Criticism of LeBron James’ China comments are rooted in bogus narratives If James tweets about a black person being killed by cops, you can bet his silence on China will be mentioned

We are shortchanging athletes’ activism by using sound bites to define their legacies.

On Dec. 29, 2015, James stood in front of reporters after his Cleveland Cavaliers beat the Denver Nuggets 93-87 and spoke on the death of Tamir Rice, a 12-year-old African American boy carrying a toy gun who was shot and killed by Cleveland police. It was a mere 24 hours after a grand jury decided that police officer Timothy Loehmann would not face criminal charges for gunning down Rice.

“To be honest, I haven’t really been on top of this issue. So it’s hard for me to comment. I understand that any lives that [are] lost, what we want more than anything is prayer and the best for the family, for anyone,” James told reporters. “But for me to comment on the situation, I don’t have enough knowledge about it.”

Samaria Rice, the mother of the boy, expressed her disappointment. Even black activists demanded more from James. Black journalists challenged him to say something substantial. But that’s where the outrage stopped — at the feet of black folks who wanted him to use his platform to defend a child who was killed miles from James’ old neighborhood.

How did we go from James getting a pass for being noncommittal about the killing of a 12-year-old boy to being called a disgrace for his comments on a foreign government? The answer is complicated.

Three years after his comments on Rice, James rattled the internet for what he didn’t say about protests in Hong Kong when a pool of reporters asked him about it on Monday night. “Just be careful what we tweet and say and we do, even though, yes, we do have freedom of speech, but there can be a lot of negative that comes with that, too,” James explained. His refusal to condemn China became a trending topic through the night.

But here’s the dirty little secret: Most of the people outraged at James not taking a definitive stance on China’s handling of protesters in Hong Kong don’t care about the protesters themselves. The outrage isn’t about the plight of the protesters. The performative outrage is creating a new “what aboutism” to hold up next time the athletes speak out about a cause.

If James tweets about a black person being killed by cops, you can bet his silence on China will be brought up. Because silencing black folks is all about false equivalencies and bogus narratives. In short, “you didn’t speak about Hong Kong” is the newfangled “what about Chicago?”

How did we go from James getting a pass for being noncommittal about the killing of a 12-year-old boy to being called a disgrace for his comments on a foreign government?

The answer is complicated. This is about the ways in which society tries to undermine black liberation work by using any means to shift goalposts. There are plenty of people using the NBA’s current public relations dilemma with China as a means to undermine the social justice efforts of black athletes in America. So James’ vague comments on Rice’s death must stand alongside his other works.

Since 2015, he’s become a leading advocate for social justice, calling out President Donald Trump and the NFL while building a school for at-risk kids in Akron, Ohio. He’s not the safe athlete anymore. He’s rubbing people the wrong way. His actions have even prompted Fox News host Laura Ingraham to tell him and other athletes to “stick to sports.”

Now, however, the NBA and China situation is a “gotcha” moment to those who want to silence NBA players. The premise of the criticism is clear: If these athletes won’t stand up for the rights of the citizens of Hong Kong, then they don’t really care about equality and human rights.

It’s a veiled “don’t all lives matter?” form of reshaping the narrative to negate the actions of speaking up for black folks in America. After all, how can they really care about police brutality in America if they don’t care about it in China? See how that narrative manipulation works?

The irony here is that athletes are being encouraged to speak out about oppression in China, but if they were to use that energy to, say, draw a comparison between the way the protesters of Hong Kong are being treated to the way protesters in Ferguson, Missouri, were treated, then we’d be back at square one asking them to be silent. We want these athletes to speak out against foreign regimes but not about police abuse of innocent black folks.

How about we try this: Interview an athlete about China, but follow up with something to say about police killing Botham Jean or Atatiana Jefferson. Then we’ll see how much you want athletes to speak up.

LeBron James missed an opportunity with his comments about China The NBA star used a lot of words to say nothing

LeBron James had more than nine days to study the conflict between China and the NBA and formulate an opinion. What he finally said was disappointing for a man who is “more than an athlete” and built much of his brand on social justice and awareness.

On Oct. 4, Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey tweeted support for protesters in Hong Kong who say they are seeking to hold China to its promises to protect certain freedoms. China characterizes the protests as rebellion against its sovereignty. Hong Kong has seen increased violence between demonstrators and police during four months of protests sparked by China’s attempt to legalize extradition from the semiautonomous territory to mainland China.

The context for all this is China’s treatment of its own citizens, which according to Human Rights Watch includes “arbitrary detention, imprisonment, and enforced disappearance”; persecution of religious communities; censorship of the media and public speech; and the mass detention and torture of Turkic Muslims.

These are all topics that the LeBron James we’ve come to know would care about.

When Morey sent his tweet, James and his Los Angeles Lakers were headed to play two exhibitions in China, which is a $500 million market for the NBA. China also is an essential partner for Nike, which employs James under a $1 billion lifetime contract, and a key market for James’ growing TV and film empire. (The Undefeated is an ESPN platform; ESPN and its parent company Disney have various business relationships in China.)

China responded to Morey’s tweet with the cancellation of both Lakers-Brooklyn Nets broadcasts and several NBA community events, and the suspension of a smartphone company’s NBA sponsorship. Also suspended were the Rockets’ TV broadcasts, its relationship with the Chinese Basketball Association, and its online news and game streaming deals. NBA commissioner Adam Silver tried to mollify China while standing up for the principle of free speech. The response from Chinese state broadcaster CCTV: “We’re strongly dissatisfied and oppose Adam Silver’s claim to support Morey’s right to freedom of expression. We believe that any remarks that challenge national sovereignty and social stability are not within the scope of freedom of speech.”

On Monday, this is what James told reporters before the Lakers game:

“When I speak about something, I speak about something I’m very knowledgeable about, something I’m very passionate about. I feel like with this particular situation, it was something not only I was not informed enough about, I just felt like it was something that not only myself or my teammates or my organization had enough information to even talk about it at that point in time and we still feel the same way.”

That’s implausible. As if James couldn’t get any historian, diplomat or other China expert on the phone in the nine days since Morey’s tweet. As if there is no Google.

What makes this sadder is that Chinese citizens have no Google. It’s blocked.

James doesn’t need to denounce or boycott China, no more than Walmart, Coca-Cola or the NBA should. We all use Chinese products every day, and that relationship creates more opportunities for change. If James had simply said, “No comment because I do big business in China,” at least that would have been honest. Or he could have courageously affirmed the principle of human rights while expressing respect for China’s people and sovereignty.

Instead, James said Morey was “misinformed or not really educated on the situation,” which would be hard for James to judge after just claiming he was not informed himself. (Later Monday night, James tweeted that he was referring to the consequences of Morey’s tweet, not the substance.)

James also said that “social media is not always the proper way to go about things,” which is hypocritical for a man whose primary means of engaging with fans, building his brand and calling out injustice are Instagram and Twitter.

“We all talk about freedom of speech,” James told reporters, “Yes, we do have freedom of speech, but at times there are ramifications for the negative that can happen when you are not thinking about others and only thinking about yourself.”

Morey has been silent since deleting his tweet, but he was likely thinking about millions of Hong Kong residents. Morey had nothing to personally gain. James, on the other hand, had his business empire to think about when he implausibly claimed ignorance on all things China. Besides basketball games and shoes, James will be selling his upcoming Space Jam reboot, which could earn nine figures in the nation that James has chosen not to be informed about.

I respect and appreciate James’ activism for social and racial justice, which began in 2012 when he and his Miami Heat teammates tweeted a photo supporting slain teenager Trayvon Martin. In many ways, that photo launched the current resurgence of black athlete activism. Back when Trayvon’s shameful killing gave rise to Black Lives Matter, few top athletes engaged in racial advocacy, fearful that fans would stop watching or buying. James had something to lose when he and his team were photographed in hoodies, but he did what was right. That’s part of what makes his China comments more hypocritical and disappointing.

I’m not one of the critics who want to silence James on racial justice, who want him to “shut up and dribble.” I believe in James’ proclamation that he’s “more than an athlete.” This is his time to be that, to fully inhabit the activist legacy of a Muhammad Ali or an Arthur Ashe. James once had the gumption to call out Donald Trump in a tweet, and the president stayed silent — Trump “did not want it with the King.” Now James is cowed by Xi Jinping? Or maybe he should be leery of the Chinese president ruthless enough to disappear Winnie the Pooh.

James’ voice is so influential, he could help crack the great wall of silence that China has erected against dissent. If James chose to speak on China, how many athletes would follow, as they did after Trayvon? Or do we expect that human rights will never come to China?

On Tuesday, James followed up on his previous comments by basically saying that China is not his problem: “I also don’t think every issue should be everybody’s problem as well. When things come up, there’s multiple things that we haven’t talked about that have happened in our own country that we don’t bring up. There’s things that happen in my own community in trying to help my kids graduate high school and go off to college; that’s been my main concern the last couple of years with my school [in Akron, Ohio]. Trying to make sure the inner-city kids that grow up in my hometown can have a brighter future and look at me as an inspiration to get out of the hellhole of the inner city.

“We don’t talk about those stories enough. We want to talk about so many other things as well. There’s issues all over the world.”

James’ admirable efforts to educate his hometown’s children have received massive media coverage, including from me. And helping Akron should not prevent him from talking about Chinese issues. Nor should China’s distance from Akron. Based on one of James’ own tweets, he should understand why.

On Jan. 15, 2018, James quoted Martin Luther King Jr.’s immortal Letter from Birmingham Jail in a tweet, adding the hashtag #ThankYouMLK50. King wrote that letter in 1963, after being arrested for protesting segregation laws in Birmingham, Alabama. While King was behind bars, a group of Christian and Jewish clergy released a statement calling him an “outsider” engaged in “unwise and untimely” demonstrations.

“I am cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities and states,” King wrote. “I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly.”

Yes, LeBron James is an American, and he admirably addresses American problems. But China makes and buys his shoes, watches his games and movies, puts untold millions in his pockets. China is James’ country too.

The world has become much smaller in the five decades since King wrote his magnificent letter.

The economies of China and America would suffer without each other. A game perfected by black Americans enraptures millions of Chinese. King wrote, “I too am compelled to carry the gospel of freedom beyond my particular hometown.” James can do the same. He still has time to realize that claiming ignorance of repression in a country where he makes millions of dollars contradicts the calls for justice he has championed at more convenient times.

The unbearable whiteness of ‘Oklahoma!’ In new Broadway revival, the blinding sunshine of the Territory exposes the violence beneath the romantic myth

Though it hasn’t always been acknowledged, Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma! has always been a musical about whiteness.

This is important because a new and well-reviewed production is now running on Broadway. Oklahoma! has often been summarized through a lens of racial neutrality as a romantic musical about a woman named Laurey Williams trying to make a choice between two suitors: Jud Fry, a hard-working farmhand who lives in the smokehouse of a farm owned by Laurey and her Aunt Eller. And guitar-strumming Curly McClain, who is more socially adept, but doesn’t offer much beyond a pretty face. Set in the Claremore Indian Territory of Oklahoma in 1906, Oklahoma! delivers a rose-tinted view of history that centers on happy white people whose greatest concern is a town dance that will raise money to build a new school. It’s a classic example of willful erasure and ahistorical mythmaking.

In 1838 and 1839, President Andrew Jackson forced thousands of Native Americans to abandon their homes east of the Mississippi. Even though Oklahoma was the end point of the genocidal forced migration known as the Trail of Tears, Oklahoma! doesn’t feature a single Native American character. In fact, its only explicitly nonwhite character is Ali Hakim, a Persian peddler who seeks romantic encounters that don’t come with marital strings.

Jud Fry (played by Patrick Vaill, left) might be an excellent farmhand, but he is not a good man.

Little Fang Photo

Director Daniel Fish’s new, stripped-down revival of Oklahoma! doesn’t play by those rules, though. In this version, now running at Circle in the Square Theater through Jan. 19, Laurey is played by a black woman, Rebecca Naomi Jones. Laurey’s best friend, Ado Annie, is played by Ali Stroker, who uses a wheelchair, the first actress to do so on a Broadway stage. When Stroker won the Tony for best actress in a featured role in a musical in June, she was the first performer who uses a wheelchair to be nominated, much less win.

Suffice it to say, this ain’t your granny’s Oklahoma! The musical, which won the 2019 Tony for best revival, has been popularly characterized as “Sexy Oklahoma!” That’s largely because of the horny howling of its handsome leading man, Damon Daunno, who plays Curly, and its shamelessly libidinous Ado Annie. But I did not find Oklahoma! to be sexy so much as darkly terrifying — and I mean that in a good way.

That’s because this version, which faithfully maintains the original script and lyrics of the 1943 musical while updating the orchestrations with modern arrangements, subjects toxic whiteness and masculinity to the glaring bleach of the noonday sun.

Oklahoma! provides a nuanced opportunity for audiences to reexamine systems of power from the view of those least protected by them.

The revival is unique because of its deft interrogation of the whiteness and toxic masculinity that has long been romanticized in the American western, and in the many treacly iterations of Oklahoma! that have been mounted since 1943. This version asks its audience to consider a familiar world in an unfamiliar way: through the eyes of a black woman with little to no physical security or power of her own.


The first thing one notices upon entering Circle in the Square is the aggressive brightness of the room’s lighting (more than a few members of the audience wore sunglasses through the performance). The second is that the walls are lined with racks upon racks upon racks of shotguns.

The lighting turns out to be subversive. Much like a black light held over the surfaces of a sketchy motel room, it illuminates all the ickiness lurking on surfaces that appear otherwise innocuous. It welcomes you to the Oklahoma territory, where flowers fill the prairie and the june bugs zoom, and then it ensures that you cannot turn away from the ugliness that lurks there. “Everything’s going my way” certainly applies to the men of the Territory. But its female residents? Not so much.

Tony winner Ali Stroker (left) plays Ado Annie and Will Brill (right) is Ali Hakim in Oklahoma!

Little Fang Photo

It’s strange to see Oklahoma! when the horrors of mass shootings (most recently in Dayton, Ohio, and El Paso, Texas) are still in the shallow recesses of one’s consciousness. But mostly, I was reminded of violence specifically linked to virulent misogyny, and so Alek Minassian, Elliot Rodger, and George Sodini entered my mind within minutes of the introduction of Jud (Patrick Vaill). Minassian, Rodgers, and Sodini are white men who committed mass murder because they were angry, lonely, and felt entitled to attention from women when they weren’t getting it. Minassian identifies as an “incel,” or involuntary celibate.

There is a rhythm to the news of mass shootings, and one beat in particular is frustratingly metronomic: The killers, more often than not, have a history of abuse or antipathy toward women. In Oklahoma!, Jud is armed with an unshakable crush, a shifty attitude, and a revolver. Vaill imbues Jud with a patina of gentle shyness, underneath which beats a familiar pulse of resentment, entitlement, and a violent temper precariously held in check. Jud might be an excellent farmhand, but he is not a good man. It makes for a terribly dangerous combination for Laurey.

To survive in the modern world, women develop a spidey sense about men who would potentially harm us, and we mold our lives around the avoidance of male aggression. We move to a different subway car if someone stares a little too long, or brushes up a little too close. We slow our gait to let someone pass rather than take the chance that he may be following when we must walk late at night. And we get very good at managing — managing expectations, managing tempers, and managing egos.

The same reality of ever-present male danger is true for the women of the Territory. For them, the most effective way to guard against it is to get married. (Nothing sucks the romance out of courtship quite like knowing you’re seeking a man in hopes that his presence will prevent your rape or murder.) Laurey has a decision to make about who she will choose for the dance and her life afterward: Curly or Jud? By Laurey’s second interaction with the seemingly mild-mannered Jud, I felt my stomach grow queasy with worry. Oda Mae Brown from Ghost made an entrance in my notebook: “Laurey,” I wrote furiously, “You in danger, girl!”

Before Fish reimagined her, Laurey was usually portrayed as a lucky woman blessed with a surfeit of romantic possibilities. Nowhere is that more clear than in Fred Zinneman’s 1955 film adaptation. In Zinneman’s Oklahoma!, Laurey is played by Shirley Jones, a sunny, self-assured blonde whose good looks, tiny waist, and homespun charm are enough to tame any man.

When Shirley Jones sings “Many A New Day,” she’s surrounded by white women pirouetting in bloomers and petticoats, and she’s laying out a philosophy that Ellen Fein and Sherrie Schneider would come to monetize some four decades later in The Rules, possibly the worst self-help book about dating ever published. Essentially, it is a doctrine that tells women that all their power and moral authority lie in their sexual availability or lack thereof, also known as playing hard to get.

But this display of performative reluctance isn’t an indication of power, so much as the lack of it, especially when you consider the presence of armed threats like Jud. From the beginning of the musical, Aunt Eller is telling Curly how much her niece likes him, no matter how much Laurey’s behavior indicates the opposite. It’s strategic: Aunt Eller’s trying to provide some security for Laurey, in the limited way that she can, by playing matchmaker. Sexual violation is a constant threat for women, even for Ado Annie, who is generally portrayed as a ditsy, well-meaning slut with her rendition of the song “I Cain’t Say No.”

Stroker’s Ado Annie, on the other hand, delivers a rollicking, proudly sex positive rendition of the song, a recognition of the character’s agency.

Still, in both scenarios, Ado Annie’s choices are protected by her father’s ever-present shotgun — to a point. She may get around, and she may like it, but she’s still got to marry somebody, and furthermore, someone with money. Ado Annie’s father insists that a man vying for her affections have at least $50 to his name before he’ll let him marry her. (Remember, it’s 1906.)

Laurey doesn’t really have two viable options so much as she’s faced with making a choice between a man who will almost certainly kill her if he doesn’t get what he wants and a well-meaning dunce who thinks the height of being gentlemanly means getting down to the dirty business of dispatching the Territory’s resident incel.


Jones is not the only member of the Oklahoma! company who is black, but her blackness serves to reinforce just how vulnerable and disenfranchised Laurey is in a place where men hold an overwhelming amount of sociopolitical power and women have nearly none. That social order is enforced and maintained with guns:

  • When Ali Hakim won’t commit to Ado Annie, her father threatens him with a shotgun.
  • When Jud and Curly want to intimidate each other, they shoot holes into the roof and wall of the smokehouse.
  • When Laurey finds herself in need of protection from one bad man, it comes from another wielding — you guessed it — a gun.

Jones plays Laurey as a woman moving through the world with tense, uneasy reluctance. At times, she exhibits an attraction to Curly, but it never seems to permeate too deeply, perhaps with the exception of the dream ballet (danced with magnetic athleticism by Gabrielle Hamilton) that explores Laurey’s subconscious. It concludes with Laurey’s id scooching crotch first offstage toward Curly — she’s made her “choice.”

But even when Laurey agrees to marry Curly and enters the stage in her wedding dress, she’s bereft of the glowing, floaty ebullience typically associated with brides. Instead, the subtle hesitations in Jones’ movements and the drawn expression of her face leaves the viewer wishing poor Laurey had a trusted maid of honor to ask, “You OK, sis? I got the horses in the back if you want to ride east ’til we can’t ride no more.” It’s a beautifully crafted performance, full of simmering internal contradictions that Laurey dare not raise aloud. She seems more resigned than anything to spend her life with Curly, if only because he provides protection from the Juds of the world and she knows that she needs it.

Laurey Williams (Rebecca Naomi Jones, right) eyes Curly (Damon Daunno, left) as he serenades her in Oklahoma!

Little Fang Photo

I could not help but see parallels between Laurey and the protagonist of Test Pattern, a new film from director Shatara Michelle Ford that premiered earlier this year at BlackStar Film Festival and is currently seeking distribution. Test Pattern explores the aftermath of sexual assault for a black woman living in Austin, Texas, named Renesha. Renesha (Brittany S. Hall) is in a loving interracial relationship when she is sexually assaulted during a celebratory night out with a friend. (Coincidentally, the two works share an actor; Will Brill plays Hakim in Oklahoma! and Renesha’s boyfriend Evan in Test Pattern.) Like Laurey, Renesha ends up spending a great deal of time managing the emotions of two white men, one of whom is ostensibly “good” and the other who is “bad.” It turns out the two men are not so different. Like Jud and Curly, they both prioritize their own wants over the needs of the black woman who is the object of their desire or devotion. This is not accidental. In both the Territory of 1906 and modern-day Austin, the world is constructed to serve these men, and that’s what they’ve come to expect. This is their version of neutral.

Oklahoma! becomes a jaunty horror show when Laurey is splattered with Jud’s blood on her wedding day after Curly guns him down and the entire company belts out a lively rendition of “Oklahoma.” The residents of the territory ignore the cancer infecting their community in favor of singing, dancing, and the avoidance of discomfort, in much the same way that no amount of tragic deaths seems to spur meaningful action on gun control.

Ultimately, Oklahoma! provides a nuanced opportunity for audiences to reexamine systems of power from the view of those least protected by them. The artists will even serve you chili and cornbread during the show’s intermission. The timing is key — better to eat a bowl before pore Jud is daid, when its contents can’t remind you of his bullet-blasted innards.

Reading Toni Morrison at 17, 25 and 35 It took nearly 20 years, but revisiting ‘Sula,’ I finally saw myself in her words, as only a grown woman can

In the documentary Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am, the poet Sonia Sanchez offers a method for reading and understanding the work of her friend, the only black woman to be awarded the Nobel Prize for literature.

“In order to survive,” Sanchez says, “you should reread Toni Morrison every 10 years.”

After the news broke last week that Morrison had died, her death hit with the same intensity one associates with the passing of a beloved auntie. And yet I found comfort in three things. Unlike the beginning of her career as a novelist, when Morrison’s genius was up for debate and her choice to write free of concerns about the opinions of white people raised hackles, the entire world rose up to mourn her and celebrate her many contributions. Second, she graced the earth for 88 years. It didn’t feel as though someone had been prematurely stolen from us, like Lorraine Hansberry dying at age 34 or being forced to say goodbye to Jimmy Baldwin when he was 63. And third, I decided to follow Sanchez’s advice, starting with Sula.

Toni Morrison attends the Carl Sandburg Literary Awards Dinner at the University of Illinois at Chicago Forum on Oct. 20, 2010.

Photo by Daniel Boczarski/FilmMagic

For most of my childhood, Morrison’s works were beautifully crafted abstractions. The words were accessible, and yet admiring them was not the same as understanding them.

When I read Morrison’s first novel, The Bluest Eye, as a high school senior, my approach was practically clinical. I absorbed the work the same way I pored over the words of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn — that is to say, in obsessive pursuit of an “A” — reading and regurgitating literary criticism and taking apart the book’s symbolism, context and ideas. But there was one moment when I connected to Morrison as a black girl.

During a class discussion, a white girl in the nearly all-white class asked the teacher what “high yellow” meant. I piped up because I actually knew the answer. “It’s a couple shades lighter than me,” I explained.

The girl turned and glared at me. “Well, thanks for that, Soraya,” she snarled, and then went on to admonish me for employing such a graphic example. I was confused and a little embarrassed. Why was she angry with me? Why had she reacted with such venom, as though I’d pointed out a deficiency that had embarrassed her? A wall grew between my blackness and that which Morrison had recorded for posterity, and I learned that it was offensive to connect the two. So Pecola Breedlove, the book’s main character, meant about as much to me as Ivan Denisovich. Two fascinating foreigners in two different gulags.

It wasn’t until my 20s — after having studied at Howard, the same university Morrison attended and taught at — that I picked up her work again, dared to see myself in it and read for my own pleasure and edification.

I chose Sula. Morrison’s second novel, published in 1973, is the story of friends Nel Wright and Sula Peace, who grow up in a small town and whose adult lives move in different directions. Probably about 10% of it stuck with me. I remember being enchanted by Sula’s clothing. Wrote Morrison:

She was dressed in a manner that was as close to a movie star as anyone would ever see. A black crepe dress splashed with pink and yellow zinnias, foxtails, a black felt hat with the veil of net lowered over one eye. In her right hand was a black purse with a beaded clasp and in her left a red leather traveling case, so small, so charming — no one had ever seen anything like it before, including the mayor’s wife and the music teacher, both of whom had been to Rome.

Sula had left her tiny community of Medallion, Ohio, for college in Nashville, Tennessee, and had returned worldly, glamorous and uncontainable. I grew up in a small North Carolina town I had no desire to revisit. After spending a summer working in Jackson, Mississippi, and another in Kansas City, Missouri, I realized I had something in common with Sula, which was that the provincial life was not for me. I yearned to be in a real city with black people and public transportation. And like Sula, I didn’t much see the point of marriage.

Those with husbands had folded themselves into starched coffins, their sides bursting with other people’s skinned dreams and bony regrets. Those without men were like sour-tipped needles featuring one constant empty eye. Those with men had had the sweetness sucked from their breath by ovens and steam kettles. Their children were like distant but exposed wounds whose aches were no less intimate because separate from their flesh. They had looked at the world and back at their children, back at the world and back again at their children, and Sula knew that one clear young eye was all that kept the knife away from the throat’s curve.

The married women of Medallion were cautionary tales, especially for a young adult woman with no children. Every time a relative or a stranger made a remark about my potential as a wife and mother, I wanted to scream, the same way I wanted to scream every Thanksgiving in my grandmother’s house when all the women were conscripted into domestic duties while the men got to sit and watch football.

So Sula’s words to her grandmother, Eva, made perfect sense to me. “You need to have some babies. It’ll settle you,” Eva told Sula.

“I don’t want to make somebody else. I want to make myself.”

“Selfish. Ain’t no woman got no business floatin’ around without no man.”

Award-winning New York author Toni Morrison is seen here at the Harbourfront’s International Festival of Authors in Toronto in 1982.

Photo by Reg Innell/Toronto Star via Getty Images

I supposed I, like Sula, would simply be selfish. Sula made sense to me. I didn’t fully grasp why Sula kept bouncing from man to man — I suppose I thought of her as the Samantha Jones of her day — but I understood choosing yourself first.

Their evidence against Sula was contrived, but their conclusions about her were not. Sula was distinctly different. Eva’s arrogance and Hannah’s self-indulgence merged in her, and with a twist that was all her own imagination, she lived out her days exploring her own thoughts and emotions, giving them full reign, feeling no obligation to please anybody unless their pleasure pleased her.

So what if she died young? At least she had the sense to do a little living first. My admiration was superficial and grounded in my own stubborn, rather narrowly defined pursuit of the feminist cause. The darker details of Sula’s life slid by in my mind, and for the next 10 years, I walked around with an incomplete understanding of her.

And then the woman who created Sula died.

Recently, I’d been skipping around Morrison’s essays in The Source of Self-Regard, which, on some level, is a helpful guidebook for how to be a black woman in America without going mad. And I’d seen Timothy Greenfield-Sanders’ wonderful documentary about Morrison.

Her words were still important, but I was mostly obsessed with Morrison’s life and personality. She was a lioness of American literature, yes, but she was also charming, sensual and self-assured. Here was a woman with a Pulitzer and a Nobel Prize grinning as she talked about how good she was at making carrot cakes, how she indulged her sexual appetites as a Howard student without a lick of shame or regret. To Morrison, chasing ambition did not require abandoning pleasure.

Toni Morrison attends Art & Social Activism, a discussion on Broadway with TaNehisi Coates, Morrison and Sonia Sanchez, on June 15, 2016, in New York City.

Photo by Craig Barritt/Getty Images for The Stella Adler Studio of Acting

For some time now, my editor has sent me on assignments and reminded me to have fun. My responses are always halting and awkward because I’m going to work, and work requires focus, and fun just seemed inappropriate.

And yet here was the freest black woman in the world, and she lived her life in such a way that pleasure and style were not antithetical to intellectual rigor. If anything, they fed it. The fact that Morrison was a writer made this seem all the more superhuman. Writing is typically characterized by long bouts of misery rewarded with occasional pearls of short-lived but deeply intense satisfaction. Morrison seemed to have found a way to supply herself with a steady stream of joy.

Rather than living literary goddess, I began to think about Morrison as a fellow writer, a fellow Howard grad, a fellow woman. There were whole worlds in the lives of my mother, my aunts, my grandmothers and their grandmothers that I thought were none of my business because, well, they told me they were none of my business. What did a child need to know about the personal exploits of her ancestors? That was grown folks’ business. I realized that reading Morrison’s books feels like gaining entry into a club of black adulthood. They turn ancestors into contemporaries.

So I revisited Sula last week because Sula, like so much of Morrison’s writing, is a grown woman novel. The fact that Sula slept with her best friend’s husband is, frankly, the least interesting thing about her. I saw Sula through new eyes, as a woman who did a horrible thing as a 12-year-old (accidentally killing Chicken Little by throwing him in the river, where he drowned) and never fully got over it, no matter how hard she tried.

This time, I marveled at Morrison’s freedom. So much focus has been paid, and rightfully so, to how she didn’t seek white validation. But it’s more than that. Morrison possessed the moxie to create whatever world she pleased and follow whatever road beckoned in it. In doing so, she could create a heroine who slept with everyone’s husbands but genuinely didn’t mean anything by it. Who else breaks taboos with such gentle elegance, without the need to shout about it in the prose, but simply allows it to unfold?

Now I think the thing Sula actually spent most of her adult life chasing was joy, the love she felt she deserved, and she kept coming up short. She’d try on a man, then do away with him the moment she knew he didn’t have what she was looking for. And she kept doing it until she met Ajax.

Morrison was unafraid of letting everyone in Medallion regard Sula as a witch while daring to assert how Sula’s presence actually improved the lives of those in her community, whether they recognized it or not. When the people of Medallion don’t have Sula to kick around, they lose the vessel for all their displeasures and frustrations and insecurities and simply fall prey to them again.

This time, I paid closer attention to Nel, Sula’s best friend, and her realization that motherhood will be the most interesting thing about her life. I thought of my friends who are now mothers, and I felt grateful that I am able to make space for their children and their partners in my heart instead of walling myself off from the changes they welcomed in their lives. I got lost in Sula and Nel’s friendship in a way I never had before, and in this passage in particular, when Sula is alone on her deathbed:

While in this state of weary anticipation, she noticed that she was not breathing, that her heart had stopped completely. A crease of fear touched her breast, for any second there was sure to be a violent explosion in her brain, a gasping for breath. Then she realized, or rather, she sensed, that there was not going to be any pain. She was not breathing because she didn’t have to. Her body did not need oxygen. She was dead.

Sula felt her face smiling. “Well I’ll be damned,” she thought, “it didn’t even hurt. Wait’ll I tell Nel.”

It took nearly 20 years, but I finally did what Morrison had been inviting me to do, through decades of writing: to see myself in her words, as only a grown woman can.

The NCAA doesn’t have a Rich Paul problem. It has a problem with black men. The move to regulate agents looks like yet another effort to police black mobility and freedom

The NCAA doesn’t have a Rich Paul problem. The problem is that its structure is designed to regulate the freedom of athletes to turn pro in primarily black sports but not in white ones.

And an entity that now preaches the importance of college graduation for agents doesn’t have the same righteous energy for black athletes at its most lucrative institutions.

Earlier this week, the NCAA implemented what was immediately labeled the “Rich Paul Rule,” after the man who represents NBA players LeBron James, Anthony Davis, Draymond Green, John Wall, Ben Simmons and 2019 first-round draft picks Darius Garland and Darius Bazley. The new regulations require that agents interested in representing players who are considering declaring for the NBA draft now must have a bachelor’s degree, be certified with the National Basketball Players Association for at least three years and take a comprehensive in-person exam at NCAA headquarters in Indianapolis. Paul, who never attended college, is one of many agents affected by this rule — but unquestionably the most prominent.

The NCAA’s move was instantly lambasted as hypocritical and vindictive. “The world is so afraid of ground breakers.…This is beyond sad & major B.S.,” tweeted comedian Kevin Hart. James, Paul’s biggest client, longtime friend and confidant, could only laugh at the NCAA’s energy, saying, “Nothing will stop this movement and culture over here.”

Chris Rock explained the context for the NCAA mandate years ago. “We’re only 10% of the population,” he said on 2004’s Never Scared. “We’re 90% of the Final Four!”

Only basketball must adhere to the new NCAA mandate. The actual text doesn’t mention race. Nevertheless, the writing is not just written on the wall, it’s been carved. It’s a “race-neutral” rule that isn’t race-neutral. This comes with historical precedence that the NCAA knows all too well.

One of the worst-kept secrets in sports is how top-tier college football and basketball programs directly benefited from desegregation. Before integration, the vast majority of top black athletes had no choice but to attend historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs). Once the larger and richer predominantly white schools began to integrate, HBCUs couldn’t compete. But there’s been a parallel development too: The graduation rates for black athletes at top sports programs remain consistently and embarrassingly low.

Agent Rich Paul (right), seen here with LeBron James (left), is a threat. To the status quo. To the hierarchy of power.

Photo by Jerritt Clark/Getty Images for Klutch Sports Group

Shaun R. Harper, executive director of the University of Southern California’s Race and Equity Center, found that, overall, black male athletes graduate at higher percentages than black males who are not involved in sports. But that’s not true for the NCAA’s wealthiest leagues: the Power 5 of the ACC, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-12 and SEC.

“The [NCAA] has claimed in television commercials that black male student-athletes at Division I institutions graduate rates are higher than black men in the general student body,” the report says. “This is true across the entire division, but not for the five conferences whose member institutions routinely win football and basketball championships, play in multimillion-dollar bowl games and the annual basketball championship tournament, and produce the largest share of Heisman Trophy winners.”

And an entity that now preaches the importance of college graduation for agents doesn’t have the same righteous energy for black athletes at its most lucrative institutions.

Black men made up 2.4% of the Power 5 student population but 55% and 56%, respectively, of its football and basketball teams. Of those numbers, 55% of black male athletes graduated in under six years, compared with 60% of black men in the overall undergraduate population and 76% of all college graduates.

“Over the past two years, 40% of these universities have actually had black male student-athlete graduation rates that have declined,” Harper said. “We’re supposed to be getting better, but actually 40% of these places have gotten worse.”

Meanwhile, the debate over paying college athletes is sharply divided by race. Most whites are against “pay to play,” while most blacks strongly support it because the current system exploits a largely black athletic base.

In the NBA, the sport is still primarily black. (The Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport found that during the 2015-16 season, 81.7% of NBA players were people of color and 74.3% were black.) But black athletes have significant power and influence over everything from where they play to who coaches them to the structure of their contracts.

This shifting power dynamic is beginning earlier and earlier too. Bazley skipped college last year to become a million-dollar intern with New Balance. R.J. Hampton and LaMelo Ball, both touted as 2020 lottery picks, are taking their talents to Australia for a year before declaring for the NBA draft. Hampton has already inked a shoe deal with Li-Ning.

As Yahoo’s Dan Wetzel noted, the new rule’s standard doesn’t apply to college hockey players or baseball players, who can be drafted out of high school but can choose to attend college if their draft placement doesn’t appeal to them.

If this wasn’t about a young black man who achieved his success out of the mud and then empowered other black men to recognize their worth in spite of an organization that has for years manipulated their talents for the organization’s gain, if this wasn’t about yet another American institution attempting to police black mobility and freedom, then it’s difficult to see what the actual reasoning is.

This brings the discussion back to Paul and James. It’s often been said there is a Jay-Z lyric for any situation in life. Perhaps the most fitting here is a bar from Jay’s 2001 album The Blueprint, which entered the Library of Congress in March: All I need is the love of my crew / The whole industry can hate me, I thugged my way through, he pledged on “All I Need.” In essence, this has been the motto for Paul, James and the two other members of their inner circle, Maverick Carter and Randy Mims.

When James cut ties to agent Aaron Goodwin in 2005, eyebrows raised and many said that the young basketball phenom had risked his career before it truly tipped off. At the time, it was easy to understand why, given that Goodwin had helped the 2003 No. 1 overall draft pick obtain a bevy of endorsements, including Bubblicious chewing gum, Upper Deck trading cards, Sprite, Powerade and, most gaudy of them all, a seven-year, $90 million shoe deal with Nike. Few believed in James’ vision when he turned to three of his childhood friends to chart the course of his career on and off the court.

“James’ switcheroo a youthful mistake,” the Chicago Sun-Times wrote.

“I will promise you really ugly things will happen,” said former NFL player turned financial adviser Jim Corbett. “This is a big mistake, a bad decision that is going to cost LeBron.”

Which leads us to another Jay lyric, this one from 2009’s “Already Home”: And as for the critics, tell me I don’t get it / Everybody can tell you how to do it, they never did it. Thanks to the friends he entrusted with his career nearly 15 years ago, James is not only the most powerful player in basketball history but also a player in Hollywood, fashion, education and politics.

Money and power elicit respect, as elucidated by Kimberly Jones. But they also open the door for fear and angst. President Donald Trump took shots at LeBron on Twitter last August after the launch of his I Promise School in Akron, Ohio, saying it was hard to make “LeBron look smart” and weighed in on the NBA’s most contested debate, saying he preferred Michael Jordan over James — which Jordan quickly rebuffed. The two were labeled “mob bosses” by an unnamed Western Conference general manager last season after public attempts to move Anthony Davis to the Lakers (a move that eventually happened).

From left to right: Anthony Davis, LeBron James, Rich Paul, Ben Simmons and Miles Bridges attend the Klutch 2019 All Star Weekend Dinner Presented by Remy Martin and hosted by Klutch Sports Group at 5Church in Charlotte, North Carolina, on Feb. 16.

Photo by Dominique Oliveto/Getty Images for Klutch Sports Group 2019 All Star Weekend

Rich Paul is a threat. To the status quo. To the hierarchy of power. And to the image of an industry that is still dominated by white males and has long exercised fiscal and moral authority over black athletes.

Basketball altered its rules to make it harder for three players who made the game look too easy (i.e., they dominated the white players too much): Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Maybe the NCAA didn’t implement this rule with Paul as its sole motivation. Just like maybe the NCAA wouldn’t be so open to criticism if it made the education of players a higher priority.

Unfortunately, the NCAA addressed a perceived problem while never addressing its own. Sometimes sports really is a reflection of life.

New documentary reminds us that even Toni Morrison had to fight off the haters After she won the Nobel Prize, there were still critics who said her focus on black women was too narrow

For years, one take has ruled the internet as the quintessential example of screwing up as utterly as a critic possibly can.

The headline “Beyoncé: She’s No Ashanti” graced The New York Times’ review of the singer’s debut solo album, Dangerously in Love. It persists in reminding us of the possibility of committing a boo-boo so grand it becomes synonymous with “strong and wrong.”

I was reminded of that headline after seeing the documentary Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am, which premiered earlier this year at Sundance and is now playing in theaters. Directed by Timothy Greenfield-Sanders (The Black List, The Women’s List) for the PBS series American Masters (no airdate has been announced), the film reveals how a number of cultural institutions failed to recognize the genius of Morrison, even as she created a body of work that disrupted a largely white and male literary canon.

The new documentary Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am showed that Morrison was subjected to the sort of doubt that black women are all too familiar with.

Timothy Greenfield-Sanders/Courtesy of Magnolia Pictures

Reviewing Sula for The New York Times in 1973, one writer chided Morrison for her continued focus on black life: “… in spite of its richness and its thorough originality, one continually feels its narrowness. … Toni Morrison is far too talented to remain only a marvelous recorder of the black side of provincial American life.”

The film shows Morrison’s response to that kind of critique through archival footage from Charlie Rose’s talk show, pre-#MeToo revelations: “The assumption is that the reader is a white person,” Morrison tells Rose. “That troubled me.”

Similar worries persisted for years. In 1988, 48 black writers published an open letter in the Times protesting the fact that Morrison had not won a National Book Award or the Pulitzer Prize.

The critique of Morrison wasn’t only about race. Some African American men weren’t shy about their complaints when she was awarded the Nobel Prize in literature for Beloved in 1993. The novel was inspired by the real story of an enslaved Kentucky woman named Margaret Garner. Garner ran away, and when the man who owned her tracked her down, Garner killed her children, slitting one’s throat and drowning the other, offering mortal escape from lives of bondage and degradation.

“I hope this prize inspires her to write better books,” Stanley Crouch told The Washington Post. “She has a certain skill, but she has no serious artistic vision or real artistic integrity. ‘Beloved’ was a fraud. It gave a fake vision of the slave trade, it didn’t deal with the complicity of Africans, and it moved the males into the wings. ‘The Bluest Eye’ was her best. I thought something was going to happen after that. Nothing did.”

It’s frustrating to discover that Morrison, one of the greatest writers of her generation, spent years being dismissed.

Charles Johnson, who won the National Book Award in 1990 for Middle Passage, grumbled about Morrison’s commitment to writing through a lens of feminism and black cultural nationalism.

“When that particular brand of politics is filtered through her mytho-poetic writing, the result is often offensive, harsh,” Johnson said. “Whites are portrayed badly. Men are. Black men are.” The award, he added, “was a triumph of political correctness.”

It’s frustrating to discover that Morrison, one of the greatest writers of her generation, spent years being dismissed. For as long as I have known the name Toni Morrison, she has been synonymous with envy-inspiring genius. When I was a child, her 60 Minutes interviews were appointment television. Her books, dense with complex themes and rich with metaphor, were among those my parents would allow me to read before they were truly age-appropriate. Morrison was so exceptional that rules could bend to allow for the consumption of her words. (Meanwhile, Judy Blume and Terry McMillan had to be secreted away from the public library near our house and read under the covers.)

And yet she was subjected to the sort of doubt with which black women are all too familiar, because of her race and because of her gender. It’s the disrespect that propels so many black parents to forcefully instill in their children the directive that they must not hide their intellectual lights under bushels but instead sport them proudly. After all, the chances that someone else will care to illuminate such gifts are slim.

“I am very, very smart early in the day,” Morrison says to the camera in The Pieces I Am, purring with the swagger of a woman who knows she has the goods as she explains her writing process. She begins at 5 a.m. (a habit that began after she gave birth to two sons) and continues till noon. She doesn’t particularly care for afternoon or evening scribbling, and her preferred method of recording her thoughts is in neat cursive on yellow legal pads.

In one jaw-dropping moment, Paula Giddings, author of When and Where I Enter, a history of black women in America, shares that she worked as an assistant at Random House when Morrison was there as a full-time editor. Morrison asked Giddings to type up pages of her legal pad in exchange for a homemade carrot cake. Years later, Giddings realized that she’d been transcribing a draft of The Bluest Eye.

The critique of Morrison wasn’t only about race. Some African American men complained when she was awarded the Nobel Prize in literature for Beloved in 1993.

Timothy Greenfield-Sanders/Courtesy of Magnolia Pictures

Visually, The Pieces I Am is largely static, relying on still photographs, scenes from the deck of Morrison’s home in Lorain, Ohio, and the art of Jacob Lawrence, Mickalene Thomas, Kara Walker, and Kerry James Marshall spliced between footage of interviews with the author’s friends, colleagues and admirers, including Giddings, Sonia Sanchez, Walter Mosley, Fran Lebowitz, The New Yorker theater critic Hilton Als and Oprah Winfrey.

“She’s the architect, the midwife and the artist,” Als remarks.

Greenfield-Sanders has known Morrison since 1981, and their ease with each other is apparent in Morrison’s candor and body language. Even as she reveals that there’s a private part of herself that few will see, Morrison is witty, charming and a little mischievous. “The moment I got to Howard [University], I was loose,” she tells her interviewer, grinning. “It was lovely, I loved it … I don’t regret it.” Now 88, Morrison remains an inspiration for many reasons, but especially because she believed in her own talents long before the institutional arbiters of such things caught on to them.

“I was more interesting than they were,” Morrison says. “I knew more than they did.”

On this football team, keep your eye out for the trash-talking mom Former Ohio State player leads his family to a flag football championship

Lamaar Thomas has been a football star since he first put on pads as a little boy. Even then, the 65-pound running back dreamed of making it to the NFL. By high school, his star was blazing.

He was the Maryland state champion in the 55- and 100-meter dashes, was an All-American wide receiver and got 31 Division I scholarship offers.

After two years at Ohio State, he transferred to the University of New Mexico, where a coach promised more playing time. While there, he set a school record in the 60 meters and won a conference championship in the 100.

Elwanda Thomas (right), Lamaar Thomas’ mother, looks for the end zone as she tries to get around a Wakanda Forever defender.

André Chung for The Undefeated

But in his next football season, he broke a bone in his back and then his foot and played in only four games. In his final season, the coach who’d recruited him was fired, the offense changed and his college career, which once held so much promise, came to an anticlimactic close. After a tryout with the Denver Broncos, he wound up on the practice squad (and activated for two games) with the Jacksonville Jaguars. He worked out with other teams and considered Arena football before returning to the Washington area and becoming a personal trainer.

At 23, one football door had closed for him. But there was another one, and it had been open his whole life. He grabbed a flag and met his family on the field. “Getting into flag football was just like I was kind of born into it,” Thomas, now 29, said.

He and his brother, Desmond, 27, grew up in Fort Washington, Maryland, watching his parents play the game. His dad, Sean Thomas, who’d played baseball and football in high school and basketball for Shaw University, started an all-women’s team with his mom, Elwanda, two decades ago. Football, especially flag football, was a family affair.

“I’m 51 years old and I’m still running. … Not all people can say they’ve physically gotten on the football field and played with their kids.” — Elwanda Thomas

After college, Thomas helped his dad coach his mom’s team. Other men’s and coed flag football teams knew who he was, knew he’d played pro, and begged Thomas to play for them. But he wanted to play the game he loved with the people he loved most.

“They want me but they don’t want to play with my brother, or maybe they don’t want my mom, or they don’t want my girlfriend, or they don’t want my friend,” Thomas said. And where’s the joy in that? “I’m mostly out here playing because I’m just having fun with them. I’m not playing because I want to score a bunch of touchdowns. I’ve already done that stuff.”

In 2015, he started his own coed flag football team, Ballers Gon’ Ball. The BGB Family team featured his mother; his girlfriend, Asherah; his brother; and a cousin, Darren Cutchin, who everybody calls Cuz. It includes his best friends and their close friends. There are nearly two dozen people on the roster, about half of whom show up for any given game, and the team plays on Saturdays and Tuesdays, January through October. In the past four years, they’ve won some prize money and, in January, the Flag Football World Championship Tour’s national championship in Orlando, Florida. But everybody in BGB Family will say, for real, they’re just looking for a way to stay in the game. Together.

“I’m 51 years old and I’m still running,” Elwanda Thomas said. “There have been times where all of us have been on the field together: mom, dad and the two boys. I’m like, it’s a family thing out here. Not all people can say they’ve physically gotten on the football field and played with their kids.”

Elwanda, a technician for Verizon, said her husband, a carrier for FedEx, talked her into playing 30 years ago. She’s a small woman, barely 5 feet, 4 inches, and a size 2 back then. The first time she played, she got elbowed by defenders and bruised. “I can’t get hit anymore, I’m going to have to figure this blocking thing out,” she told herself. Her husband began teaching her the nuances of the game: how to rush, how to pull the flags and not be fooled by fakes. “I’m a very competitive person. Very, very competitive. So it was like, ‘No, I can’t let you beat me at this. I have to figure out my game plan.’ ”

Between games, the team relaxes. Elwanda Thomas (foreground) holds 1-year-old Quinn Dimes, whose mother plays on the team. Lamaar Thomas (left) sits next to his dog, Bentley, with Keena Brooks (center) and Frank Milien (right).

André Chung for The Undefeated

She had Lamaar young, and when other parents were in the stands watching their kids at football practice, she and Sean Thomas would run steps, or the track, or play catch. “I actually could beat Lamaar in track until he was probably about 12,” Elwanda brags. She stopped racing him after that because she didn’t want him to have an edge in their trash-talk game.

In 8-on-8 coed flag football, the rules require teams to have at least three women on the field. If a woman scores, it counts for 9 points as opposed to only 6 with men. On a field in Burtonsville, Maryland, in mid-May, BGB was leading a team called Wakanda Forever and looking for a chance to run their signature play — Hide the Mom.

After Thomas completed a long pass, he immediately ran his team downfield.

“HTM! HTM!” he called out, and players raced into position. With one exception, the women lined up in the middle, near the ball. The men spread out, and Elwanda Thomas lingered near the sideline chatting with a ref. A defender demanded to know whether she was in bounds.

“It’s not my job to count for you, boo,” Elwanda Thomas told her.

Thomas ended up going to another receiver, and his momma got vocal. “I still got the HTM in me!” she yelled. You gotta believe in your teammate!”

When Elwanda Thomas dropped a low pass several plays later, Thomas yelled, “I can’t catch it for you!”

“Glad I wasn’t in the middle of that,” said Sean Thomas, watching from the sidelines. “They are the most competitive against each other.”

Lamaar and Elwanda Thomas trash-talk a few more minutes, just a mother and son trying to work out the kinks in their marquee move.

With Hide The Mom, the idea is to draw attention to the middle of the field, where almost all the women line up. “And meanwhile, my mom will be standing on the sideline because she’s the least likely person for guys my age to be trying to check,” Thomas said. These guys are watching the younger women who used to play basketball or run track. “My mom, nobody pays attention to her because she’s my mom, and she’s 51,” he said. He tosses the ball to her, “she’ll catch it, and normally it’s an easy run for her into the end zone for a touchdown.”

The team introduced the play last year as a novelty when shoulder, knee and Achilles injuries kept Elwanda Thomas near the sidelines. But it yields points — 56 in 14 games since April. After they get over the sting of being beaten by a middle-aged, trash-talking suburban mom, opposing defenses usually appreciate the play and Elwanda Thomas has gotten into her role, say teammates. She’ll make conversation with the ref or spectators on the sideline before suddenly turning to catch the ball.

Thomas’ girlfriend, Asherah El, 33, was a high school hurdler who now works in human resources for a government contractor. She cited their team chemistry as the best part of playing. “We hang out after the game, we hang out before the game,” El said.

She loves playing with instead of just cheering on her boyfriend. And she loves that Elwanda is still out there doing her thing. When Elwanda Thomas scores, the other team is like, “What the heck just happened? Everybody is in always in confusion. How did we let that person go, or how did she catch the ball? People always underestimate her.”

Darren Cutchin (“Cuz”) is a real estate agent and youth basketball coach. For Lamaar Thomas to play with his mom is special, Cuz says. “You won a national championship with your mom. And your girlfriend. You got your dad on the sidelines coaching you up.”

During the second half of the Wakanda Forever game, a player BGB is calling Spider-Man — he’s really rocking a great deal of red and blue — is bugging them.

“I got the lady,” Spider-Man called out, signaling he was covering Elwanda Thomas.

“He keeps calling me the lady, ‘I got the lady,’ and I’m about to get mad,” she says.

Lamaar Thomas and his mother have matching half-heart tattoos. “I love you,” her half-heart says. “I know,” reads his half-heart.

André Chung for The Undefeated

With less than a minute left in the game, Spider-Man and a BGB player exchange words, and Elwanda Thomas interjects.

“I’m a mom!” she taunts him. “I know why you talking that way. Just let your game talk for you, baby,” she tells him. BGB scores, and she brags that her head game is prime.

With the game over, Lamaar Thomas reminds everyone to get their jerseys and talks logistics for their next game. He and his mother resume their sparring about that incomplete pass.

“That would have been perfect if you would have caught it,” Thomas tells his mother.

“If it would have been thrown correctly, I would have caught it!” she insists.

The two put their wrists together to show off matching half-heart tattoos. “I love you,” her half-heart says. “I know,” reads his half-heart. Arguing about sports always brought them closer. Playing together keeps them closer still. Thomas, Elwanda, Sean and the rest of the team part ways but make plans to meet up again Tuesday, as friends and family, football players, balling out together.

Matthew Cherry moved from the practice squad in the NFL to first string in Hollywood His second stint as a TV director airs Sunday on CBS’ ‘Red Line’

The fact that Matthew Cherry was a wide receiver for the Jacksonville Jaguars, Cincinnati Bengals, Carolina Panthers and Baltimore Ravens is the least most interesting thing about him.

He was a star at the University of Akron, where he still holds the school record for most yards on punt returns in a season, with 305 in 2003, the same year he was named second-team All-Mid-American Conference.

But Cherry gave up the game in 2007. He walked away from the Ravens, his final team, with a $30,000 pretax settlement for a shoulder injury after being placed on injured reserve.

His professional career lasted about three seasons — some of it on practice squads, some of it on a roster. It was time for a pivot.

The settlement money helped him move to Los Angeles, where he was just another kid from the Midwest trying to make a go at this Hollywood dream.

He worked at it hard. For 12 solid years, including a stint of unemployment that sent him back home to Chicago to live with mom and dad.

And finally, his grind paid off — and then some. Cherry is now a TV director, an executive at Jordan Peele’s highly successful Monkeypaw Productions, helping to bring some of Ava DuVernay’s vision to life on CBS’ new limited series Red Line and working on an animated short in partnership with Sony Pictures Animation. He also is directing in ABC’s new series Whiskey Cavalier.

None of this came easy. Not when he set up fundraising accounts to finance his first feature film. Not when his mother died suddenly of an aneurysm — after telling him the previous night how proud she was seeing him begin to fulfill his dreams.

For a long time, that’s exactly what they were — dreams.

“I really didn’t even tell people I played ball,” he says now, sitting behind his desk at Peele’s Monkeypaw production compound in the Hollywood Hills. “I look at it how athletes are received when they break into music. People always roll their eyes like, ‘Ah, Kobe’s trying to do an album,’ or ‘Shaq is trying to do a project,’ or I remember specifically Allen Iverson, when he tried to drop an album. Athletes are always looked at weirdly when they try to do something outside of what they’ve been known for, and I was always conscious of that. …

“It helped that I really wasn’t a big name when I was in the NFL either. It made it easier just to be like: ‘Matthew. P.A. [Production assistant] I want to learn this from scratch.’ … Because people will have a perception of you, for whatever reason. In my experience, people assume that former pro athletes aren’t hard workers. Or we just want stuff handed to us, and we’re not willing to put in the work and grind for it.”


Matthew Cherry played briefly for the Baltimore Ravens.

Courtesy Matthew A. Cherry

Cherry grew up on Chicago’s North Side, and the first sport that caught his eye was baseball. He wasn’t a standout athlete, but his dad was a big Chicago Cubs fan, so he stuck with it. His earliest memory of the sport? It was horrible. He couldn’t remember which hand his mitt went on.

But there was always a lesson to be learned.

“I saw very quickly, if you put the time in and you practice, you can get better at it,” he said.

He also was growing. Rapidly. He decided to try football. Although his parents were middle-class, there weren’t enough resources for travel teams. But with practice, he became good enough to catch the eye of the coaches at a private Jesuit school in the northern suburbs, Loyola Academy in Wilmette.

“I very much felt like Fresh Prince of Bel-Air,” Cherry said of his high school experience. “Just being this kid that’s actually from Chicago, a black kid, [and] at the time, it was not diverse at all. I remember my graduating class, we had five black kids in a class of 500.”

In fall 1999, he headed off to Akron, Ohio, and by his senior year he was an All-MAC candidate. Maybe this pipe dream of playing in the NFL — something he never thought seriously about before, as football was merely the means to getting a scholarship — could come to fruition?


He wasn’t drafted. And life in the NFL didn’t look like it looked in the movies, that’s for sure. He was on the practice squad most of his rookie year, until the Cincinnati Bengals signed him to the active roster for the last two games of the 2004 season.

Cherry started thinking of a different plan in 2005. A friend from college called him before training camp of his second season. Cherry had studied broadcasting in college and had worked in campus radio as a music director and on-air personality. He interned at a Cleveland radio station.

“One of my guys that I worked with on the Cleveland radio station, he was like, ‘Man, I’m going to L.A. for the BET Awards. Will and Jada are hosting. We’re doing a live remote there. I don’t know what you’re doing, but we’ll let you kick it with us if you want to come out,’ ” he recalled.

“He listens. I don’t know if that comes from being coached, but he listens. And that’s very rare for a man in this industry.” — Angela Nissel

“In the back of my mind I was already starting to think about what my Plan B was going to be. Because my rookie year, I got cut and placed on practice squad, and that was really the first time I’d ever dealt with a situation like that, where I felt like I was good enough. But because of some of the politics around coming in as an undrafted player, sometimes if you’re not in the right situation, regardless of how well you do, you’re not gonna get a shot,” he said.

Arriving in Los Angeles, “I just remember my mind being blown. The weather. The mountains. The palm trees — but also how the entire city was just based off entertainment. It was all coffee shops, people in there writing scripts. The print/copy place, they’re talking about a discount for headshots and script printing. I was like, ‘This entire city revolves around this industry. That’s crazy.’ I just remember coming back from that experience just being really inspired. And I met this person who knew this other person who knew this other person who had been part of this program called Streetlights … a nonprofit organization that basically helps men and women of color get jobs as production assistants.”

Fast-forward to year three as a professional football player and Cherry is playing for the Baltimore Ravens after stints in NFL Europe with Hamburg and in the Canadian Football League. He had lived in nine cities and three countries in that three-year span.

He’d had enough. And he was ready to see what Hollywood was about. So he got into the production program, and his first job was working on Mara Brock Akil’s comedy series Girlfriends. On his off weeks, he worked on her spinoff series The Game, about a newly minted NFL player navigating his rookie year with his college sweetheart.

He was earning $300-$400 a week. It was low. But he loved it. This was his film school. He got to see how TV directors such as Debbie Allen, Sheldon Epps and Salim Akil worked, used camera equipment, set up shoots.

His next gig was on NBC’s sci-fi drama Heroes, but this time he took some extracurricular initiative: asking if he could use the camera equipment on off days to shoot music videos. He’d scour MySpace and reach out to rhythm and blues artists, offering to direct their music videos free of charge if they could make it out to L.A. He’d come up with the concept and he’d have the equipment — he just wanted a chance to tell a story. He got his first credit in 2008 directing a video for R&B artist Terry Dexter.

His side hustle served him well. He ultimately directed music videos for Michelle Williams featuring Beyoncé & Kelly Rowland, Tweet, Jazmine Sullivan, Lalah Hathaway, Kindred the Family Soul, Snoop Dogg, The Foreign Exchange, Bilal, N’Dambi, Maysa Leak, Dwele, Najee, K’Jon and Chloe x Halle.

Which brings us to now. Cherry has hit the place that he’s worked nonstop for since he arrived in 2007. He’s a creative executive at Monkeypaw. An executive producer on the award-winning BlacKkKlansman and a producer on The Last O.G. for TBS, where he just directed his first episode of TV.

“I thought he was going to be a stereotypical, kind of misogynist-without-recognizing-it, football guy,” said Angela Nissel, the co-executive producer of The Last O.G. “I remember the first time he was on set. Sometimes when you bring things up and there are a lot of guys, sometimes they tend not to hear you. He was the first one to say, ‘Wow, Ang, I hadn’t thought of that perspective. I’m glad we have a woman on set.’ He listens. I don’t know if that comes from being coached, but he listens. And that’s very rare for a man in this industry.”

Cherry’s second stint as a TV director airs Sunday on CBS’ Red Line, an eight-episode limited series about three Chicago families forced by tragedy to think about how race and racial biases affect their lives. The series is executive produced by DuVernay, who encouraged Cherry to write and direct a film about his experience in the NFL years ago. The result was The Last Fall, which aired on BET in 2012 after having its world premiere at the SXSW Film Festival and receiving an award for best screenplay at the American Black Film Festival.


Matthew Cherry (left) with Tracy Morgan (right) on the set of The Last O.G.

Courtesy Matthew A. Cherry

Now, as he thinks about that decade-plus of struggle, Cherry can smile. He met Peele in the midst of the successful run of Peele’s Oscar-winning Get Out. Peele liked a tweet Cherry tagged him in, started following Cherry and later sent him a direct message and asked to meet him. That was 2017, right after Peele announced his first-look overall production deal with Universal and Cherry thought maybe he’d be asked to direct a small-budget film. Instead, Peele wanted to hire him. Peele shared with him in that meeting that he was creating a space where he could continue what he did with Get Out: tell stories that have a social message and use genres such as horror, sci-fi and thrillers to make films and TV that are fun and commercially viable.

One of those projects is TBS’s The Last O.G., which stars comedian Tracy Morgan as a newly released felon who is trying to acclimate himself to society, get to know the twins he never knew he fathered and adjust to the new whitewashed affluence of his old Brooklyn neighborhood. The series also stars Cedric the Entertainer and Tiffany Haddish.

“Jordan really has given me that boost. When I first started working here, I was always looking at it like, man, what are the opportunities for directing? Maybe I can do some shows here and try to get that first opportunity. And The Last O.G. was always on my mind … just really fell in love with that show. The heart that it has, seeing Tracy in a way you’ve never seen him before,” Cherry said.

And for what it’s worth, we’ve never seen Cherry like this before either. He’s in the zone. And there doesn’t appear to be a slowdown anytime soon.

“It just literally felt like all these 10-plus years of being in L.A. and struggling, and living out of my car at some point, all these things you would do just to stay in L.A., stay in the game … if you could just stay here long enough, you might be able to make it,” he said.

He did that as a high school football player trying to get a college scholarship. He found it when he was struggling in the NFL and knew he needed to pivot.

And now, he’s figured it out in Hollywood. That early life lesson was key.

“It really is an athlete thing,” he said. “I would even go back further to that first time I picked up a baseball glove and put it on the wrong hand. Being able to see progress is something as an athlete that’s probably been the most important thing. Knowing that if you work hard enough, if you just stick it out long enough, you’ll get your shot.

“And then when you get your shot, you gotta take it. Or you have to go back to the bench. And that’s just always been a thing that’s been with me. I never felt like I had any opportunities that were just given to me. I’ve always had to create my own opportunity or give my own look or try to figure it out myself. And I just think, luckily it’s worked so far. And I think that’s the biggest thing about being an athlete, is being able to set a goal and knowing if you work hard enough, you can reach that goal for sure.”