Set for release May 8, ESPN The Magazine writer Howard Bryant's book, "The Heritage: Black Athletes, a Divided America, and the Politics of Patriotism," is a defense of the African-American athletes' protest movement and an incendiary attack on white racist sports fans. Online excerpts reveal Bryant's defense of Colin Kaepernick, LeBron James and other protesting athletes, the portrayal of white fans and President Donald Trump as racists and sports teams as authoritarians who offend African-Americans by honoring police and military members in patriotic displays.
Today's protesters, Bryant writes, are the heirs to African-American social justice warriors of the past, including Jackie Robinson, Muhammad Ali, John Carlos, Tommie Smith and Paul Robeson, an actor, athlete and Soviet symphathizer who was blacklisted for his political activities.
It took the 2012 death of Trayvon Martin, the 2014 unrest in Ferguson and other fatal interactions between police officers and African-Americans to get athletes led by LeBron James, "out from behind the tinted glass of their Escalades," Bryant writes. Their activism is now juxtaposed by a "militarized, authoritarian pageantry" in professional sports going back to the days following 911. Bryant writes of NBA player James:
"James does not hide from his liberal politics. He loudly rejects Donald Trump and his policies." He did what Jordan did not. He "gave cover to athletes without his talent or bank account to be more vocal politically."
On Kaepernick, Bryant writes: Activist athletes paid a price before he came along, and now it's his turn. "For his fidelity, the NFL punished Colin Kaepernick just as the US government punished Robeson and Ali, by eliminating his ability to work, in this case closing off the American pro football world to him."
"Colin Kaepernick provided the truth serum for an unevolved sports industry. He exposed the limits of the Heritage and, perhaps, most importantly, 125 years after Reconstruction, revealed America's unchanged valuing of the black body over the black brain."
Bryant on white sports fans: "The fans don't get the part that for millions of people the police are not their friends. They didn't come to see Kaepernick kneeling, but to see 22 guys hitting each other. They don't care about Greenpeace, black lives mattering, or the teach-ins for the youth Kaepernick devotes his money to. Or athlete-activism. They're here for one reason: to be entertained. They don't see the cops, the military or the flag as politics at all."
"They resent the players. They resent the money, the fame, the seemingly easy life." The root of the resentment is often "racially tinged, toward the black players from the underprivileged backgrounds performing for the predominantly white ticket buyers."
On patriotism: There is an ongoing struggle over "the meaning of patriotism, of who gets to speak, of when black athletes are allowed to use their voice—especially in a time when the very word patriotism is being politicized, commercialized, racialized in a time of questionable hero narratives and endless war."
"So now when the mostly white sports fans look down from their seats at the football field, they get the enormous American flag unfurled across the field bigger than Rhode Island. ... And the soldiers? They always get the soldiers."
Sports were once considered the "toy department," but have been replaced by the "war department." Bryant also writes negatively of military stadium flyovers and military camouflage at sports stadiums.
"While black athletes demanded through protest that the nation live up to its democratic ideals for its citizens, the sports industry took advantage of the national appetite for police and soldiers, and incorporated it all into its business model."
"It is a militarized time, one of kneeling and blacklisting, of patriotism and heroes, some real, many more contrived. For a nation willing to conflate patriotism with authoritarianism and unsure if its athletes are truly heirs to the Heritage or just like sporting provocative T-shirts for the cameras, it is also a time of authenticity, of figuring out just who we are." We are "at the center of a divided America, fighting the battles the country wanted to desperately believe were already won. ... Through the great unifier of sports, with the black players kneeling, the white players standing, the police heroes to one, center of protest to others, America would discover explosively and definitively just how severe its fractures truly were."
On President Trump: "With the opportunistic demagoguery that won him the presidency, Donald Trump engaged in a 21st-century version of McCarthyism by demanding that protesters receive the Robeson treatment. Trump demanded the NFL fire protesting players and within three weeks the league began discussing making it mandatory to stand for the anthem, a requirement not demanded of federal employees.
"Trump positioned dissenting views as unpatriotic at best, traitorous at worst, to the U.S. and the armed forces."
"The sports industry and president have returned America to Robeson's dark time. And the questions of dissent and patriotism, of race and speech, he faced then are the same the black athlete is fighting now. We have been here before."