to look at both sides. Then, whatever you’ve gotta say, say it.”


The Warriors have just beaten the Mavericks 112-97 on a December evening, and Iguodala, who finished with two points but a game-high 10 assists, is standing at his locker. He’s talking not about the game but about the past, and the situational awareness he needs for the present and the future.

“I know about people who grew up the way I did, and I know about their struggle and I know about things that are set up for them not to succeed,” says Iguodala, a 14-year veteran who grew up in Springfield, Illinois. This is the way life is set up, he tells his 10-year-old son: “You’re black, you’re an African-American man,” so you’ve got to be aware of your surroundings.

And you have to choose the things you allow into your head. Iguodala has recently reread Ta-Nehisi Coates’ The Beautiful Struggle and has just finished Things Fall Apart, the classic African novel by Chinua Achebe. “I curate everything that comes into my brain,” he says. “Though there’s still some BS in there, like some funny stuff. I’m still fighting that.”

It’s that determined curiosity that distinguishes the Warriors, says Edwards: “What is singular about the Golden State Warriors, and it’s the only thing that you can really ask and legitimately project about a team like Golden State, they’re the greatest, most informed, the most intelligent, the most critically and vitally political of their era.”

It’s an era shaped by images of police shooting citizens, a video canon watched by players, who recognize that their own privilege and relative immunity doesn’t extend to people who look like them, or to anyone else they love. It’s an era in which fundamental national questions we thought had been asked and answered about race and equality are being re-engaged.

It’s also an era in which athletes, especially in the NBA, have both financial power and the ability through social media to connect with millions worldwide. They can hit send without a coach’s or general manager’s permission, or third-party translation. Even Ali couldn’t spread his message without intermediaries.

The times have both framed the issues and compelled the responses. Like the men and women who came before them, the Warriors are responding to what the moment calls for.

Black-athlete activism began with the struggle for legitimacy, then access, then dignity and now power. And those struggles existed in a broader context. You can’t talk about Jackie Robinson and the integration of sports separate from the civil rights movement. You can’t talk about Jim Brown or Arthur Ashe without Black Power. And now you can’t talk about Kaepernick, the national anthem protests or the political levitation of the Golden State Warriors without the frame of the Black Lives Matter movement.

When Green tied a critique of the word “owner” to the history of white men and slave labor, Mavericks owner Mark Cuban called on him to apologize. Green responded by saying, “I don’t expect him to understand. … He don’t know the feeling I get when I turn on the TV and see an unarmed black man got shot by a white police officer.” Those comments instantly became part of the national race conversation.

But that, Kerr says, won’t always be the case. “The inevitable downturn will come,” Kerr says, “and when we’re not winning at such a high rate, maybe there will be a different reaction” to their words, to their positions on social issues and the athlete-activists publicly creating new forms of influence in America.

Kerr says the Warriors don’t spend time thinking about that future or their place in history. Instead, the most woke coach on the most thoughtful team in the history of pro sports encourages his players to meet this standard: Say what you feel, “as long as you’re true to your convictions.”

The history will take care of itself.

This story appears in ESPN The Magazine’s Feb. 5 State of the Black Athlete Issue. Subscribe today!

Before you clap back at H&M ad boy’s mother, understand that context matters Her world is a little different from yours

As a kid growing up in Jamaica, the only sport I ever played — at recess, in the house, in the neighborhood — was futbol. You couldn’t tell me I wasn’t destined to be the next Pelé, the Brazilian star who brought the South American country its first World Cup title in 1958 when he was all of 17. Futbol, in my world, was really the only sport worth watching and playing, with all due respect to cricket.

But when a packed Eastern Airlines flight touched down at Washington National Airport on May 7, 1982, American football entered my world. I became a fast Redskins fan, growing to admire the quiet but effective leadership style of coach Joe Gibbs; the bruising running of John Riggins; even the team’s brash, single-bar-helmet-wearing quarterback Joe Theismann. So big a “Riggo” fan, I asked my middle school soccer coach to assign me his jersey number: 44.

I remember watching a Monday Night Football telecast on Sept. 5, 1983, where legendary sportscaster Howard Cosell said of Redskins wide receiver Alvin Garrett: “That little monkey gets loose, doesn’t he?”

The response to Cosell’s description of the 5-foot-7, 178-pound wide receiver was quick, even in our pre-social media world. The Rev. Joseph Lowery, then president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, denounced Cosell’s comment as racist and demanded a public apology.

But Cosell refused to do so, citing his past support for black athletes, Muhammad Ali being the biggest, and stated that “little monkey” was a term of endearment he had used in the past for not just black athletes but also for diminutive athletes of all shades, white included. (Cosell is on record having used the term 11 years before in describing Mike Adamle, a white journeyman running back who played for the NFL’s Kansas City Chiefs, New York Jets and Chicago Bears.)

Cosell, then 64 years old, admitted to calling his own grandson a little monkey; he’d leave the Monday Night Football booth after that 1983 season, citing his waning interest in professional football.

This week I harkened back to that moment in time when the pictures of an African-American boy, Liam, in an H&M ad wearing a hoodie with the words “Coolest monkey in the jungle” inscribed on it broke Twitter.

The response on social was fast and furious. Manchester United and Belgian national soccer star Romelu Lukaku, LeBron James, Diddy, The Weeknd and many more were among the big names to slam H&M, calling for shoppers to boycott the Swedish clothing company.

When Cosell said, “That little monkey gets loose, doesn’t he?” my 13-year-old self missed it. Completely. I don’t remember my parents discussing it in the house in the days that followed. But this much I’m sure of: Even if my parents had heard the comment, I doubt there’d have been an outcry for Cosell’s dismissal from his job. Why? As West Indians, raised in the Caribbean and educated in the U.K., our sensibilities toward issues of race, racism and social activism were far different from 1983 America’s.

It matters not that Cosell used the term in reference to a white player. It doesn’t matter that he used it toward his own family. The bottom line is there are people who were offended when he used it in reference to an African-American player; therefore, he should have apologized for it and never done it again.

Why? Because he used the term out of context, and context matters.

So I understand that Liam’s mom didn’t grow up here and is Nigerian-Swedish and is not tuned in to the many nuances of being woke in America. So … she don’t get it, but it doesn’t matter — because there are people who were offended. In American context, the sweatshirt was out of context and that reference is offensive. So H&M should apologize, which it did, and never do it again. Ever.

Know this: What happened to that kid in the H&M ad could never have happened to my sons — not if I am breathing, anyway, and certainly not if I’d been on that photo shoot. No doubt, my reaction to the ad was no different from yours; I share the outrage, particularly at such a time in America where subtle and not-so-subtle racism in all its forms, from intentional and murderous to intentional and microaggressive, has dominated our lives, from the athletic field to the White House.

When the mother of 5-year-old Liam ranted on social that America’s reaction to the image was “unnecessary,” I suspected she might not be African-American. (Turns out, Terry Mango moved to Sweden from Nigeria.)

In a series of Facebook posts, Mango urged critics, including high-profile musicians and sports stars, to “get over it” and to “stop crying wolf.”

She wrote: “Am the mum and this is one of hundreds of outfits my son has modelled… stop crying wolf all the time, unnecessary issue here… get over it [sic]. … ‘Not coz am choosing not to but because it’s not my way of thinking sorry [sic].’ ” In a separate post, she added: “Everyone is entitled to their opinion.”

That last point is probably Mango’s best, and only, good one. Growing up in Jamaica, we all spoke different versions of the patois dialect — and that included Chinese-Jamaicans, white Jamaican and Indian-Jamaicans and various combinations thereof. Our issue in Jamaica is not one of race, it’s of class. We had, and still have, a class problem.

Mango’s reaction tells me that this simply wasn’t her reality growing up; the American reaction irked her, maybe even surprised her too.

I have two black sons, ages 16 and 13 (and a daughter too). The world they live in scares the bejesus out of me; I worry about them walking home from school or, God forbid, driving my car without fear of being randomly harassed by police, who are supposed to protect them. Those are the fears that sparked this “quick” reaction, and Mango, I suspect, doesn’t understand that because that is not her reality. For those reasons alone, the national reaction cannot be deemed a small deal.

As you’d imagine and may have seen, Mango has taken more than a few hits on social, and for her comments, perhaps it’s well-deserved. She won’t have to defend herself to me. But I do hope that when the dust settles, she will look at this episode as a teachable moment — for herself and for young Liam, because the world in her head is not the world little Liam will live in.

Former walk-on at Temple now stars in ‘She’s Gotta Have It’ Actor Rafael V. DeLeon says meeting Spike Lee at NBA All-Star Weekend was a dream come true

Former college basketball player Rafael V. DeLeon got the introduction of a lifetime during NBA All-Star Weekend in 2015 when he met famed film director Spike Lee. He promised himself that he’d grind until he got the chance to work on a film with Lee.

That promise was fulfilled when DeLeon was cast in Lee’s newest project with Netflix, She’s Gotta Have It, a 10-episode dramedy that follows a young woman, Nola Darling (DeWanda Wise), who dates three very different men in current-day Brooklyn, New York.

The series is a reworking of the 1986 film of the same name that launched Lee’s career. Besides directing, he also starred in it as the character Mars Blackmon, an aspiring rapper and one of Darling’s love interests. In an interview with The New York Times in 1986, Lee described the film as being about a woman “leading her life like a man, in control, with three men dangling at her fingertips.”

In the series, DeLeon plays Manny Garciela, the best friend to Blackmon (Anthony Ramos).

DeLeon played for Temple University, where he started out as a walk-on and worked his way up to an athletic scholarship. After earning his degree in business administration and marketing, he landed a job working for the mayor of Washington, D.C., in the Executive Office of Boards and Commissions. The actor has also appeared in House of Cards, The Americans and The Breaks.

The Undefeated spoke with DeLeon about working with Lee, why Will Smith from The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air was his childhood hero and lessons he’s learned growing up black and Puerto Rican in America.


What do you hope viewers take from the Netflix series?

When Spike did the original film in ’86, he was already in uncharted territory on what was commonplace in cinema at the time. Since then, a lot has changed in culture as it relates to marriage and equality. Spike touches on some of that content from the original film, but with this remake, there’s a strong focus on black women, their liberation and being the captain of their own fate.

How was it working with Lee?

Spike is awesome! On set we were deciding on certain dance moves, and he asked me to do the worm at one point. He’s so collaborative and asks questions that really brings the best out of actors. It was a dream come true to work with him.

How did you get into playing basketball at the collegiate level?

I was always taller than my classmates as a kid, and pretty skinny and lanky too. I grew up in Prince George’s County, Maryland, which had a strong reputation for hoopers, so I gravitated toward basketball and made use of my height. I played collegiately at Averett University in Danville, Virginia, my freshman year. I knew that I wanted to play at the highest level, so the summer going into my sophomore year I sent some of my [game] tapes to the assistant coaching staff at Temple. I knew that Temple’s basketball program was in transition, so I thought if there was ever an opportunity to get a fresh start with the new coaching staff and program, then would be the time. I started off as a walk-on and made the team.

Temple Owls forward Rafael DeLeon (center) passes away from the double-team.

Howard Smith-USA TODAY Sports

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

Muhammad Ali. Being stripped of his title in the middle of his prime and having the self-confidence to stare the unknown down while also maintaining his sense of self is something that I aspire to. Second would be LeBron James. I admire his athletic greatness. For players to navigate the world, especially in this current climate, is a fine art. LeBron does a phenomenal job both on and off the court.

After college graduation, what drew you to working in politics?

I have a strong passion for social activism and justice. When I graduated from college, it was 2010 and President Barack Obama was in office. One of my focus areas was outreach and helping move the conversation along in actionable way. I felt like politics was the quickest and most impactful way to make change, both on the systemic and personal level.

What have you learned from working in politics as a man of color?

There are a lot of variables in play in the political space. Some of it works contrary to what the perceived greater good is, and vice versa. As a biracial man of color in America, there have been things that I recognized from an early age. As a kid, I would get asked about why my father looked the way he did. Being in an African-American-dominated county, my father being Puerto Rican stood out. I was aware of how I was perceived at a very young age … when you add on to that the layers of middle-class America and how that looks to white America, I began to kind of see different levels of it play out at different stages. In college I studied business administration, and in my upper-level classes there weren’t a lot of people who looked like me. I witnessed and experienced little trickle-down effects of just how deeply entrenched certain societal mechanisms were.

Who was your childhood hero?

Will from The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. When you look back, you see that the entire premise of the show was watching Will try to assimilate to a completely different culture and norm based on socioeconomic status. That in itself is like … whoa! The level of comedy and topics discussed was done so tactfully. It had a lasting effect on me and laid the groundwork and planted the seeds for where I am today, as far as being aware and identifying different things in life and culture.

What lessons have you learned from basketball that you’ve transferred to your acting career?

Making the team and the successes that we had as a team at Temple really showed me how it takes courage to take a leap of faith. If you keep doing that, good things will happen — shoutout to [Redskins quarterback] Kirk Cousins who said that — and you can chart your own course. I’ve always been interested in film and the arts, so when I told my parents about pursuing acting, they were really supportive. I had a track record at that point for leaving something that was secure for something that wasn’t and making it work.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?

‘Never get too high. Never get too low.’ My dad told me that. Especially as an actor in New York, the highs are extremely high and the lows are pretty low, as far as when you’re in between jobs or casting says, ‘No, thanks.’ Maintaining that center of balance and not allowing too much success get to your head, and not beating yourself up too much when things aren’t going your way, have been extremely valuable in all elements of my life.

These black women owned 2017 Meet the women who shook up sports, culture and more

Yes, 2017 was a rough one. But it was also a year of black women fully stepping into their power. From athletes to activists to writers to filmmakers to curators, these black women are truly Undefeated.

 

Serena Williams

Serena Williams waves to the crowd as she leaves the court with the Daphne Akhurst Trophy on Jan. 28 after winning the women’s singles final of the 2017 Australian Open against her sister Venus Williams at Melbourne Park in Australia.

Scott Barbour/Getty Images

What a year it was for Serena Williams, arguably the greatest athlete ever. She won the Australian Open, her 23rd Grand Slam singles title, while eight weeks pregnant. She gave birth to her daughter, Alexis Olympia Ohanian Jr., in September and married longtime beau and Reddit founder Alexis Ohanian in a dream wedding in November — and Nike just named a building after her. She’s already making plans to defend her Australian Open title in 2018.

 

Dee rees

Dee Rees poses for a portrait in New York City on Oct. 11.

Kholood Eid for The Undefeated

Dee Rees, who made the critically acclaimed Pariah and the Emmy Award-winning Bessie, has directed a new American classic with Mudbound, a sprawling post-World War II epic that follows the lives of a sharecropping family and the family that owns the land. Although the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has been resistant to movies distributed by Netflix, if there’s any kind of justice in the world, Rees, a product of historically black Florida A&M university, will be nominated for an Academy Award for best director.

 

the nigerian women’s bobsled team

From left: Brakewoman Akuoma Omeoga, driver Seun Adigun and brakewoman Ngozi Onwumere.

Courtesy the Bobsled and Skeleton Sports Federation of Nigeria

You’ll do well to remember the names: Akuoma Omeoga, Seun Adigun and Ngozi Onwumere. They have made history as the first African team to qualify for the Winter Olympics in the bobsled category. And this will be the first time Nigeria has been represented in the Winter Olympics. All three women are sprinters, and Adigun, who founded the bobsled team in 2016, competed in the 2012 Summer Olympics. The team will head to Pyeongchang, South Korea, in February to compete for a medal.

 

tiffany haddish

Tiffany Haddish was the breakout star of the most successful comedy of the year, Girls Trip. She became the first black woman stand-up comic to host Saturday Night Live. In addition to a Showtime comedy special, she appeared in Jay-Z’s video for “Moonlight,” which satirized Friends; published a book; starred in The New York Times‘ annual “Greatest Performers” portfolio; and next year, she’ll be producing and starring in a satirical thriller with John Cho. The question for the last black unicorn isn’t “What will she do next?” but “What can’t she do?”

 

munroe bergdorf

Munroe Bergdorf is a British social activist, DJ and model who in August 2017 became the first transgender model to appear in a L’Oréal campaign. She was fired after the Daily Mail surfaced Facebook posts where she spoke out against racism and white supremacy and called for better understanding of systemic injustice. The 30-year-old hasn’t let any of that stop her, though. She signed a new contract with the U.K. beauty brand Illamasqua, is working with The Huffington Post on a new docuseries and continues to speak out against racial and social injustice.

 

sloane stephens

Sloane Stephens of the United States reacts after receiving her check for her victory against compatriot Madison Keys in the women’s singles final at the US Open tennis tournament on Sept. 9 in Flushing, Queens, New York City.

Tim Clayton/Corbis via Getty Images

Sloane Stephens made history in September when she won the US Open vs. Madison Keys. She also became only the fourth black woman to win a Grand Slam singles title, after Althea Gibson, Venus Williams and Serena Williams. What makes Stephens’ success all the more remarkable is the foot injury and subsequent low ranking she overcame to get back to the top. Another victory Stephens completed this year? Graduating from Indiana University East with a degree in communication studies.

Jesmyn Ward

Author Jesmyn Ward hit the “nerd lottery” this year when she was awarded a MacArthur “genius” grant. She was one of 24 people honored by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation with a $625,000 prize. Ward, who wrote the award-winning novels Salvage the Bones and Sing, Unburied, Sing as well as the James Baldwin-inspired essay collection The Fire This Time, teaches at Tulane University in New Orleans and lives in her home state of Mississippi.

rujeko Hockley

Curator Rujeko Hockley has been shaking up the art world with her focus on exhibiting works by black women artists. Hockley, who was the assistant curator of contemporary art at the Brooklyn Museum before heading to the Whitney Museum of American Art, organized the traveling exhibit We Wanted a Revolution: Black Radical Women, 1965-85, which is now on display at the California African American Museum. She was also recently tapped to co-curate the 2019 Whitney Biennial, an exhibit of contemporary American art, typically by young and lesser-known artists.

Wnba teams

Top: The Indiana Fever kneel during the national anthem before the game against the Phoenix Mercury on Sept. 21, 2016, in Indianapolis. Bottom: The Phoenix Mercury stand and kneel during the national anthem before the game against the Minnesota Lynx on Sept. 30, 2016, in St. Paul, Minnesota.

Ron Hoskins/NBAE via Getty Images; David Sherman/NBAE via Getty Images;

While NFL players have been garnering attention this year for kneeling to protest police brutality, WNBA players have been consistent in their social activism, and it started before 2017. In addition to kneeling, players from multiple teams have been catching fines for wearing T-shirts in support of #BlackLivesMatter and have held news conferences to speak out against police brutality.

lena Waithe

Lena Waithe

Steve Granitz/WireImage

Lena Waithe, who penned the instant classic “Thanksgiving” episode of the second season of Master of None, made history this year as the first black woman to win an Emmy for comedy writing. Waithe also wrote and produced The Chi, a TV series for Showtime based on her experience growing up on Chicago’s South Side. It premieres in January, and if she isn’t nominated for multiple awards, we will eat our hats.

ava duvernay

It’s Ava DuVernay’s world, and we’re just living in it. In this year alone, DuVernay earned a Peabody, a BAFTA and four Emmys for 13th, her documentary about mass incarceration in the United States. She also produced season two of the critically acclaimed OWN drama Queen Sugar and hired all-women directing teams for each episode. DuVernay also landed on the cover of Time as part of their “First” series and will be releasing her adaptation of the classic fantasy novel A Wrinkle in Time in March 2018.

maame biney

Maame Biney takes the corner on her way to victory in the women’s 500-meter A final for a spot on the Olympic team during the 2018 U.S. Speedskating Short Track Olympic Team Trials at the Utah Olympic Oval on Dec. 16 in Salt Lake City.

Harry How/Getty Images

Maame Biney, a 17-year-old from Washington, D.C., who was born in Ghana, just qualified for the Winter Olympics in speedskating, making her the first black girl to do so.
This tweet really says it all:

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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Survivor’s Remorse (2014-17)

Courtesy of Starz

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

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

Varsity Blues (1999)

The cast of Varsity Blues.

Getty Images

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

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

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

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

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

The Longest Yard (2005)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The White Shadow (1978-81)

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

CBS Photo Archive/Getty Images

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

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

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

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

Eddie (1996)

Whoopi Goldberg (center) starred in Eddie.

Getty Images

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

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

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

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

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

You use an intermediary.

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

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

David Robinson’s advice on effective social change: ‘Slow down’ ‘The Admiral’ says it took years to get his school and investment fund up and running

SAN ANTONIO — The students making their way through a first-floor corridor at Carver Academy and College Prep grew wide-eyed when they bumped into the school’s founder. A few gasped when the still-trim, 7-foot-1 Spurs legend David Robinson stopped to wave, and they beamed when he posed for a few selfies.

Most of these young people were not yet born when Robinson’s Hall of Fame NBA career ended in 2003. But, to them, the man nicknamed “the Admiral” is as much a star for what he has done off the court as for what he did on it.

Robinson launched what was then called Carver Academy 16 years ago with $10 million of his own money. It began as a small parochial school serving elementary students, but it is now a publicly funded charter school that enrolls more than 1,100 pupils. Most of the students are Hispanic or black, and most of them are from low-income families. Nearly all of them are on track for college, school officials say.

We’re in an age when athletes are embracing social activism in a way that rivals anything in the past. Following the lead of former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, scores of NFL players have stirred a national debate by taking a knee or sitting during the national anthem to call attention to police brutality and racial injustice. Others have worn T-shirts or hoodies to protest the deaths of Eric Garner or Trayvon Martin. Many athletes have started foundations or otherwise tried to leverage their wealth and fame to spur social change.

It is a level of consciousness that heartens the 52-year-old Robinson. And while Robinson is careful not to criticize any protesting players, he says it remains to be seen whether their strong words will be matched by meaningful deeds — or make the kind of difference that is happening at Carver.

“There is certainly more awareness now. Guys understand their influence and opportunity,” Robinson said. “I’ve talked to a lot of young athletes. They care. They want to do something significant. The question is, how? How do they do it?”

It is something Robinson knows firsthand. It took him years to turn his dream of a school into reality. He says the athletes eager to make change should be prepared for a similar struggle.

A line of students eagerly greet David Robinson as they walk to their next classroom at the IDEA Carver College Prep campus. “I’m a teacher at heart,” said Robinson. “I’m a lifelong student.”

Julysa Sosa for The Undefeated

“Guys in the NBA visit Carver all the time. Some of them say, ‘This is great. I want to start a school too,’ ” Robinson said. “My reaction is usually, ‘Wait. Slow down.’ You’ve got to be sure this is what you want to do. There is so much to learn. It is daunting. When a lot of guys come into the league, they are not prepared to write a check, much less run a school or build something.”

Robinson’s patient brand of activism led him to not only open a school but to also co-found Admiral Capital Group, a private equity firm that helps pay for his good deeds. Admiral controls more than $1 billion in office space, hotels and apartment developments. The company also has invested alongside several NBA and NFL team owners in an online platform that helps coaches at all levels break down game film as well as a separate online platform that automates management of youth athletic leagues. The firm sets aside 10 percent of its profits for donations aimed at making social change.

“The business is a sustainable way of making a long-term impact,” said Daniel Bassichis, a former Goldman Sachs banker and the firm’s co-founder, who once served on Carver’s board. “It has a constant income, which is key. Most [athletes’] foundations do not have this kind of income.”

Admiral has also helped guide investments by other professional athletes, including Spurs guard Tony Parker, former NFL defensive lineman Justin Tuck (who served an internship with the firm as an MBA student) and retired major league outfielder Torii Hunter. Not only are the investors immersed in the details of their investments, but they also receive advice on how to make lasting social change.

“There is so much to learn. It is daunting. When a lot of guys come into the league, they are not prepared to write a check, much less run a school or build something.”

For instance, each year the firm hires 25 Houston-area high school students to work in a Hilton Garden Inn hotel it owns there. The idea is to expose young people to careers in the hospitality industry. If students take to the work, they are given scholarships to the University of Houston, which they attend as Admiral scholars.

Robinson’s vision for social activism came into focus three decades ago during a two-year military commitment after his graduation from the Naval Academy. During that time, Robinson visited a couple of dozen Washington, D.C.-area high schools to deliver a simple message: Just say no to drugs.

Most students seemed thrilled to have the basketball star in their midst. Still, Robinson’s words frequently fell flat, particularly with the students who most needed to hear them. He realized he had to do more than say something. He had to do something.

“I realized it was like trying to put a Band-Aid on a big wound,” Robinson recalled. “Some of the kids would say, ‘This ain’t reality to us.’ From what they knew, drug dealers were making money. Or education wouldn’t change their lives. I found myself wondering, what can I do to help these kids? How do I make change?”

Robinson, a devout Christian, prayed on it. The answer he got convinced him that he should one day open a school to help guide young people to make better choices, regardless of the difficult circumstances they may confront.

“You can talk until you are blue in the face, but you can’t change people,” he said. “But you can plant seeds, and education is a natural way to plant seeds.”

Robinson nurtured his dream for most of his NBA career, making donations and connections and learning what he could about educational policy. Finally, he made his move, opening Carver Academy in 2001, two years before he retired from basketball. As a parochial school, it had just 120 students. To expand its reach and relieve the constant fundraising pressure, Robinson agreed in 2012 to convert Carver into a publicly funded charter school by joining forces with IDEA, a nonprofit that operates 61 schools serving 36,000 students across Texas. Robinson is now a member of IDEA’s San Antonio regional board.

The school, renamed Carver Academy and College Prep, now has more than 1,100 students in kindergarten through 11th grade. (It will add 12th-grade classes next year.)

David Robinson originally founded George W. Carver Academy in 2001. Eleven years later, he partnered with IDEA Public Schools to expand his goal of accessible quality education for all children.

Julysa Sosa for The Undefeated

“When I started Carver, I did not know what I was doing,” Robinson said. “It is a huge undertaking: fundraising, curriculum, finding partners. It is a commitment, and it takes a long time to learn.”

Carver is located not far from the Spurs’ home arena. “We have students in homeless shelters, or who have lived in cars for periods of time. There are all kinds of life issues,” said Guadalupe Diaz, principal of Carver’s elementary program. “But there is an abiding belief that they can overcome. They can do it.”

One of Robinson’s core beliefs is that tough circumstances should not be seen as insurmountable obstacles to achievement. He named the school after George Washington Carver, who was born into slavery but nonetheless went on to become a widely respected botanist, inventor and teacher. He thought Carver’s life story contained a lesson for young people today.

“If you think you have a bad situation, that man grew up in a worse situation,” Robinson explained. “But Carver knew there was a reason he was here. That led him to do amazing things. We have to start where we are, use what we have and make something of it. And never be satisfied.”

Robinson says another one of his core strategies is to inspire young people to tap into their own gifts and leverage whatever opportunities they have.

“Every time you turn on the television, people see rap stars, athletes and actors. You don’t see the everyday people who are doing well. The culture points us to these unattainable roles. How many of us are going to be athletes? Practically nobody. Success is not being Jay-Z. There is only one Jay-Z. Who is telling kids that this long journey of being a father is crazy important? The idea is to get them excited for the life before them.”

Too often, Robinson said, schools that serve low-income students succumb to the instability and low expectations that often accompany poverty. It is a problem identified by many educators but one Carver has apparently found a way to conquer. Its elementary school students consistently score near the 70th percentile on standardized math and reading tests, an achievement that officials attribute to their individualized focus on the students. Parents have responded: This year the school could enroll just 120 new students out of 300 who applied through a lottery.

“Who is telling kids that this long journey of being a father is crazy important?”

“What I think Carver has figured out is how to help students grapple with community issues that might come up and not hold them against the kids,” said Brittany Hibbert, an assistant principal at Carver’s upper school. She said students and administrators do home visits, staff Saturday school and take calls from students at night. “We literally do whatever it takes.”

High expectations and individually tailored instruction help. But it is also helpful that one of San Antonio’s best-known celebrities is a regular presence at Carver. The first floor of the upper school has a small museum dedicated to Robinson, a two-time NBA champion, 10-time All Star and former league MVP. There are jerseys from the Naval Academy, the Spurs and the two U.S. Olympic teams he played for. There are also medals and trophies, and even a small section of basketball floor marked with the footprints of Robinson and some of his former teammates and coaches.

“His presence is significant,” said Chang Yu, principal of Carver’s upper school. “His name appeals, and it resonates quality, sportsmanship, education — all good things that people gravitate toward. He definitely is a factor in our success.”

Robinson says that is where many people who command the spotlight can be helpful. Robinson applauded stars such as LeBron James, Chris Paul and others who have backed up their calls for social justice by donating millions of dollars for things such as after-school programs and college scholarships. As he watches more athletes find their voice embracing the new civil rights movement, he said he will be dividing them into two categories: those who just say things, and those who back their words with action.

“I can say anything I want to say, but you can also go back and track what I’ve done over the last 20 years to see if what I’m saying matches up,” Robinson said. “Where is your money going? What have you given to? So you have the nerve to make a public statement. Now I am going to check and see how much you’ve done so I can determine whether your statement has any value.”

Gregg Popovich’s speech about white privilege felt like a personal rebuke But now I’m starting to understand what it means

White Privilege: (noun). The fact of people with white skin having advantages in society that other people do not have.

Monday afternoon in downtown Washington, D.C., and every one of the overhead office televisions is leading with NFL franchises responding to the 45th president of the United States, who called anthem-protesting players “sons of bitches” last week and implored owners to tell these kneeling men, reality TV-style, “You’re fired!”

Then Gregg Popovich’s cloudy-white visage filled the screen, making me feel like crap.

“We still have no clue of what being born white means,” the coach of the San Antonio Spurs said in the middle of a three-minute, Check Your Privilege, Mr. President, scolding. “It’s like you’re at the 50-meter mark in a 100-meter dash. And you’ve got that kind of a lead because, yes, you were born white. You have advantages that are systemically, culturally, psychologically there. And they have been built up and cemented for hundreds of years.”

My colleagues, almost all of whom are black, nodded approvingly because Pop “gets it,” and some vowed to become Spurs fans simply because of his comments. I did the same.

But I also had this pang gnawing at me all day and into the night.

The truth: Many well-intentioned white people I know lose their minds when they hear about their “white privilege.” It’s not that we haven’t acknowledged our ancestors’ original sin — the dehumanization of a people, manifested in tragically being able to call another human being “property.” We have.

But fully accepting that the color of our skin benefits us today is often too much to unpack.

When we hear, “Check your privilege,” we feel ostracized from the people we thought shared the common purpose of equality with us. Further, if we are directly confronting racism in our online and physical worlds, we don’t want to hear, “Thanks, but there is no extra credit for doing what is right.”

We want an impossible validation: to be told that, unlike those Confederate-lovin’ nationalists in Charlottesville, Virginia, we don’t have white privilege.

And that gets to dissecting the meaning of privilege — separating the feelings of personal slight from a systemic inequity. Which is flat-out hard. We either a) don’t believe it; b) don’t think we are participants in it; or c) will engage to a point but ultimately decide, “I’m sorry, I don’t share this outlook on the world.”

It was only after hearing Popovich that I realized that we who continue to bullheadedly think that way represent a real obstacle toward achieving this elusive better place we always talk about.

Look, this isn’t something Colin Kaepernick or Michael Bennett can fix alone, just as Tommie Smith and John Carlos couldn’t fix it in 1968. This isn’t something any person of color can change by himself.

This is a difficult white-person-to-white-person conversation that has to happen between white men and women of all classes for any lasting change to occur. Black and brown people already know this. It’s not news to them that we have advantages bestowed at birth that they don’t.

If you can’t accept that white people have it easier, then you will never accept why someone would kneel during the national anthem. And until those two are reconciled, we shouldn’t expect people to stand — especially those most adversely affected by society’s unfair constructs.

We want an impossible validation: to be told that, unlike those Confederate-lovin’ nationalists in Charlottesville, Virginia, we don’t have white privilege.

The display of unity on Sunday, with some NFL owners linking arms with their players, was indeed an act of togetherness. But it was in response to the president crudely calling out their employees — not black men being killed by police. They were standing up for the NFL, not human rights. If Sunday was it, all they did was participate in a photo op that made everyone feel good.

We don’t need to feel good right now; we need to feel uncomfortable.

It’s a process. For one, hearing we have “white privilege” feels like it carries a stigma, as if we have been branded “racist” and don’t know why. It’s almost like a virus one needs to be inoculated from at a CVS pharmacy each fall.

But, of course, it doesn’t work like that. We don’t have a disease — society does.

Author and consultant Frances E. Kendall’s 2002 essay Understanding White Privilege put it this way: “For me, the confusion and pain of this knowledge is somewhat eased by reminding myself that this system is not based on each individual white person’s intention to harm but on our racial group’s determination to preserve what we believe is rightly ours. This distinction is, on one hand, important, and, on the other hand, not important at all because, regardless of personal intent, the impact is the same.”

In other words, hearing you have “white privilege” shouldn’t carry an ounce of baggage, even if the language feels accusatory. I know it took me a while to get there.

I have, for much of my life, failed to acknowledge that privilege. I rationalized that I did not have it because my papa-was-a-rolling-stone father moved us to a rural area of Hawaii when I was 12 — and I faced ugly prejudice for being white. (Everyone, by the way, should be on the other side of the fence at least once in their life to see what it’s like.) Given my own life circumstances, I reasoned it didn’t apply to me, that my own broken-home, abusive childhood didn’t involve any suburban cul-de-sacs or regular visits to the dentist, so what do I know about privilege?

But when you begin to think deeply about your own life experiences compared with your friends of color, it’s harder to dismiss.

I’ve never had to educate my young sons to be aware of systemic racism for their own daily physical protection, to warn them of law enforcement officers who might not give them the benefit of the doubt.

I’ve never applied for a home loan and suspected that I was turned down because some of my prospective neighbors only want to live next to and around people who look and think like them.

Privilege is when a deranged racist murders multiple black worshippers at a church Bible study and, upon seeing the race of the individual who did it, you did not have to say to your friend, “Damn, now they’re going to think all of us white folk are racist killers.”

The biggest benefit of being white: Our problems are far less likely to be attributed to some racial/cultural failure. Our government will hear our cries and not tell us to get over it but rather, in point of fact, ask us how it can help (even if the help doesn’t always come).

If Popovich is honest, white privilege is what allows him to make those statements in the first place. Meanwhile, coach Mike Tomlin, who’s never had a losing season, has been to two Super Bowls, won one and has guided the Pittsburgh Steelers to more wins the past decade than any team except the Green Bay Packers and New England Patriots, is walking a tightrope at this minute, trying to keep his protest-torn team together while not being shunned by his boss and the team’s customers.

“People get bored. ‘Oh, is it that again? They’re pulling the race card again, why do we have to talk about that again?’ ” Popovich said. “Well, it’s because it’s uncomfortable and there has to be an uncomfortable element in the discourse for anything to change. People have to be made to feel uncomfortable, and especially white people — because we are comfortable.”

I don’t like hearing this. It forces me to confront truths I don’t necessarily want to accept, because I don’t remember any breaks given me or job opportunities offered because of my complexion. But I’d be in denial to not believe that in numerous situations my race has helped me — in ways I never even notice.

Popovich’s statements are a piece of a conversation between white people that needs to happen more frequently. Whether there are enough people who look like me willing to engage in that conversation is an open question.

At least this week, though, his gruffness and often-annoying certainty about everything turned out to be good for more than just lighting a fire under Tim Duncan’s tush:

“Many people can’t look at it because it’s too difficult. It can’t be something that is on their plate on a daily basis,” he said. “People want to hold their position. People want the status quo. People don’t want to give that up. And until it’s given up, it’s not going to be fixed.”

Anyone else white want to take a stab at it? It’s the only way the work of everyone from Muhammad Ali to Colin Kaepernick will ever get done.

John Carlos, John Wooten know Kaepernick’s road is a long one After 50 years of fighting for change, these old warriors are unbowed but tired

Five decades before a backup NFL quarterback used the national anthem to tell America it can do better — enraging a U.S. president and millions of others, suffering the personal and professional consequences — John Carlos did the same.

He was the original.

He paid his dues, put in the time, working for social change for so long that he and Tommie Smith, his teammate on that Olympic podium in Mexico City, became the gold standard of athlete activism. They’re now so revered for their conviction and courage during the bubbling-over racial cauldron of the 1960s that there are statues of them on their college campus at San Jose State.

Carlos is now 72 years old. But he still can’t smell the roses. Or catch barely a sniff of satisfaction for all the work put in. His voice is raspy. He sounds exhausted. He knew it wasn’t over, this centuries-old cage fight for human rights. He just figured there would be more enlightened soldiers by now.

“It’s been a wakeup call for the last 50 f—ing years to let them know,” Carlos says from his home in Atlanta. “Excuse my language.”

“Like I been sayin’ for 50 years, there ain’t no neutrality. You gotta be on one side or the other. This man [President Donald Trump] is pushing them to make a decision, to find out who they really are. It’s time to get involved, to speak your truth — ‘You’re going to call me for what I am and respond to me for what I am’ — or you’re going to be a sucka for all eternity.”

You don’t want to be a sucka for all eternity.


A group of top African-American athletes from different sporting disciplines gather to give support and hear the boxer Muhammad Ali give his reasons for rejecting the draft during the Vietnam War, at a meeting of the Negro Industrial and Economic Union, held in Cleveland, June 4, 1967. Seated in the front row, from left to right: Bill Russell, Muhammad Ali, Jim Brown, and Kareem Abdul Jabbar. Standing behind them are: Carl Stokes, Walter Beach, Bobby Mitchell, Sid Williams, Curtis McClinton, Willie Davis, Jim Shorter and John Wooten.

Bettmann/Contributor/Getty Images

John Wooten was blocking for Jim Brown in Cleveland and learned a brother needed help: Muhammad Ali was facing charges for refusing to fight the war in Vietnam. Wooten began calling famous black athletes willing to stand with Ali at the Cleveland Summit. From Brown to the future Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, they all said, “No problem, we’ll be there.”

He knew it wouldn’t be over in 1967 when he stood behind The Greatest and alongside Bill Russell at that historic conclave of change agents. But 50 years later, Wooten is 80 years old, and there’s no sense of triumph for him either. No sense of finality in his war against inequality.

It’s going on midnight at his home in Arlington, Texas. He’s tired, the words tumbling slowly and deliberately through the receiver.

“It’s obvious to me that nowhere does our president understand the Constitution of this country,” says Wooten, the chairman of the Fritz Pollard Alliance, which promotes diversity in the coaching ranks and front offices of the NFL. “Because those players standing or kneeling or sitting did not break one single law of this country, nor have they broken any rule in the National Football League.”

Wooten has a couple of more thoughts before going to bed, so he can get up and fight tomorrow.

“When does unsportsmanlike conduct come in when men are standing to show this country that they are concerned about the young people being killed across the country? Are the football players and athletes to pretend this doesn’t exist?”


These two athletic icons for human rights know that change comes embarrassingly slowly. Fighting for it is soul-siphoning hard. Discouragement and defeat are just as frequent, if not more frequent, than success and victory. It wears you down and can leave you bitter.

“Listen, man, they are out there all the time,” said Carlos of the racists in our midst. “When they come, they come in numbers. The real sad thing is, they’re more united than we’ve ever been. Even people now, they think these dudes [protesting] hate their country instead of fighting for a better world and saying we can do better. Fifty years after Tommie and me, really, how far have we come?”

“It’s time to get involved, to speak your truth — ‘You’re going to call me for what I am and respond to me for what I am’ — or you’re going to be a sucka for all eternity.” – John Carlos

Next summer is the golden anniversary of Carlos and Smith bowing their heads, standing on the podium without shoes to symbolize American poverty, and raising their gloved fists. The next day they were expelled from the U.S. team and sent home. For the next 10 years, “my life was hell,” Carlos told Vox last year. He lost much more than money: friends, his marriage. They loved him. But they were scared they, too, would be ostracized.

Ali’s anti-war position was blasphemy to many Americans in 1967. But “we didn’t care about any perceived threats,” Wooten told the Cleveland Plain-Dealer this past year to mark the summit’s anniversary. “We weren’t concerned because we weren’t going to waver. We were unified. We all had a real relationship with each other, and we knew we were doing something for the betterment of all.”

The country forked in thought with some repulsed and others viewing their acts as courageous.

Just like … now.

“Why does it take for [Trump] to make that one statement to make all [players] react now, when they know they should’ve reacted earlier anyway?” Carlos said. “They should have been out there a long time ago to support [Colin] Kaepernick and Michael Bennett. They all should have been rallying around them.

“But Trump done put it on the line now and told them, ‘If you do it, we gon’ spank your a–.’ And that’s a threat. So now it’s on the owners — should they disrespect the will of their players, their human rights?”

Says Wooten: “I hope these players will … show the president and the country the unity felt by all of us who want to see a better, more just world. And that those who feel it is an affront to patriotism will one day see that this act of solidarity is about making America better, not worse.”

Many NFL owners locked arms with their players on Sunday. Some released statements in support of their socially conscious employees. NFL commissioner Roger Goodell and NFL Players Association executive director DeMaurice Smith bonded over a common enemy.

“Those players standing or kneeling or sitting did not break one single law of this country, nor have they broken any rule in the National Football League.” – John Wooten

Former Cleveland Browns great John Wooten watches during an NFL football game between the Browns and New York Jets on Sunday, Nov. 14, 2010, in Cleveland.

AP Photo/David Richard

Wooten is more measured than Carlos, who is animated, sometimes angry and trying ineffectually to avoid a public scrap with Trump.

“The man is creating so much division in the country,” he continued. “You better get ready for the next Civil War, brother. Not to mention the wall. What can I say, man? If I get out there right now, I’m going to lambaste the man so bad, ’cause I ain’t gonna hold s— back about where his mind his. I don’t want to get into no running battle with this fool.”

Voice rising, Carlos is spiritually back in the ’60s. And, of course, that’s the most wrenching part: Fifty years later, not enough has changed.


Large chunks of our society don’t see black men kneeling for racial justice and a more equitable country. They see people demeaning Arlington National Cemetery’s dead.

Wooten and Carlos know of this historical bait and switch. They refuse to allow #TakeAKnee to be reframed as a referendum on “The Star-Spangled Banner.” It’s a protest of police brutality and racism, the often senseless killing of black men by overwhelmingly white law enforcement. That’s it.

“You would think the NFL is a Hollywood show now, the way they promote it on TV, where it’s about family and inclusive and we’re all happy,” Carlos says derisively.

“Until we go into a meeting to find out why this young man isn’t in the NFL now playing. He’s played for several years. He’s gone to the Super Bowl. He’s better than a lot of quarterbacks in the league. Why is it that he’s not playing? But [Goodell] refuses to answer and address that, and the public refuses to demand him to do that. And everybody eats it up and does nothing.”

Carlos is resigned to the fact that most people will never care as much as he does. Wooten is more hopeful, if equally tired. For 50 years, nothing has happened quickly for either of them.

It’s the right fight; it’s just not an easy one. You devote your life to something for that long, you pay a price. People get burned out. It’s deflating.

But the best of them keep going, because they know the alternative. It’s too important, too ingrained in their identities. Today’s players need their wisdom and strength now just as Ali and Smith needed them then.

John Carlos is 72. John Wooten is 80. Their joints throb. They’re tired. And 50 years later, they still live for the fight.

At American Legion Hall, patriotism is complicated by the persistent realities of being black Discomfort with national anthem protests coupled with disgust over Trump’s denunciation of players

Old Glory flapped in the breeze outside American Legion Hall 263 near Baltimore Sunday as a group of black veterans and their relatives gathered inside to enjoy America’s game.

The Baltimore Ravens were getting roasted by the Jacksonville Jaguars on television, but much of the talk was about the groundswell of national anthem protests triggered by President Donald Trump’s angry outburst denouncing them. Dozens of Ravens and Jaguar players took a knee in defiance of Trump, and many others stood on the sidelines locking arms in a show of support.

“This much is for sure, Trump only fueled the fire,” said Richard Smith, 71, who served with the 82nd Airborne during the Vietnam War before going on to a career as a butcher. “It is amazing that he had more to say about this than he did about those racists marching in Charlottesville.”

Smith is proud of his military service and proud of his imperfect country. Truth be told, he was ambivalent about the NFL players who took a knee or raised a fist during the national anthem. But once Trump weighed in — calling on NFL owners who see players “disrespecting the flag” to “get that son of a b—- off the field right now” — Smith felt disgust, not solidarity, with the commander in chief.

“I don’t agree with taking a knee when the Star-Spangled Banner is played,” Smith said. “I thought it was not the right way to protest real problems. But, that said, I know Trump never served in the military. Now, he is cursing and disrespecting these guys. It only makes their point.”

Many of the Legionnaires and their family members voiced similar sentiments as they came to the hall for an afternoon of football as they do every Sunday during the NFL season. On one hand, they know better than most the sacrifice of military service. They also believe deeply in the promise of America. They spoke proudly of leading happy, productive lives and having children and grandchildren living the American Dream, with good jobs, nice homes, and successful families.

Ronald E. Randall Sr., outside of Jackson and Johnson Memorial Post 263 during the Ravens game.

Reginald Thomas II for The Undefeated

But their sense of patriotism and reverence for the nation’s symbols are complicated by the persistent realities of being black. They salute the American flag that flies in front of their stucco-faced hall. They rise for the national anthem. But they also know firsthand that their allegiance to the flag has not always protected their rights. For them, the national anthem can come across as both a song of soaring inspiration and a hollow tune.

Ronald E. Randall Sr., 69, a retired school custodian whose father and brother served in the Navy, grew up not far from the legion hall in an enclave that has been all black since just after Emancipation. As a kid, he was barred from the white-only swimming pools during Baltimore’s sweltering summers. His mother could not shop along the local commercial strip. That was for whites only, too. He was in junior high when the public schools were integrated, and he remembers he and his black friends having to brawl with insult-hurling white students before they were left alone.

Legal segregation was struck from the books more than six decades ago, but the stretch of wood-frame homes in the neighborhood, now known as the Winters Lane Historic District, remains overwhelmingly black. Economics, it turns out, is as effective as the law when it comes to limiting mobility. Homes just a few blocks away in mostly white Catonsville sell for at least double the cost of those on Winters Lane.

“That’s the kind of thing that makes people say really nothing has changed,” Randall said. “The players see that and that is what they are protesting. I don’t carry hate in my heart, but I know a lot of white folks have no respect for us.”

They rise for the national anthem. But they also know firsthand that their allegiance to the flag has not always protected their rights.

Smith remembers family members telling stories from when housing segregation in Baltimore was enforced not just by compliant real estate agents, but also by the fists and bricks of whites who could not countenance black neighbors.

“People used to attack you if you went into certain neighborhoods, just for being black,” he said. “We’ve come a long way, but racism is going to be with us for a long time.”

Consuella Rheubottom, 77, who has two sons who served in the Army, tends bar at the hall. Fewer than a dozen people are in the dimly lit bar, a couple are playing on slot machines and others sit on their stools, watching the game on two flat screens.

Rheubottom said she felt some discomfort with the anthem protests. Yet, she felt repulsed — and scrambled to turn her television off — when she heard Trump insulting the players who chose to demonstrate.

“I was not sure what I thought about the protests. I can’t say that I firmly support them. I did not oppose them either,” she said, looking up as she mixed whiskey sours. “But I do know that what the president said is ignorant.”

Edward Neal, 85, a retired laboratory technician wearing a Ravens cap, slowly settled into a corner stool in the hall’s bar as conversation about the protests wore on. It was not long before he joined in.

Consuella Rheubottom makes whiskey sours at Jackson and Johnson Memorial Post 263 during the Ravens game.

Reginald Thomas II for The Undefeated

He has mixed feelings about it all, he said. Neal agreed that the protesters have a point. While race relations have improved during his lifetime, he said, there is still is a long way to go to achieve equality. At the same time, he has deep respect for those who choose to serve in the military, because has seen the physical costs of war up close. Serving as a medical corpsman during the Korean War, he helped treat troops with severed limbs and horrific burns. That kind of sacrifice, he said, should always be respected. The anthem protests can lead people to think that the sacrifice is not being honored, he said.

He added that teams should stand together. Unity is tested when some kneel and others stand for the anthem. And issues of social justice, he argued, are best debated in the halls of government and the courts.

Despite that, Neal took no comfort from Trump’s words. “What the president said was out of order,” he said. “If that is all he had to contribute, he should have said nothing.”