MLB / all-star game
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar: what sports have taught me about race in America
Sports is one of the few areas in which Americans of all races can talk to each other. Right now, it may be the country’s best hope for meaningful dialogueAs the Guardian’s series on race and sports starts today – and we mark two years since Colin Kaepernick first knelt during the national anthem – I am reminded that whenever an NBA player comes close to shattering one of my dusty old records, eager journalists contact me to ask how I feel. Here’s how I feel: At the time I set those records – most points scored, most blocked shots, most MVP awards, blah, blah, blah – I celebrated them because they confirmed that all my hard work and discipline since childhood was effective in me achieving my goal of becoming the best possible athlete. But that wasn’t my only goal. The even greater significance those records had to me then, and has to me even more now, is in providing a platform to keep the discussion of social inequalities – whether racial, gender-related, or economic – alive and vibrant so that we may come together as a nation and fix them. Historically, that has been the greatness of the American spirit: we don’t flinch at identifying our own faults and using our moral fortitude and ingenuity to become a better nation. In honoring that spirit, I pay tribute to two of my most important mentors, UCLA coach John Wooden and Muhammad Ali. It is Ali’s voice I often hear in my head: “When you saw me in the boxing ring fighting, it wasn’t just so I could beat my opponent. My fighting had a purpose. I had to be successful in order to get people to listen to the things I had to say.” All sports records will inevitably be broken, but the day after they are, the world won’t have changed. But every day you speak up about injustice, the next day the world may be just a little better for someone. Sports is the most popular form of entertainment, with Americans spending about $56bn on sports events last year, compared to about $11bn on movies. Seventy-two percent of 18- to 29-year-olds consider themselves sports fans, as do a majority of those older. This level of popularity has made sports more than just entertainment, it’s also part of our national identity, a source of inspiration for personal achievement, and a means to teach our children valuable lessons about teamwork and social ethics. For African Americans, sports has all those values – but it also has some extra implications. For people of color, professional sports has always been a mirror of America’s attitude toward race: as long as black players were restricted from taking the field, then the rest of black Americans would never truly be considered equal, meaning they would not be given equal educational or employment opportunities. Even after they were permitted to play, sports has been the public face of America, not what we sentimentally profess to believe when waving flags on the Fourth of July, but of our actual daily behavior. That is why whatever happens in sports regarding race, plays out on the national stage. Right now, sports may be the best hope for change regarding racial disparity because it has the best chance of informing white Americans of that disparity and motivating them to act. The problem is that this is not the message that those who profit from disparity want the public to hear. They attempt to silence voices of dissent in sports today just as they have throughout my lifetime and before. And that attempt is always disguised as an appeal to patriotism. They use the flag the way a magician uses a cape: to misdirect the audience from the manipulation. Poof! No racism here, folks. To white America, the history of US sports is a rising graph of remarkable achievements of physical and mental strength. To black America, it’s that, but is also a consistent timeline of attempts to silence the voices of African Americans. In 1964, Ali’s refusal to submit to the draft during the Vietnam War on the grounds that “my conscience won’t let me go shoot my brother, or some darker people” caused him to be sentenced to five years in prison, fined $10,000, and banned from boxing years. He gave up millions of dollars and faced prison to speak his truth. In 1971, his conviction was overturned by the US Supreme Court in an 8–0 decision, but the damage had already been done. During the 1968 Olympics in Mexico, Tommie Smith and John Carlos stood on the podium and raised their gloved fists in the air during the national anthem. As a result, they were kicked off the team and sent back to the US where they were ostracized in the press and received death threats. But many black Americans felt pride that their own anger and frustration had been expressed out loud on an international stage. Carlos later said that it was not a black power salute, but a “human rights salute”. Smith said, “We were concerned about the lack of black assistant coaches. About how Muhammad Ali got stripped of his title. About the lack of access to good housing and our kids not being able to attend the top colleges.”
Injuries in Youth Pitching
I recently watched an ESPN story on the injuries that plague our youth baseball pitchers. It brought back memories from years ago. I watched while a young Little League Pitcher was ruined. My son began playing baseball when he was five years old. First, it was “coach pitch”. The kids learned the fundamentals of baseball, like where the bases were and which one to run to next. All parents of five-year-old baseball players have fun. There are laughter and joy at watching these wee ones kick dirt, watch every bird that is flying over-head and run to 3rd base instead of 1st when they actually hit the ball. After that first couple of years of fun, the training to be an athlete begins in earnest. Who does this to a child? Who does this to a child? When my son was old enough to begin playing Little League in the 9-12 years old range, he was a catcher. He was average height and below average weight, so he could pop up and down from a catching stance without problem. There was one pitcher that he caught for that was terrific at that age. This kid was a strike out king at 10 years old. His fast-ball was amazing, however everyone knew what he was doing was not good for a boy that young, but his mom and our coach persisted and the rest of us were quiet. At that time we were more afraid of burn-out. We didn’t know about chronic injuries at such a young age. This child was sent to every pitching camp he could go to. He trained with every pitching coach in the area and he was worked way too hard. By the time these boys were in high-school we never heard this boys name again. Never in the paper like the other kids playing high-school ball. He just seemed to drop off the end of the earth. He suffered permanent damage from overuse as a child and could no longer pitch. Here’s what happens to a child that is over worked as a pitcher at such an early age. A child is growing. His growth plates are maturing, but not yet matured. Their growth plates are weaker than the muscles they are attached to. If a child is instructed and taught to “work through the pain”, their growth plates can literally be ripped from the bones. Major nerve damage can occur by disrupting the blood supply due to overuse. Chronic Exertional Compartment Syndrome can lead to dysfunction of the lower arm and hand. It begins slowly with pain and swelling in the forearm. Numbness and tingling of the fingers may occur. The best thing that helps in this chronic condition is rest, rest and more rest. The problem begins with “year-round” baseball. Never a break to rest, not a time to recover. It’s not that these athlete’s aren’t being taught proper pitching technique or good mechanics, they are. The problem comes from high pitch counts (over 100) in over 85 games a year. Does this type injury happen to every child? No. Would you want to risk your child’s future when he is only ten years old? Let kids play baseball in the Spring and early Summer. Then rest from it. They can play other sports, they just need to let those muscles learn a new way to move and allow the growth plates to mature naturally.