S6 E07: Until Justice Is Won: Civil Rights and Sports
KANYA BENNETT: [00:00:00] Welcome to POD for the Cause, the official podcast of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights and the Leadership Conference Education Fund, where we take on the critical civil and human rights issues of our day as we work to save our democracy. I’m your host, Tanya Bennett, coming to you from Washington DC today. I’m pod for the cause. I’m excited to be joined by Dominique Foxworth, senior writer for An Escape and host of The Dominique Foxworth Show, an ESPN podcast. He’s also a contributor for numerous other ESPN television shows and podcasts. Prior to his time at ESPN, Dominique served as president of the NFL Players Association and chief operating officer of the NBA Players Association. He is a graduate of the University of Maryland and the Harvard Business School and played six seasons in the NFL as a cornerback. Domonique Foxworth, welcome to the show. How are you doing today?
DOMINIQUE FOXWORTH: [00:01:00] I’m doing well.
KANYA BENNETT: [00:01:00] How are you? I am good. Sports have always played an integral part in the civil rights movement, despite ever increasing division and polarization in the world. Many still point to sports as the great uniter. The purpose of the 3000 years old Olympic Games, for example, is to cultivate human beings through sport and contribute to world peace. With this audacious goal, the Olympic stage gives athletes a massive platform and audience. And it seems right that this form would be used to challenge things inconsistent with peace and justice. Jesse Owens competed against white supremacy and the 1936 Olympics in Berlin. He won four gold medals, but he still faced considerable discrimination when he returned to the United States at the 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico City. After Tommie Smith won the gold and John Carlos won the silver. They stepped onto the podium and raise their fists above their bowed heads to protest racial discrimination. Our professional athletes and major sports leagues would use their platforms in similar ways. Jackie Robinson broke the Major League Baseball color barrier in 1947 when he was signed to the Brooklyn Dodgers, and Jackie Robinson would use his platform to challenge society’s racial and other inequities, despite critiques for him to stick to sports.
KANYA BENNETT: [00:02:24] Other professional athletes followed before the National Basketball Association’s 19 6162 season in Louisville, Kentucky, when Bill Russell and the other black members of the Boston Celtics were refused service at a restaurant. They led a boycott of the Boston Celtics exhibition game. Russell then began using his platform as a professional athlete to speak out against discrimination and reaction to the 1963 assassination of civil rights leader Medgar Evers in Jackson, Mississippi. Russell conducted integrated basketball camps and Jackson examples of protesting racism in sports and bringing protests to sports span the years, starting in 532 ad when chariot drivers protesting the execution of citizens refused to partake in the sport, to Muhammad Ali, to Wilma Rudolph and to Colin Kaepernick taking a knee in 2016. But where do we take the role of sports and civil rights today? And how do we continue this legacy? So let’s talk about sports, sports and civil rights. That’s all we’re going to talk about today. But let’s start from the beginning. Let’s talk about sports and the impact it had on your life.
DOMINIQUE FOXWORTH: [00:03:38] Yeah, I mean, I think you’re a little boy. It’s I don’t know, you kind of pushed into sports whether you want to be there or not. It’s kind of the expectation. So I don’t remember not being interested in sports. It was the motivation tool for everything in my life to go to school to, like, behave well and all those things everyone would go back to like, well, you’re not going to be able to play sports. And there was something about, I’m sure there is probably some research about games and people and how we need it for our socialization. But for me at least, I think football was an expression of what I thought masculinity was. I remember being six and telling my dad I wanted to be professional football player and like, as ridiculous as that sounds, I think lots of little boys think that way. But I was pretty good athlete. I was good at football and basketball and good at all the sports that I tried. But the reason why I chose football was in large part because I thought it was manly, like it was it was the the soft kids play basketball because they didn’t hit anybody. You got a foul if you did that. And like the tough kids play football. So it was always like core to my identity as being like the tough football guy for my whole life until like, actually became a man and started to realize that being a man is a lot more complicated than than like playing through injury or not being afraid to hit someone.
KANYA BENNETT: [00:04:58] Dominique On that point about sports, football in particular, really sort of speaking to masculinity, speaking to how you identified yourself as a young black boy as you evolved into a young black man, Talk about sports as it pertains to the larger black community and maybe how we all sort of grapple with these identities through sports, given that there are, when you think about it, right, there are some black identities that are more celebrated, more appreciated in our society. So, Dominique, talk about this in the larger context of the black community.
DOMINIQUE FOXWORTH: [00:05:39] Yeah, it’s interesting because I think there’s positive to it. There’s negative to it. What’s true of just about everything. There is a silver lining or a gray cloud to any event or phenomena in your life. And I do think that the great thing about sports is it’s not a true meritocracy. There’s obviously there is politics and racism and favoritism and bias, all that exists in sports. But it is one place that feels closer to meritocracy than just about anywhere else in American life. So because of that, sports and also entertainment in general with sports falls in that category. Because of that, I think it was one of the first places where black people in this country were able to amass some power and some version of respect. So it’s not true respect like you’re a full human necessarily, but it’s respect for the value that you can provide because it’s hard to look at someone and say, no, you aren’t. At best at this one. It’s so clear on the field of play or on the track or on the court that they are better. And so with that came a lot of responsibility for athletes. I think Howard Bryant wrote a great book called The Heritage that’s about the history of athletes and activism. And a lot of this is laid out in that book back to like Paul Robeson and obviously Jackie Robinson. And they weren’t always on what we consider the right side of issues now, but they were always pioneers, which was important. It was a responsibility, an obligation almost, that they had because they were athletes and entertainers were the first people in black American life to amass some level of wealth and also the attention and influence and respect of the people in power.
DOMINIQUE FOXWORTH: [00:07:27] And then there’s also the the challenge that is probably become a bit of a stereotype that goes a little too far. But there’s the challenge of those being the only images of success that black people see, young black kids see. And I was no different in that. I was like, Yeah, what? What do I want to be? My dad was in the army. My mom stayed home for a while and did other jobs. But I remember watching The Cosby Show and it was like, Oh yeah, you could be a doctor. And that was like a thing that was like somewhat introduced, you know, as a realistic possibility. And it’s not something you’re conscious of. You don’t think, at least I can speak for myself. I never thought I was incapable of doing other things in life, and I never was aware of what was happening. But I do think that it’s impossible to exist in an environment where you aren’t seeing people that look like you doing certain things. It’s likely that you think that you aren’t supposed to do those things, whether you’re conscious of it or not. So yeah, it obviously cuts both ways where you have kids who believe their only route to success is through sports, which isn’t completely true. But when you’re in situations that have been systematically disadvantaged, your education system has not been properly funded and your parents or your grandparents have been robbed of the opportunity to amass some wealth in the land that they owned or the homes they don’t like. There are real constraints, and I think that also leads to the idea that those constraints don’t matter. If you can just beat everybody’s ass on the field and it’s sad, but it’s also some truth to it.
KANYA BENNETT: [00:08:58] Yeah, no, that’s exactly right. And that actually leads me to the question I was going to raise next about bridging gaps in society. And you talked about that access to education, access to housing. Can you talk some more about the ways in which sports can bridge gaps, particularly for black people, black communities?
DOMINIQUE FOXWORTH: [00:09:19] Yeah. One of the things that I found really important in my work for unions is understanding that you’re fighting for more than just the players and how much money they can make. And there there are caricatures of what professional athlete is. It’s like young, rich and wild and blowing all their money. And that hasn’t I mean, that’s true to for some players. But by and large, that’s not the professional athlete that I know. And I’ve been around across the two most popular sports in America. And the reason why I bring that up is because it is access for a lot of different people. And I can just talk about me and my career. And I didn’t make hundreds of millions of dollars, but I made enough money that the life that my kids lead, they will have access to the best education and they will have access to better networks and they’ll inherit my house and like they’ll have the advantages that other frankly, the vast majority of black kids and minority kids in this country don’t have. And it’s not just there doesn’t just stop there. So during the recession, I had a number of family members who had the adjustable rate loans and people got them with the subprimes and were just getting their commissions and setting them up for loans that they can’t maintain.
DOMINIQUE FOXWORTH: [00:10:33] And then they were facing foreclosure, which then sets them back incredibly financially. But again, because of the career that I had, I could swoop in and help them out and protect them from that situation. And then what would happen to their kids and their grandkids. And like, it’s it’s as you know, like it’s all connected. And so I use myself as an example. But there’s so many other athletes who are able to do the same thing. And it’s not just this one athlete can buy my back now and pop bottles in the club and make it rain in a strip club, which like they can more power to them if they want to do that. They’ve earned the right. But it’s also there aren’t nearly as many stories or attention paid to the fact that it does change the trajectory of a family. And it’s most of the time it’s a middle class to poor families that are getting these springboards.
KANYA BENNETT: [00:11:27] Yeah, absolutely. So let me go back to this piece on merit that you touched on. You talked about, Right. Sports really being accomplished through merit. Yes. Sometimes luck, right. Politics. Those things do play a role. But like you said, you can you can see who’s the fastest, who’s the strongest, who’s who is able to excel based largely on merit alone. And so given that it would seem right that you would use sports this platform based on merit to challenge those inequities, those injustices that are not based on merit. So my question for you is about the role that sports should be playing in addressing inequities within our society. Obviously, you touched on some of the history there. You you mentioned the heritage historically to present day. What role should sports be playing to address society’s inequities?
DOMINIQUE FOXWORTH: [00:12:27] That’s a really difficult question. It seems like sports, it’s at the forefront in part because it is one of the places where black people can succeed. And I think you did a good job of framing how merit is part of it, but it’s not all of it. And like you can look at the history of black quarterbacks and understand that it’s not merit based as much as there are still some like restraints on what people believe black people can accomplish. And it’s tied to opinions about intelligence and leadership and things that are harmful, racist stereotypes and tropes. But I do think that it is one of the places where your merit matters more. So there are I guess the role is when we talk about sports and we talk about companies, we talk about these things institutions talk about them as if they are independent entities on their own, which I guess to some degree they are, but they aren’t actions, they aren’t decisions. And there are people at the core of all of this making these decisions and enacting whatever policies and deciding on the policies. So I think that’s what it comes down to, is the people that are in this machine and the way that the machine is developed. In this case, you have a lot of labor that is black in football and basketball, disproportionately black labor, and then you go higher and higher and it gets less and less black from the the coaches to head coaches and the general managers.
DOMINIQUE FOXWORTH: [00:13:50] And then you get all the way up to the people who own the teams. There’s one non white owner, there are no black owners in football. And so I think when you look at that disparity, it’s hard not to recognize that it’s kind of mirrors what we have in society. So I don’t know where you start. I don’t know if you fix society and then sports recovers or if you fix sport. And sport is a leader for the rest of society recovering. I know that I probably won’t see us get to that point in my lifetime. But I also know that sports is a smaller place and it feels like you can have more change and you can put more pressure and you can hold specific people accountable. So there is nobody that we can say like, Hey, you are responsible for all of the industries in the world, or at least in our country, to have better equity. But there is a commissioner of the NFL and there are people who own these teams and we can do our best to hold them accountable and try to create an environment as fair and equitable as possible.
KANYA BENNETT: [00:14:54] Mm hmm. So, Dominique, you’re you’re touching on a couple of things. So obviously, one, the internal work that some of these leagues have to do, right? So they need to get their house in order and make sure that they are treating players fairly, that they are showing up in the world as they want the world to be. And you’re also talking about the responsibility sort of who bears this burden of trying to model change for the larger society. And throughout history, it has often been the athlete that is raising their fists on an Olympic stage, taking a knee at an NFL game. So who who really bears most of this responsibility in terms of the athlete, the league, the sports space showing up to create change. The athlete is the most visible person. Is it right that they shoulder this responsibility? What about these, like you said, less and less and less of color managers and owners and coaches?
DOMINIQUE FOXWORTH: [00:15:57] Yeah, I’m not sure that the answer matters who should bear the responsibility, because I think the truth is that the players do bear that responsibility to the black players specifically. Because if you notice during the Colin Kaepernick, when he was kneeling, no one was asking white players what they plan to do. Do you plan to kneel or stand during the national anthem? But all the black players, whether they were aligned or affiliated with Colin Kaepernick in any way, the black players were being asked when when they got into basketball, the black players were being asked. No one was concerned about what the white players were going to do. And I. Can’t say that it doesn’t frustrate me or disappoint me that the group that suffers from the problem and didn’t create the problem is expected to fix the problem. But no one else is incentivized honestly. And there’s some comfort that success in money can buy you. Now, if you’re a modern black athlete or anyone successful in black in modern society, that it didn’t buy you in the sixties and seventies. And I think that again, back to the original point, it cuts both ways as there is something to be said for Bill Russell winning 11 championships for the Boston Celtics, but not being allowed to eat in certain restaurants, in hotels.
DOMINIQUE FOXWORTH: [00:17:15] And so, yeah, Bill Russell is going to be a little bit more brought into this process than a modern athlete or Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is going to be a little bit more aggressive than the modern athletes. So now we’re at a point where your wealth can’t buy you out of injustice, but it certainly can buy you a lot of comfort. And so, so many of our athletes don’t feel and I mean, to be fair, I think so many people, because the laws have been changed and addressed, I think a lot of people, black and otherwise, are, I don’t want to say unaware, but don’t understand how the system is still disadvantaging them. And I believe it requires a little bit more work and effort to understand it. So I think that’s why sometimes we end up with entertainers and athletes going off the deep end and saying absurd things about the state of society because they don’t understand the history. And it sucks to feel like because they were born black, they have some more obligation to fully understand history that we don’t expect of other people, and they have some obligation to fix the problem that we don’t expect of the people who created the problem or who benefit from it.
KANYA BENNETT: [00:18:27] Yes, sadly, so much. So much there. Let’s talk about these celebrities going off the deep end. Like you said, this responsibility is huge. And often, you know, maybe it’s just assuming the best in people, but it’s it’s you know, my my thought is that folks with these platforms are just trying to weigh in, trying to do what’s right, trying to steer discourse in in a positive way. And social media, obviously, the rise, the constant use of social media is a very easy and accessible platform for folks to be using and to get that message out there instantly. Can you talk a little bit about social media, how it has been helpful in terms of navigating discourse on the part of athletes and social injustice? How has it how is it harmful? You talked a bit about folks going off the deep end.
DOMINIQUE FOXWORTH: [00:19:26] I mean, I think it’s obviously the they’ll start with some of the harmful stuff is there is access to information and misinformation and there are conspiracy theories and all types of stuff that feels like knowledge. That’s not actually knowledge. And I think it’s fairly easy for young men in particular to find the, like, disjointed line of reasoning that would lead you down a path of saying something absurd. I think Kyrie comes to mind is a recent example with anti Semitism like and that’s the tough thing about Kyrie is what’s mixed in all that is a sincere pro-black agenda and position is and also like awareness of the plight of Native Americans in this country. And those things can easily get mixed. And it’s hard to take that part serious when it’s mixed in with other stuff that’s harmful and doesn’t make sense. And I think that’s easy to happen to him, and it’s easy to happen to a lot of other people, and it has happened. So like, that’s danger. But then there’s also the idea of change and is a long process and there’s always going to be whenever there’s a step forward, there’ll be like some sort of backlash and it’ll be it won’t be a straight line towards whatever goal you have, but hopefully you’re improving. And I think part of the good of social media and is I haven’t always like felt this way, but I do think that the seemingly meaningless and obligatory like black squares on Instagram and stuff like that, like I think there is some value to slightly changing the temperature and moving the Overton window for what is expected of you and what is acceptable things to say and things to do. And while everyone running a social media and putting up a black square isn’t changing anything, I think it does have some value in describing who we are and at least who we want to be.
DOMINIQUE FOXWORTH: [00:21:29] And it’s a it’s minimal effort. I know things like that as minimal effort, but. I do think that it at least signifies not necessarily 100% how someone feels, but how they want us to believe they feel. Which means something to me. And if you’re growing up in a world your seven, eight, ten year old kids growing up in a world where everyone is presenting themselves as progressive, I think it’s hard to not grow up and be slightly more progressive than the the generation before you, which then I think bleeds into how you’re taught and the decisions you make and the institutions and processes and practices that you encourage and build and keep alive. So I don’t know, it’s wishful thinking about all that stuff. I know, but I do think that it’s better to have that than have a world where no one’s paying any attention or or just ignoring it or not saying anything when when there’s some sort of seemingly worthless viral gesture that we’re all doing. I think it means something to say Black lives matter. I think it means something to have people in power acknowledge that when the NFL’s players came together and ostensibly forced Roger Goodell to say the words Black Lives Matter, it didn’t translate to well, I did translate to some immediate action. The league invested millions of dollars in pro black causes. They put Black Lives Matter on the field. They bad didn’t basketball. And they continue with the inspired change on the field. And I again, I think every time you put on a football game, if you’re seeing that maybe it’s not a huge effect, but it’s an effect that’s better than nothing.
KANYA BENNETT: [00:23:09] No, I think you’re right. I think it does have an impact. And those gestures ideally are getting us closer to actual policy change the things that we need to have on the books on a range of issues to ensure that there’s police accountability, to ensure that our sentencing laws no longer continue to perpetuate mass incarceration, that folks have access to the ballot. I mean, the list of issues is long, but I do think you’re right that by showing up daily, whatever you can do in your day to day, whether it is like you’re saying, showing up on social media in the right way, saying, acknowledging right, the Black Lives Matter, those things will get us to policy change. We certainly hope. You were talking about sort of some of the progress that’s been made within the NFL. And of course, these leagues, the cultures vary. They’re so different some it’s going to take longer to get them to a place where they are saying black Lives Matter saw them. They said it, you know, the next day. But again, we’re still sort of in this place where we know we have a lot to do with respect to policy reform. Is there a league that’s getting it right? In your opinion? Is there an athlete that’s getting it right, in your opinion, getting us closer to the the reform we need to see to truly change society?
DOMINIQUE FOXWORTH: [00:24:32] I would say no, but I don’t mean that as like a criticism of the leagues or the athletes, because I would also answer that no, if you broadened it to people or companies or organizations or institutions within the country. So like I do think relative to other industries, I think sports is probably doing a better job and we call them to the carpet a lot more often than we do because it’s not public. How many Amazon employees are being treated is not like something that we talk about every day. We talk about it occasionally. I don’t know the racial breakdown of the board of all Fortune 500 companies or the executive suites of all those companies. I know that the NFL has been deliberate in their staff, is a lot more diverse from black and women and the executive level. The C-suite is fairly diverse in the league, and that’s because we have put pressure on them. But the league itself is different from the teams. It’s not true of all the teams. Some teams are doing a better job, some teams aren’t. But I do think that compare it to the rest of the country, I’m not sure, but of other multibillion dollar industries, I think sports is probably doing a better job than most other industries.
KANYA BENNETT: [00:25:55] Okay, that’s fair. And if you were to point at an issue that we all were to rally around, obviously we’re talking about this in the context of sports. But you mentioned other entities, right? Our corporations, the private sector, I mean, you name it, right? There is a need for us all to rally around something. What would you say that something is in this moment that’s hard?
DOMINIQUE FOXWORTH: [00:26:24] Honestly, I’d say reparations is I guess your question implied in that is like what could be successful and what is actually useful. But I. Know that reparations is potentially I doubt that it’s feasible, but.
KANYA BENNETT: [00:26:38] Well, it might be.
DOMINIQUE FOXWORTH: [00:26:40] Yeah.
KANYA BENNETT: [00:26:40] It might. You’re right.
DOMINIQUE FOXWORTH: [00:26:42] It might.
KANYA BENNETT: [00:26:42] Be. Thank you for elevating it. Yeah, it might.
DOMINIQUE FOXWORTH: [00:26:44] I mean, yeah, it’s. I shouldn’t be so pessimistic, but I find it hard to imagine our country ever getting to the point that they want to pay for the sins because it feels zero sum. And it’s not only that, it feels zero sum. Like there’s just jealousy in it that comes to where there are plenty of white people who aren’t doing well. And I’m looking over and saying, Well, you’re addressing all of these issues for for these this group of black people, but you’re not addressing the issues for this other group. And so I don’t know, I guess I shouldn’t think about the reasons why I wouldn’t work, but I think that’s the most important thing. And it’s not even necessarily a check, but what I mentioned before about how signing a big contract like changes trajectories of families, like it’s a similar concept and it’s not a handout because people need a handout. It’s paying for the the labor and the damage that you’ve done to a community. And we’ve seen reparations in other situations. We have not seen it here as I don’t know how to address problems in a capitalist society other than to address them in some monetary fashion. So that’s honestly what I would say, reparations.
KANYA BENNETT: [00:28:04] Well, I am here for it. The leadership Conference is here for us. So I’m glad that you elevated that. And that also is a T up to a future episode on POD for the cause. So, Dominique, thank you so much for your time sharing your talents with us today. And it’s been an absolute pleasure.
DOMINIQUE FOXWORTH: [00:28:25] It’s great for me also. Thanks for having me.
KANYA BENNETT: [00:29:14] Thank you for joining us today on Pod four, The Cause, the official podcast of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights and the Leadership Conference Education Fund. For more information, please visit Civil rights dot org and to connect with us. Hit us up on Instagram and Twitter at Civil rights. Org. You can text us. Text Civil rights. That’s two words. Civil rights 2521999. To keep up with our latest updates. Be sure to subscribe to our show on your favorite podcast app and leave a five star review. Thanks to our executive producer Evan Hartung and our production team. The new A mom, Dana Craig and Shalonda Hunter. And that’s it from me, your host, Khanya Bennett. Until next time, let’s keep fighting for an America as good as its ideals.