Less Ball, More Education

Less Ball, More Education

Growing up in Atlanta the emphasis in my home and church community, outside of a relationship with the God, was education. In fact, since slavery the black community has valued education as the means of economic empowerment and political liberation. Education is so powerful that slaves were forbidden to learn how to read and write for hundreds of years in this country. Many of us had parents, grandparents, aunts, and uncles drill these words into our heads: “get an education.” Sadly, many black communities have been sabotaged with the deception of short-term gratification so that the empowerment brought through education is no longer valued. In the place of education has emerged an emphasis on entertainment and sports as the primary means of upward social mobility that many find troubling. In particular, an overemphasis on sports has dire consequences for black males.

In 2010, Dr. Krystal Beamon, assistant professor of sociology at the University of Texas at Arlington, wrote a fascinating article explaining the phenomena of black males being herded into sports. In “Are Sports Overemphasized in the Socialization Process of African American Males?,” Dr. Beamon explains that there has been elevated levels of sports socialization in the family, neighborhood, and media in the black community creating an overrepresentation of black males in certain sports. One of the results of this overemphasis, according to Beamon, is that black males may face consequences that are distinctly different from those who are not socialized as intensively toward athletics, such as lower levels of academic achievement, higher expectations for professional sports careers as a means to upward mobility, and lower levels of career maturity. In other words, the sports emphasis is putting black males at a disadvantage later on in the marketplace.

Much research has demonstrated that, compared to their white counterparts, black males are socialized by family and community members deliberately into sports, limiting their exposure to other hobbies, like reading, and to non-sports related role models early in life. In some families, for example, parents are more interested in basketball practice than homework completion or good grades. The overemphasis also continues to feed stereotypes about black men as athletes, and these stereotypes are exacerbated as the mass media limits projections of black males as working in professional, non-athletic, or non-entertainment vocations.

A recent NCAA study reports that high school athletes have a 0.03 percent chance of playing in the NBA and a 0.08 percent change of playing in the NFL. With these odds, many black males are being inadvertently sabotaged if their families and communities socialize them into sports as a way to become successful and escape poverty in the absence of forming them morally and educationally.

What is needed are new role models and peers that reinforce the virtues that form and shape character and equip young men to be successful in the marketplace, whether they play sports or not. If black males are to be protected from the sabotage of hopelessness, the pursuit of accelerated upward mobility, materialism, and so on, individual Christians have to get more involved in the lives of black youth to nurture a broader imagination for the purpose of one’s life beyond being famous, making money, and achieving physical prowess.

If education is not emphasized as the means of success, if learning is not celebrated, if the exploration of multiple hobbies and opportunities are not encouraged, we may be inadvertently setting a trap for self-destruction, because the consequences of not being prepared to participate in the global marketplace are serious.

Photo illustration by Mike O’Dowd.

Is LeBron the NBA’s Samson?

Is LeBron the NBA’s Samson?

IRONY OF DEFEAT: LeBron James leaves the court after his Miami Heat's disappointing loss to the Dallas Mavericks in the deciding game of the NBA Finals. (Newscom photo)

In sports, as in life, there are often small ironies that signify larger truths. And In the celebrated NBA Finals between the Miami Heat and the Dallas Mavericks, there was plenty of irony to go around.

For the uninitiated, the 2011 Finals, the league’s showcase playoff series, was a rematch of the 2006 series, which Miami won in convincing fashion by taking Game 6 on the road in Dallas. This year, Dallas won in convincing fashion by taking Game 6 on the road in Miami. The two biggest stars from that series, Dirk Nowitzki of Dallas and Dwyane Wade of Miami, were again pitted against one another, and both of them put together another string of impressive performances. Whereas Wade had been the bigger star in 2006, Nowitzki’s star shone brighter in 2011.

But Miami had been heavily favored going in, because of last year’s offseason signing of megastar LeBron James, widely considered the best player in the NBA. The Heat’s “Big Three” of James, Wade, and power forward Chris Bosh was supposed to trump the Mavericks’ lone star Nowitzki in both talent and star power. Conventional thinking in the NBA says that when the stakes are highest, the margin between winning and losing is usually measured by great players imposing their will over good players.

Yet, the overwhelming story of the series, aside from the rich sense of redemption and quality team basketball shown by the Mavericks, was the virtual disappearance of the Heat’s supposedly best player, LeBron James. In the fourth quarters of close games, when his team needed him most, LeBron played his worst basketball. When the situation demanded greatness, he was hardly adequate.

As Kevin Bacon said in A Few Good Men, these are the facts, and they are indisputable.

The Misnomer of “The Decision”

With this latest loss, LeBron James has become the most criticized and scrutinized player not only in professional basketball, but in all of American sports. The waves of criticism and scrutiny James receives on a daily basis have, with this loss, been amplified into an exponential tsunami.

And most of the vitriol is tied to his decision last summer to leave the Cleveland Cavaliers and join forces with Wade and Bosh in Miami, a process that resulted in a one-hour television special on ESPN entitled The Decision. It was a calculated attempt at warmth and authenticity that instead came off looking vain, self-promoting, and ungracious. While popular opinion was split about whether or not he should have stayed in Cleveland, almost everyone agrees that it wasn’t so much the fact that he left, but the way that he left that rubbed people the wrong way.

So perhaps the greatest irony here (besides Bill Simmons’ nugget about LeBron’s primary agent and marketing partner being named Maverick Carter) is this:

Despite the jeers he’s received over The Decision, LeBron James’ current predicament is not the result of one particular decision, but rather of many decisions over time.

Our decisions, over time, become our character. And LeBron’s biggest point of weakness is not in his strategy or physicality, but in his character. He has exhibited a significant deficit in the areas of self-awareness and humility. And if he wants to take his game to the next level, in addition to working on his post moves and shooting, he needs to make investments into his character.

If he were a believer in Christ, he might want to try looking in the Bible.

In particular, he might look at the story of Samson.

Chosen One, Choosing Badly

Samson was an absolute beast of a man. We see in Judges 13-16 that he was blessed with not only incredible physical strength and stature, but he also possessed considerable cunning, a combination that made him quite attractive to the opposite sex. And the circumstances surrounding his birth, combined with the ease with which he defeated legions of foes, were evidence that his physical prowess was sprinkled with divine favor. He was, quite literally, the chosen one.

(Sound familiar?)

Despite these obvious advantages, Samson had a problem: He did not make good decisions. He continually reacted in impulsive ways that resulted in unforeseen consequences, and often failed to learn from those consequences. He allowed the attention and adulation of others to distort his thinking and cloud his judgment. In so doing, he repeatedly put himself at risk by compromising the principles and directives that were put in place to protect him.

These are many of the same responses we’ve seen from LeBron James. When he and teammate Dwyane Wade were caught mocking their flu-stricken opponent Nowitzki by mimicking his cough, it seemed like the cocky taunt of a frontrunner—inexplicable considering they had just been beaten in Game 4. And after the series concluded, James’ postgame comments were anything but gracious. When asked how he should respond to people who rooted for his team to fail, he contrasts his celebrity with what he assumes to be his haters’ pitiful, miserable plebeian existence. His whole comeback amounted to, “I’m LeBron James, and you’re not.”

We Are All Witnesses

The truth is, LeBron isn’t the first NBA player whose struggles with insecurity affected his public perception. Many have preceded him, and many will follow.

As a Trail Blazers fan during their last great playoff runs in the late ’90s and early 2000s, I was a fan of swingman Bonzi Wells of Ball State University in Muncie, Indiana.

Or at least, I was a fan of his ability.

His antics were another story. Year after year, Bonzi’s reputation kept sinking lower and lower as a result of all his off-the-court controversy. Just when it seemed as though he’d figured out how to let his stellar play do the talking, he would flip-the-bird to a fan, or say he doesn’t care what fans think, or get into an altercation.

So I was grateful to run across this account of Wells’ new post-NBA life as an AAU coach, where he admits being humbled by many of his previous missteps. Even a knucklehead like Bonzi, given enough time and enough hard knocks, can finally get it. It’s nice to see people change for the better.

For Samson, it took losing his eyes and being paraded in front of his enemies before he had enough humility to call out to God in desperation. The Bible doesn’t explicitly say this, but I bet that Samson did some serious soul-searching after the Philistines had taken him hostage. And when he prayed to God for the strength for one final act, Samson wasn’t driven only by a blood vendetta, but by a sense of holy honor to avenge those who had dishonored the Lord.

(So it’s not turning the other cheek, but we’re talking about the Old Testament here. Work with me.)

Signs of Hope

I think I speak for most casual NBA fans when I say that’s what we all want for LeBron—for the young man to finally get it. When facing defeat, to humbly admit his shortcomings, and vow to do better if given a chance.

That is the kind of humility on display that team officials crave from their star players, and the kind of example we all can learn from. I know that if I had to endure the same level of scrutiny and criticism that LeBron endures every day, I would have a much harder time taking the high road all the time.

But if there’s one thing LeBron can learn from Samson, it’s that it’s never too late to be humbled. If he can learn how to operate with humility, and the early indications are that he’s making a little progress, it won’t be long before he’ll be rising up in big moments instead of shrinking back. Instead of being the most hated athlete, he’ll be among the most celebrated. After all, everyone loves a good comeback story.

And just like Samson, he’ll be able to finally leave the stage a winner.

I just hope he doesn’t do it against my Trail Blazers, because then I’ll have to start hating him all over again.

BYU’s March Madness

Many criticized Brigham Young University for suspending its star basketball player for having premarital sex. But the school’s courage in standing by its principles proves that winning is about more than advancing to the Final Four.

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Gilbert Arenas’s Unfunny Business

Gilbert Arenas's Unfunny Business for urban faithAmong other things, the NBA star’s troubles offer this sobering reminder: An occasional joke is okay, but don’t quit your day job.

Washington Wizards basketball star Gilbert Arenas was recently suspended by the NBA because of a practical joke involving several unloaded handguns, a joke that he played on a teammate who was angry over an unpaid gambling debt. Consequently, Arenas was hit with a gun charge, to which he pleaded guilty, and now his contract with the Wizards appears on the verge of termination.

Clearly, the joke didn’t go over that well.

Nevertheless, Gilbert Arenas is a genuinely funny guy, and I hope that somehow, despite the fallout over his recent transgressions, he doesn’t lose his sense of humor.

See, humor is a funny thing.

In one sense, it’s a basic human need, a notch or two below the need for food, clothing, and shelter. This is why sitcoms and comedians are so popular. As people, we don’t just love to laugh, we need to laugh. Humor is a critical way that we humans express shared meaning and make sense of the world, and it exists at the convergence of our intellect and emotions.

Unfortunately, this makes the concept of funny mysterious and hard to pin down. It often depends on context, which is why sometimes it’s so hard to relay a funny joke from one situation into another. So many factors can change the equation so many times, that a joke that sparks a bout of side-splitting laughter here might only elicit a chorus of yawns there — or worse, an avalanche of boos.

This problem has plagued many comedians over the years, especially White entertainers who complain of an unfair double standard regarding ethnic slurs. Many White folks in general have cited, from the annals of Black pop culture, example after example of things said by Blacks that if said by a White person would be denounced as racist.

So it’s with more than a little schadenfreude that pundits and commentators of almost every persuasion have emerged from the woodwork to pontificate on the subject of fallen-NBA-star Arenas and his recent incident involving handguns in the locker room. Like Caesar, they come not to praise Arenas, but to bury him under a cloud of suspicion.

This wholesale denunciation is problematic.

Much has been said in defense of Arenas’s quirky, practical-joking “Agent Zero” persona. And I agree with those who have detected a racialized difference in the overall response and coverage of this and incidents like it, proof of the NBA’s overall image problem in mainstream America. Both the NFL and MLB have been dogged by far more police blotter activity, particularly as it relates to violent crime and drug abuse, yet neither is tagged as routinely as the NBA is as a “league full of thugs.”

Furthermore, too little has been said about the reason why Arenas had the guns in the locker room in the first place, which, according to reports, was because he didn’t feel comfortable with them coexisting with his children at home. This seems, on the face of things, to be a responsible decision.

But all of that is beside the point.

The real travesty is that Gilbert Arenas earned all the penalties levied against him because he failed to grasp a rather obvious truth: In life, not everything is a joke.

Inveterate pranksters often use humor as a defense mechanism to mask their insecurity. Arenas’s story — abandoned by his mother and raised by his father, whom he didn’t meet until he was 3 years old — is filled with the kind of personal pathos that can inspire insecurity and fear of rejection. Not only has Arenas fit this pattern throughout his career, but after the gun incident went public he actually admitted in his Twitter feed — boasted, really — that he never takes anything seriously.

This quality often makes him an engaging interview subject, but in this case, it clearly impaired his judgment.

How do we know this?

Because with even a modicum of awareness, he would have noticed the following:

• Guns are often involved in violent crimes, which are often perpetrated by, and thus associated with, young Black men

• The NBA is a league dominated by young Black men

• The NBA has, for the last few years, been trying to recover from a series of scandals that have generated a lot of negative publicity

• The D.C. team used to be known as the Washington Bullets, but the general public decided the name was in bad taste, considering the District’s notoriously high murder rate

• Not coincidentally, The District of Columbia has some of the strictest gun laws in the country

All of this, and still …

Not only did Arenas not have the sense to ask a team official about how to properly deal with his guns, not only did he not have the sense to realize that guns and practical jokes don’t belong in the same sentence, but even after he did these things and they became public knowledge, he didn’t have the sense to apologize or show any genuine form of contrition outside of a statement drafted by his attorney.

I think Gilbert Arenas defaulted to his normal response to everything, which is to turn it into a joke and hope it goes away.

This time, it just didn’t work.

Now, I’m not saying that he should lose his job over this. Some punishments, though understandable and legally permissible, are still excessive — like the guy who was fired from his job for being a fantasy football commissioner.

Plus, this will remain as a stain on Arenas’s reputation. As such, Gil will probably continue to feel misunderstood as he tries to put his career back together. Like many talented Black men with chips on their shoulders, he might be tempted to adopt a me-against-the-world mentality.

“Only God can judge me,” goes the typical ‘hood refrain. This could become his mantra.

But I hope not.

Likewise, I hope he doesn’t lose his sense of humor altogether. Maybe one day he’ll crack open a Bible, find Proverbs 26:18-19, and learn to use discernment when cracking jokes. And maybe he’ll discover Romans 13:1, and learn to receive correction from authority more gracefully.

Maybe, as part of his NBA penance, he’ll end up in a public service announcement about the dangers of practical jokes.

Now that would be funny.

Photo of Gilbert Arenas by Keith Allison from Wikipedia.