As we sat in front of the television watching the spectacle of the 2017 NFL Draft in Philadelphia from Thursday through Saturday, with players awash in magnanimous applause as they donned the new cap of the team that has just chosen them, imagery began to play in our minds. We may have imagined the young man in his early years, walking through the streets of his hard scrabble town, dreaming of better ways and better days.
And now look at him. The entire world is at his feet and boy oh boy will this be a complete contrast to his life, which had previously been filled with poverty and homelessness.
There’s only one problem. This narrative, while true for some, is not even close to being true for all.
Stories like that of Michael Oher in The Blindside tend to permeate our thought process as it pertains to young black athletes because it’s a feel good story. It gives us this super soft, warm and fuzzy feeling inside to think that sport is able to transform an existence like this into something wonderful and awe inspiring.
The media loves tales like this because it’s a human interest story worth regaling.
But the reality is that most athletes in football don’t come from these backgrounds. They aren’t from the inner city. They are from suburban communities with pee wee football programs that find and develop talent at very young ages and see them through to college.
Most have preconceived judgments about these student athletes, that they’re football players bred solely for the purpose of causing havoc on the field. But they fail to realize that they are men, black men, whose purpose and role holds more significance and reason than what they partake in on Sundays.
The draft is a double-edged sword which both accentuates and underwhelms when it comes to the black male draftee.
It highlights their physical attributes and prowess which, in some ways, neglects their intelligence and social impact. These young men mean a lot to the people who took this journey with them. From their families and friends right on down to their first coaches, teachers, local fans and clergy they are appreciated.
There are so many positive stories within that realm that stay slept upon simply because it doesn’t make us conjure up negative imagery in our minds. How completely sad.
What about the other notable anecdotes dealing with football players that you might have missed due to this original way of thinking that we all have been subscribed and victimized to without much protest?
For instance, did you know that Patrick Willis was not only one of the most amazing team captains to ever lead the San Francisco 49rs, but was also determined to put the student part of student athlete first while in college?
Have you heard about what Cliff Avril did to organize an effort for members of the Seattle Seahawks team to go to Haiti to build schools and houses for the forgotten people of that nation?
Were the media as excited to share with you that Jacksonville Jaguar running back Leonard Fournette wanted to raffle off his game winning jersey to raise money for flood victims while in college?
On the Drafts opening night, a young man named Deshaun Watson was drafted and is the newest member of the Houston Texans roster. Were you aware that, in addition to leading Clemson to appearances in back-to-back National Championship games and assembling one of the greatest resumes of any college quarterback, he fulfilled his bachelors degree requirements in three years.
Were you aware that he lived in a home that was built for his family due to the generosity of former NFL star Warrick Dunn, whose philanthropic efforts focus on helping single moms with home ownership?
Were willing to bet you heard little, if any of this information. And believe it or not, it does matter because it affects the prism through which we view these young men later on in the careers. Some of them are going to make mistakes because life is funny that way.
However, how or where they grew up will not always be the catalyst for those future errors. So, in order not to jump to those conclusions later we must start with changing how we see them to begin with as human beings.
We truly hope that you will remember players like Takkarist McKinley, who brought a picture of his beloved grandmother on stage after he was selected in the first round. We want you to marinate on the image of him gripping that picture and letting us all share in his moment.
When he told us that he made her a promise to make it into the NFL and that his emotion was a celebration of fulfilling that promise to her, even if she was no longer here with him to see it happen, he meant it. In fact, we think he meant that with 100% of his heart. Please think of that when you watch him on the field next season because we are pretty sure hell still be thinking about it.
While the narrative that the media puts forth is sexy, it literally slaps at the everyday compelling lives that these kids really lead. These athletes are no less superior in form because they come from a suburb of a city like Detroit instead of actual kick ass Detroit.
And to let the social impact of one of these typical stories go unchecked because it doesn’t fit the at times seemingly racist ideas we’ve conjured up in our heads as to who these kids must be, does a disservice to them and all of the hard work that has gone in to the lives they actually lead.
Why do you never hear that an African-American player grew up in an upper middle class neighborhood, and that his parents are corporate executives that are not starving for his signing bonus? And conversely, why are we always bombarded with the stories about the poor kids whose fathers are in jail?
The idea of an inner city kid fulfilling his potential and promise by overcoming every obstacle his city had to offer and making it to the NFL Draft is awesome. It may even give you goosebumps and such.
But the reality is that stories like that are far and few between. And the kids who worked hard through community pee wee programs and suburban upbringings also have stories of triumph to share.
The media should allow them to do so. Otherwise an entire sect of the NFL is literally being spat upon for not fitting the bill and for no good reason at all.
Remember what your mother told you about spitting? Don’t do it. It’s rude.