Former NFL running back now aims at the racial wealth gap Jason Wright, a McKinsey partner, co-authors new study detailing why black families are financially so far behind whites

Jason Wright always saw himself as more than a football player.

While playing at Northwestern University, the former running back led the local chapter of his fraternity, Alpha Phi Alpha. During his seven-year NFL career, he was a union leader who went on to launch a charter school network in Cleveland.

His football career ended in 2011, and Wright, 37, is now a partner with McKinsey & Co. And, no surprise, he sees himself as more than your ordinary management consultant.

Former NFL running back Jason Wright co-authored a report released Tuesday that lays out the broad scope and troubling implications of the racial gap.

McKinsey & Company

Wright, who has an MBA from the University of Chicago, is leveraging his company’s reach and expertise to tackle one of the nation’s most critical problems: the vast wealth gap separating African Americans and whites.

Wright co-authored a report released Tuesday that lays out the broad scope and troubling implications of the racial gap. The typical black family has a net worth of just $17,600, one-tenth of the wealth of the typical white family, which in 2016 had a median net worth of $171,000, according to the Federal Reserve’s Survey of Consumer Finances.

The gap widened significantly in recent decades, and it is showing no signs of closing. The biggest reason is that the typical African American family faces an array of obstacles that often work together to thwart wealth creation.

 

“There is a galvanizing case for change. When we look specifically at helping black folks across the country, the result is it helps everyone because the entire economy benefits.” — Jason Wright

For one, the report says, two-thirds of black families are concentrated in 16 states where, taken together, the overall economy is weak and educational options lag behind those elsewhere in the country. Most of those states are in the South, where economic opportunity, health care and even access to fast internet service is not always a given.

Meanwhile, black families in relatively prosperous urban areas or states tend to live in low-income neighborhoods where home values typically grow slowly, crippling one of the main sources of wealth creation. In addition, black families are far less likely than whites to own homes. More than 10 years after the Great Recession, the home ownership rate for black families continues to decline; it is down to just over 40%, while more than 73% of white families own homes. As recently as 2004, more than 48% of African American families were homeowners.

Another factor contributing to the gap is that African Americans tend to come from families with scant wealth to begin with, leaving them with little to build on. Just 8% of black families receive an inheritance, for instance, compared with 26% of white families. And when black families do inherit money, they get less: The typical black inheritance is just 35% of the average white inheritance of $236,000, the report said.

The lack of wealth hits hard at black college students. Blacks are much more likely than whites to incur student debt, and when they do, the debt is higher. Too often, it proves to be unpayable. Overall, nearly half of black undergraduate borrowers default on their student loans, some 2.3 times the white default rate, the report said.

Many other African Americans are living outside the nation’s financial mainstream, a troubling fact that impacts their ability to get mortgages, consumer loans or even credit cards. More than 1 in 4 African Americans do not have a credit score, and 17% do not have traditional bank accounts.

On top of all that, black workers typically have unemployment rates that are double the rates of similarly educated whites. Among those that are employed, blacks tend to earn far less than whites, in part because of lower educational levels.

If economic trends continue as they are now, the outlook is bleak for African American workers, who tend to be overrepresented in professions like truck driving, for instance, that face increasing competition from automation, the report said. Meanwhile, fast-growing fields like software programming and artificial intelligence have relatively few African Americans.

It is a gruesome picture but one that Wright believes can be improved. He noted that there were periods in the past when the gap had closed somewhat. He said improving educational opportunities, making consumer credit more widely available, ramping up consumer education and devising economic strategies to uplift lagging regions can all make a substantial difference in closing the wealth gap.

“There is a galvanizing case for change,” Wright said. “When we look specifically at helping black folks across the country, the result is it helps everyone because the entire economy benefits.”

Later this week, a group of more than 200 black executives and leaders will meet in Martha’s Vineyard for McKinsey’s annual Black Economic Forum to discuss the report’s findings. Afterward, Wright plans to lead an effort to turn out a series of follow-up documents going into more detail about approaches for closing the wealth gap.

Wright called the work every bit as exciting as his days playing in the NFL.

“When I played football, one thing I saw was an opportunity to influence on scale,” he said. “What I found at McKinsey is something that I thought I lost when I retired from football, and that’s another platform” to make change on a large scale.

Future Hall of Famer Stephen Curry, whom so many doubted, is headed home for All-Star Two Davidson College friends chat — about hoops, activism, family — and dreams that came true

Nov. 14, 2007. Stephen Curry’s first major — splash. He’d just scored 24 points en route to nearly upsetting No. 1-ranked North Carolina, losing by only four points. He definitely didn’t spend that night sulking over the heartbreaking loss, or celebrating the fact that he was leading SportsCenter for the first time.

Instead, he was in my dorm. Helping me with a project. I’d asked for his assistance earlier in the week, not expecting him to show up after his big game. But there he was, low-key and helping out. That’s what Stephen Curry does. And Steph and I are friends — we were at Davidson College at the same time.

We used to hang out before parties, kick it at the library and binge on late-night chicken Parmesan. It’s been nearly 10 years (April 23, 2009, to be exact) since Curry declared for the NBA draft, and this weekend he will return to his hometown of Charlotte, North Carolina, as a shining star who shined brighter than just about anyone thought he would. Three-time NBA champion. Six-time All-Star. Two-time league MVP. And the leader of one of the most indestructible juggernauts in all of sports: the Golden State Warriors.

“At first, at Davidson, I was able to just enjoy basketball without the NBA cloud over my head.”

We’ve kept in touch over the past decade as any college friends do, seeing each other on his various stops across the country, texting after life moments big and small, and reminiscing on the Davidson days that helped set us on our respective paths. I’ve watched him grow from the kid at Davidson to a dad and husband in the Bay Area. I’ve been awed by the player he’s grown into on the court — but never surprised at the man he’s become. For example, I wasn’t surprised when he made national headlines for taking on President Donald Trump by refusing to visit the White House after the Warriors won the championship in 2017. Curry had participated in activist efforts at Davidson, unafraid of consequences.

As we look to his return to Charlotte, I asked Curry to hop on the phone and look back at the moments that got him here. This isn’t an interview. This is a conversation between two people who were friends with dreams — mine of one day writing for a place like ESPN, and his of being one of the most dominant forces in sports. We talked about Davidson moments that shaped him and the decadelong journey to where he is now. This isn’t Stephen Curry. This is Stephen.


Hey, man, trade deadline expired about an hour ago. Congratulations on making it through. The Warriors didn’t trade you this year.

(Laughs.) Oh, I was locked into The Jump Trade Edition trying to make sure I made it through.

What does it feel like, coming back to Charlotte for an All-Star Game 10 years later? Where’s your mind right now?

I’m extremely excited. All-Star Weekend in general is usually fun. … Every city has something unique to offer. I know Kemba [Walker] is hosting in Charlotte. He’ll be playing for the Hornets and whatnot, but unofficially it’s like a little mini homecoming where I get all the sights and sounds and familiar faces.

When I graduated from Davidson in ’08, after the Elite Eight run, people were asking, ‘What’s that Steph guy going to do in the league?’ And I’d say, ‘He’s going to play forever because he can shoot, right? And he’s going to make some All-Star Games.’

That was a kind of crazy prediction back then.

Now it’s 10 years later and you’ve got a couple of MVPs, some championships. What did you think you’d be at this point?

My whole goal going in was I want to play 16 years, just like my pops. He set the bar; that’s what I want to get to, but do it my way. I guess I fell in love with the moment and spreading that joy in myself, working on my game and trying to figure out just how to win in the league, and focus. It was a hard lesson to learn my first two years. I’ve exceeded my imagination. … It’s kind of surreal to be where I’m at, [and] now to be back in Charlotte … but I’ve still got a lot to accomplish. Obviously, I’m in my prime, so the story’s still going, but it’s just crazy to think that I was outside of the [Davidson College] Belk [computer] lab on the phone with Ayesha trying to find out if I was even going to enter the draft.

“One thing I do technically regret, in terms of how fast this all came, is when I brought Riley on the podium.”

I remember [April 23, 2009] you texting me when you decided to enter the league. You were like, ‘I’m in the library, and I don’t really know why.’

(Laughs.) Bro, yes! That night I was still writing a paper or something. A sociology paper, I think. Pulling an all-nighter, just confused. I don’t know why I was doing my paper at the time, trying to figure out what I’m going to do with my life. I finally decided … to make that jump. And obviously, everybody knows how much I love Davidson, how hard it was to leave, but looking back, that obviously was the right decision.

And I always think about the end of your freshman year, when we were in [Curry’s Davidson teammates] Lamar Hull and Boris Meno’s room.

Yup.

Every Friday or Saturday night, [all of us] freestyling, listening to Lil Wayne. My dream was to be writing stuff at ESPN, and now I’m doing that. About you winning MVPs in the NBA. Back then, in Lamar’s room, nobody could imagine that any of these things would be happening.

One of my favorite stories is when I was passing out tickets to freshman dorm rooms, knocking on doors and stuff, trying to get people to come to games. Everybody’s reaction was so subdued and chill … everybody was sort of reserved about everything. It’s surreal to be having the conversation we’re having and doing the things we’re doing, representing ourselves and our school. That’s what makes the whole story so unique … humble beginnings.

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What’s interesting about you that other players don’t really have at the top levels of the NBA, especially when I think about, like, LeBron James or Kevin Durant, is that they knew really young that they were going to be NBA players. That seemed not to be the case with you. When did you realize you were definitely doing this?

When I went to Davidson, that was my goal, but I didn’t really know. It wasn’t like a chess game where I would position everything so that I could be an NBA player. I was able to have a ‘normal’ college experience where it’s just about playing ball, hanging out with my teammates, going to school. Then we go to the [2008 Elite Eight] tournament run, we lose to Kansas, and the first question I get after … is, ‘Yo, are you declaring for the draft?’ And I’m like, ‘What?’ Like, ‘No. What are you talking about?’

That was a genuine response, because it wasn’t necessarily on my radar like that. I was just playing ball. Then, between my sophomore and junior year, that’s when I first really started to assess my game in terms of being an NBA player and understanding what I needed to work on if I want to get drafted. But even so … I hesitated when it came down to making the decision. … It wasn’t like I wasn’t destined to make that jump, but in my head it was still a question mark. It took me a while to get there and to get committed.

But then when I finished my rookie year, I was trying to catch up to Tyreke Evans for that Rookie of the Year verdict … playing 40-plus minutes every game, so I really felt like I had complete control … in terms of knowing what type of player I wanted to be. And you kind of imagine that player to be an All-Star type of guy. I just had ultimate confidence at that point towards the end of that rookie year. But at first, at Davidson, I was able to just enjoy basketball without the NBA cloud over my head.

Obviously, you’re not an underdog anymore. Does that make you think back to the days when you had nothing to lose? Did you enjoy that more?

Nah, once you get to that championship level, you understand what that feels like to be the best in the world at something. You’re right, my whole motivation, and my process [back then], was really identifying with the underdog mentality. Now, it’s an entirely different experience from one that I had and love, but I love it now too.

Now, when we’re trying to go for three [championships] in a row, there’s media drama, free-agency drama, inner squad stuff we’re going through. … It’s all because we’ve been at the height of our game and people will try to pick us apart, trying to find cracks in the armor. … It’s because we’re playing for something that matters. I love being in that situation every year — and I hope that doesn’t end anytime soon.

I remember we went to an All-Star Game in Houston, what, six years ago?

I was down there for the 3-point shootout.

We were able to go to the game together. You were able to walk across the street to the game from the hotel by yourself, essentially, with no problem or fanfare. That was just six years ago.

That was the last time that I actually didn’t make the All-Star. I remember the ’fit I had: the three-piece suit without the jacket with the nonprescription glasses and this stupid hat that Ayesha made me wear. We got to walk two blocks from the hotel to the game. Maybe one person said, ‘What’s up?’ But it wasn’t like it is now at all. I wanted to go to the game just to get that experience. It definitely sucked not making it, but that was motivation. That’s probably the last time that happened, where I could be incognito, I guess. But now, I think Ayesha, she’s more recognizable than I am at this point. It’s pretty crazy, the difference in the last few years.

Then, a few years later, you’re getting called out by the president.

Right.

That seemed to take people by surprise. It seemed people didn’t expect that you have these ideals that you stick to. When we were together at Davidson, I saw a bit of that mindset develop. How did that evolve to the point of where you felt comfortable speaking out against the president?

It’s mostly just being around like-minded people, people that were even bolder than I ever was in terms of speaking up for what they believe, speaking up for black students in a majority-white student body. I gladly helped spread the message of what we were fighting for on campus. To be honest, I’m not just saying this because I’m talking to you, but the way that you and [poet, author and Davidson alum] Clint [Smith] and other people that I see that I still follow on social media — and how you guys use your voice and your wisdom, education, and just how articulate — you guys are consistent in speaking up. That … emboldens me to … use the platform I have … when it comes to going to the White House or not, making those decisions, and trying to go see President Barack Obama and things that he has going on in the community, trying to just respond in different ways to make a difference.

That all started at Davidson. Just … being around people that inspire me … that’s where the seed was planted … and we all branched out into our respective worlds. We continue in that fight, so I’m going to stay on that mission in any way that I can.

A lot of athletes feel hesitant about the possible backlash of saying the wrong thing, but you speak with confidence in these situations.

I’m not going to please everybody. In terms of the international world of politics … that comes with the territory. And where sports and politics kind of cross over, just in terms of [us having] a microphone in our face every single day. They’re asking us questions about what we believe. You can obviously shy away from it if you want to. You can play it safe. I still want to make sure I’m very educated on what I’m talking about, which is why I don’t talk about everything. As NBA players, we live in a bubble. … Our lifestyle’s a little different, and you have to make sure you stay plugged in, because we all have families, we all come from communities that real stuff is happening [in] and have to support to make sure you stay in tune.

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You got married around when I did, and I think Riley is a couple months older than my son? So whenever I see you, it’s always about family and how crazy this family experience is.

It’s been an amazing journey. I never thought when I met Ayesha at the end of my sophomore year … I didn’t know where my life would lead me. It’s funny … she had no basketball, sports background at all and knew nothing about the NBA … so we were wet behind the ears in terms of not knowing what we were getting into. And every step of the way, everything that’s happened, we kind of dealt with it together, and it’s helped us mature a lot faster than we … expected. I think even as parents, understanding how we’re going to raise kids not only in this crazy society we live in but one that we’re so visible [in], and people are kind of locked into every step we take, every word we say. One thing I do technically regret in terms of how fast this all came is when I brought Riley on the podium [during the 2015 NBA Finals].

Oh, yeah.

I’ve always wanted to … share what I get to do, and all the experiences I have, with my family. I didn’t know how much that would blow up and how much of a splash she [would make] on the scene. If I could take that one back, I probably would, just because my goal is just to … give my kids the best chance at success and at seeing the world in the proper way … trying to give our kids the best chance to be successful and have a normal life in terms of treating people the right way, having respect, not getting too bigheaded and feeling like everything’s about them. The lessons I’m teaching my kids right now at ages 6, 3 and 7 months, it’s wild to think about. Surreal.

What is a lesson in basketball, or parenting, or activism, whatever, that you could tell 2009 Stephen Curry?

This is almost too on the nose for what’s going on right now, but find out who you are quick, because that’s the foundation … and the thing that you rely on no matter if things are going your way or not, if you reach your goals or not. Find out who you are, be comfortable with it, embrace it and let that be the most consistent thing that you can … rely on. I’d say, just the hoopla and craziness that’s happened these last 10 years, there were plenty of opportunities for me to kind of lose my mind, lose my sense of self and lose a sense of reality. It’s just wild to think about what’s thrown at us on the daily that we kind of have to kind of roll with. These wins and losses and championships, it’s important, it’s what we work our a– off for, but in the grand scheme of things, is it that serious for it to change who you are? I hope to have accomplished that and hope to keep on that path.

What if the NBA were player-owned? ‘High Flying Bird’ imagines the ultimate disruption In director Steven Soderbergh’s new film, the power struggle and activism across sports comes into focus

André Holland’s eyes were wide open.

A lifelong sports fan — college hoops and professional basketball strike his fancy — Holland enjoyed the game. Loved basketball. The mechanics of seeing larger-than-life players running the ball up and down the court, leaping in the sky and landing an on-the-mark hook shot, alley-oop, slam dunk, you name it, was the ultimate payoff.

Then came the recent college basketball protests. Then he picked up Harry Edwards’ 1968 The Revolt of the Black Athlete. And then, as they might say, Holland woke up. “The inequities in sports made me re-evaluate,” said the Alabama native, a transformative actor who has been in some of the best films of the past few years: 2013’s 42 (the Jackie Robinson biopic that introduced the world to Chadwick Boseman), Selma (Ava DuVernay’s 2014 Martin Luther King Jr. biopic) and Barry Jenkins’ Oscar-winning Moonlight.

“[I] realized that there’s been a long history of athletic athlete activism,” said Holland, who had a nugget of a film idea. “I wanted to explore that and … do my part in pushing conversations forward.”

How he’s hoping to do that is with his new High Flying Bird, directed by Academy Award winner Steven Soderbergh and written by Oscar winner Tarell Alvin McCraney. The two men brought his nugget to life. The film is about a sports agent who, during a lockout, pitches his rookie basketball client an intriguing and controversial business opportunity: taking the power out of NBA owners’ hands by selling a one-on-one game to a streaming outlet — rather like what we see in the boxing world.

“Why don’t these guys own a bigger piece of this, if not own the game outright?” — Steven Soderbergh

“I’ve always been interested in the business of sports,” said Soderbergh. “And when it came to the NBA in particular, I always wondered … [when] they go through contract negotiations … why don’t these guys own a bigger piece of this, if not own the game outright? As technology developed, especially in the last five to 10 years, and streaming for a wide audience became viable, I returned to the idea of, wow, you really could start a league and finance it by selling all of the streaming by subscription or by advertising revenue. … That was the popping-off point. Can we come up with … a what-if story in which somebody decides, let’s stick our toe in the water of what it would be like to set up a player-based entity … apart from the NBA? What kind of forces would mobilize to keep that from happening?”

High Flying Bird, which is set to stream on Netflix on Friday, is a disrupter. It’s the kind of film that sparks conversation, and maybe some change. Holland also is the film’s executive producer, and in a way the film’s throughline of taking control mirrors his own career in Hollywood. Holland is a leading man. And this is his shot. And like the crafty sports agent he plays in High Flying Bird, he created his own opportunity.

“Just wanting more out of my career,” said Holland, “wanting more than acting, I’m having to take a cold, hard look at the landscape, and … it didn’t look so hopeful. I felt this need to create my own opportunities, and that’s probably what we all have been doing … and need to do more of. Not wait on people to open doors for us, but find those doors, create those doors ourselves.”

In this what-if narrative that Soderbergh pauses at key moments to intersplice real-life NBA players — Donovan Mitchell, Karl-Anthony Towns, Reggie Jackson — talking through their own truths, Holland’s character has recently discovered that his client, who happens to be No. 1 draft pick Erick Scott (played by Melvin Gregg), has taken out a high-interest loan and, because of the lockout, he can’t pay it back now that there aren’t any checks coming in. Much of the film feels very thriller-heist — an Ocean’s Eleven-, Crash-, Magic Mike-style Soderbergh staple — but set in the fast-paced world of organized professional sports.

McCraney began working on the script amid the NFL/Colin Kaepernick controversy, protests and the sex abuse scandal in USA Gymnastics. “It was … a strange time,” said McCraney. “There [were] moments where black athletes were looking at the way they were being treated. And then this book, Harry Edwards’ … the 50th anniversary edition of the book was coming out. … It was definitely in the air, and we wanted to make sure that we were talking about it.”

“The NBA is the system we looked at for this film, but … it’s just an examination of systems that we take for granted.”
— André Holland

So much of what we’re seeing unfold in real sports storylines centers on power struggle — whether that be social injustices and/or players vs. owner infrastructure. Both are in play in Soderbergh’s fictional world of basketball and make for a compelling story that, even with mixed early reviews, holds beautifully.

“Look, you love the game,” McCraney said. “You love going down the court, you love screaming at people to catch the ball, run the block out. But those people have to get up the court with all the victories that they made [or didn’t make]. That may affect them financially, may affect them in their interpersonal relationships … the fact that there’s a team owner and that they’re called ‘owners’ — that has implications. That has interpersonal implications. We need to continue to look at that.”

The film feels like activism in a lot of ways. The slavery comparisons between professional basketball are overarching. No way did they want that message to be subtle.

“The majority of the folks who [are] on the court are black in the NBA. The majority of the owners who are making surmountable living are white, older men. I think between myself and André and Soderbergh … we want to bring [about that] conversation,” McCraney said. “Also, just to have questions. André, I believe, asked a question like ‘What if all the black players decided they weren’t gonna play? What does that do?’ ”

“What it would be like to set up a player-based entity … apart from the NBA? What kind of forces would mobilize to keep that from happening?” — Steven Soderbergh

What it’s doing for now is being a compelling film that also co-stars Sonja Sohn as the attorney representing the head of the players’ association. “Athletes bring a story of competition and someone’s rise into fame in the world of sports. It’s the ultimate hero’s journey,” Sohn said. “Everybody can relate to that dream, and I think in particular a lot of young men without opportunities … latch on to that dream.”

That’s what Holland is hoping for: that people latch on and listen. And if change is evoked? “I hope it inspires people to exercise their own interest in whatever field or situation is in front of them. The NBA is the system we looked at for this particular film, but … it’s just an examination of systems that we sometimes take for granted,” Holland said. “At the center of it is, what if we did control [our] own s—? What if we just controlled all our own stuff? What might that look like? Regardless of the industry.”

‘Dribble, fake, shoot, miss, dribble, fake, shoot, swish’ — the basketball poetry of Kwame Alexander  The Newbery Award-winning poet and author is back with a new book, ‘Rebound’

“Dribble, fake, shoot, miss, dribble, fake, shoot, miss, dribble, fake, shoot, miss, dribble, fake, shoot, swish,” said Newbery Medal-winning author, speaker and educator Kwame Alexander. “Eventually, you’re gonna make it. You just gotta keep shooting.”

It’s a metaphor he uses when he speaks to children, encouraging them to overcome their fears. “It’s … that fear of failure,” he said from London, a stop on his world tour. “Whether it be on a quiz, a test, whether it be getting cut from the team, whether it be just something in your life that changed.” Raised in Brooklyn, New York, and Chesapeake, Virginia, Alexander says his goal when writing his books is helping kids embrace the “yes” in life. “Not being afraid of the ‘no’ … letting the challenges come, and building your stamina and your persistence.”

These kinds of sentiments are evident in his 2014 novel The Crossover, which won Alexander the prestigious Newbery — it’s awarded annually by the American Library Association to the author of the most distinguished contribution to American literature for children — as well as in his new Rebound, the novel being published Monday.

Like The Crossover, the story is written in free verse with a kind of hip-hop rhythm. The main character is Chuck “Da Man” Bell, the father of twin basketball enthusiasts Josh and Jordan Bell. Rebound takes young readers way back in time to a pivotal summer when young Charlie is sent to stay with his grandparents, four to five hours from his home. There, he discovers basketball and learns more about his family’s past. Chuck Bell is center stage, and in beautiful verse it becomes clear how he became the jazz music-worshipping basketball star his sons look up to.

“To watch her leave this earth,” said the author, “while simultaneously writing about the experience of losing someone … that was hella hard.”

“It was the summer of 1988,” Alexander writes of Chuck, “when basketball gave me wings … I had to learn how to rebound on the court. And off.” The Bell family was introduced in The Crossover. That book followed Josh and Jordan and their hoop dreams. The brothers struggle through an assortment of obstacles that include growing apart during their junior high school years.

After receiving requests for a sequel from readers who wanted more of this authentic, if fictional, family, Alexander realized he wasn’t done with the story line. He wanted to get deep into the life of Charles, and share his backstory. “It felt like I’d sort of left Crossover on sort of a cliffhanger,” he said. “[People] wanted to know what happened to the main character. The only way for me to do that was to look at his life as a child.”

It took Alexander nearly two years to complete Rebound. The hardest part of writing the book was reaching the point of completion. “My mom passed away in the middle of writing it,” said Alexander. He was dealing with a kind of grief already, over some of the things that happen to his Chuck Bell character. “To watch her leave this earth,” said the author, “while simultaneously writing about the experience of losing someone … that was hella hard. But it was empowering for me, too, because I got to write about this experience that I was going through.”

“I wanted to write a book that I would’ve wanted to read when I was in middle school. One way to hook me at that age … is through sports.”

Alexander believes that poetry can change the world. He uses it to inspire and empower young people around the world. Sports, for Alexander is one way to gain their attention.

“I remember being 11, 12 years old and not really caring about the books that my teachers and my parents were making me read,” he said. “I wanted to write a book that I would’ve wanted to read when I was in middle school. One way to hook me at that age … is through sports. And sports are a great metaphor for our lives.”

What is the ‘State of the Black Athlete’? The cultural resonance, political awakening and activation of the black athlete, as told in pictures

Athletic success may get you through the door, but be mindful, once you get here: “Stick to sports.”

There has been an unspoken expectation and, more recently, an apparent insistence that athletes’ opinions and passions are to be kept quiet. But the cultural resonance, political awakening and activation of the black athlete has pushed back on this narrative.

We asked several artists of color to examine and interpret the current “state of the black athlete.” Here’s what they came up with.

Sam Adefé

I often find that no matter the sport, brothers in the game continuously have to prove themselves worthy of the pedestal they are heavily burdened with. I say brother because to me, every black athlete represents someone like myself — a black kid chasing his dreams — finding inspiration in the actions of the people already paving the way.

Represented here is Anthony Joshua’s raised clenched fist after he defeated Wladimir Klitschko. To the many black youths who happened to be watching that day, witnessing that gesture meant more than just a show of celebration. This gesture symbolizes a show of solidarity.

Adrian Brandon

My goal with this illustration is to address the commonalities between black professional athletes and the black victims of police violence — it highlights the incredible amount of responsibility black athletes have and the role sports fans play in the current wave of athlete activism.

The sprinter in the illustration is focused on the finish line, while his shadow represents the young black victims of police brutality, symbolizing the constant fear that all black men and women face in today’s society.

Both the sprinter and his shadow are running away — in the same direction, illustrating the chilling similarities between black professional athletes and the victims we see on the news.

The crowd supporting the runner changes from sports fans (right) to protesters/activists (left). This begs the question, who is the black athlete competing for? How has this wave of black athlete activism changed the mentalities of sports fans?

Brandon Breaux

I wanted to capture black athletes in a contemplative state. These competitors have or have had the ability to reach so many people — it’s a great responsibility, but can also be a great burden.

Athletes, in general, already have to deal with so much: unwanted attention, pressure, rumors, performance anxiety, and even more. Black athletes, have all that on top of feeling as though they aren’t 100 percent accepted in their own country.

Today’s current state of affairs feel special. I think it’s a time where the life of a black athlete/person is so much bigger than the self, and the athletes in my illustration represent the contemplation that comes with it.

Caitlin Cherry

John Urschel, a former offensive lineman for the Baltimore Ravens, retired in 2017 to pursue his studies as a doctoral candidate in mathematics at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. His retirement came suddenly, just two days after a study of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) found nearly all former NFL players who donated their brains to science had signs of CTE.

It seemed the two were connected.

Urschel knows the all-too-real statistics that injury risk is high and the average NFL player’s career spans between two and five years.

He should inspire the next generation of would-be ballplayers in any professional sport that their studies in college are not supplementary. There is a life after the NFL. I appreciate him as a Renaissance man.

Chase Conley

What Huey P. Newton has taught me is that I have the power to change my condition, and it’s vital that we stand up against the unjust and fight for what we believe in, even if the cost is high. Until these players start worrying about the issues concerning the state of black people in this country and not about their paychecks, they are still a part of the problem. Yes, you may lose your job, but is that job more important than the condition of your people? Young black teenagers being gunned down in the street every other week? We all should have the courage to sacrifice for the greater good.

What would these leagues be without black people anyway?

Emmanuel Mdlalose

I likened the movement of sprinter Allyson Felix to when a caterpillar turns into a butterfly. Representing Felix overcoming obstacles faced by a black woman, especially in the athletic world — just dominating. I am drawn to her composed personality while being able to be strong-willed at the same time. She really represents the metamorphosis of a butterfly — in all her beauty, swiftness, and, most importantly, freedom.

Kia Dyson

In a time where black bodies are on public display and seemingly viewed to hold no value, I have attempted to find a way to turn tragedies within the black community into works of art.

“Above All Things” represents the ability, and, more importantly, the necessity for women of color to go above and beyond in all we do just to receive fair recognition. The expectations are higher for us.

We don’t have the luxury of mediocrity when it comes to providing, performing or competing. So we use our excellence as a form of protest: a demonstration of strength, acceptance, womanhood and visibility.

Laci Jordan

The state of the black athlete is conflicted.

Athletes grow up simply loving the game. As they grow older, outside factors come into play that can inhibit that love: notoriety, fame, special treatment, money, etc. Players can also become public figures and role models. Black athletes are stuck between these two worlds.

As an athlete, you have the keys to success to take care of yourself and your family, but on the other end, you sacrifice your voice and ability to speak on anything political — you’re told to stick to the game. As a black athlete, you’re expected to enjoy your riches and fame in exchange for your voice, choices and ethics.

Pierre Bennu

This piece references the Afro-futurist interpretation of the slavery project in the Western Hemisphere as a centuries-long genetic experiment, as well as the Sankofa concept of looking backward and seeing the future.

In choosing materials to make up the image, I imagine the middle passage as a thrusting or throwing forward into the future of mass amounts of human capital. With the crown of shards, I seek to reference the toll that many professional sports take on the body and also the regal state of being at peak physical form.

Robert Generette III

The statement on the tape, “PLAY,” not only states a command but also commands attention. I wanted the art to speak to different sides of the argument: players who comply, players wanting to exercise their First Amendment rights, and fans for or against athletes’ choices.

In the illustration, a spotlight is placed on an ambiguous African-American athlete who is shirtless, which suggests he’s baring it all. For the athletes who comply with “shut up and play,” the red arrow symbolizes the potential for them to excel or “climb the ladder to success” in their sport. The athlete who complies thrives.

For the athletes wanting to exercise their First Amendment rights, the intense stare reflects the absurdity of being told to shut up and play. The athlete has the complex choice of raising one fist (in protest) or raising both fists (in victory). For the fans who are not affected by or disagree with the views of athletes, the sticker across the athlete’s mouth, in their opinion, should become an essential part of the uniform.

I want this illustration to beg the questions: Should you keep quiet and find contempt for living one’s dream? Or should you use your dream as a platform to speak for those whose voices go unheard at the expense of sacrificing one’s dream?

Ronald Wimberly

I asked myself about the political role of the black body within a racist, consumerist paradigm and how that plays out in sports. For this image I thought about how athletes may work through these very same questions through sports. From Muhammad Ali’s name change to the Black Power fists of the 1968 Olympic Games, to Colin Kaepernick’s act of taking a knee — we are given expressions, symbolic abstractions, symbols that challenge us to think. I think this is the most radical act: to be challenged to think, to ask questions. Explaining artwork is a trap.

Formally, the work is a dialogue with the works of Aaron Douglas and Tadanori Yokoo and the movements to which they belong.

Tiffany B. Chanel

“I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color,” said Colin Kaepernick. In the face of explicit and implicit racism, everyday people rise selflessly to address social injustice. Among these people are African-American athletes, such as the ones in my painting, who use their public platform and their First Amendment right to solidify their purpose as change agents. Their primary goal is to rewrite the narrative of oppressed people and afford them a pathway to upward mobility.

Some may say we have come really far, but have we really? What would you say?