Dear Athletic Support: Our state began allowing workouts again this week. My son’s excited to get back on the field, and I’m excited for him. However, due to the current climate in our nation concerning race relations, I’m also a bit nervous. Our town has a history with these types of issues. I experienced this firsthand when I was in high school here. Oftentimes, I was discriminated against because I was one of only ten minority students. I’ve always had open conversations with my son about these things. It’s my hope and prayer that his experience will be more positive than mine. I’m thankful that so many young people are voicing their opinions and not necessarily following in the footsteps of their parents. But I still can’t help but be uneasy. What if my son — or one of his minority teammates — became the next social media hashtag? How can I get the other players and parents to see what’s happening across our country from this perspective? — Praying For Empathy
Dear Praying: When it comes to shifting other people’s perspectives, there’s not much anyone can do. Just think of the decades it’s taken our country to go from the civil rights movement to where we are now. Things are better. Sure. But are we living the “dream” Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. spoke of back in 1963?
Change most often comes as of result of experience. Real-life, down-in-the-dirt experience. And the truth is most people live in tiny, insulated, monochromatic bubbles.
As much as you want your son’s teammates and their parents to see the world as you do, you can’t force them to do anything.
Luckily, you don’t have to.
A sport like football is a melting pot of races. Locker rooms break down cultural barriers more effectively than speeches and social media posts.
Take my life for example. I was raised in a mostly white town. There wasn’t a single family of color in my neighborhood. If it hadn’t been for sports, there’s a real possibility I would’ve never befriended any black kids.
I was at a basketball tournament in Tulsa, Oklahoma, when one of my teammates opened my eyes for the first time. He told me the difference between being a black boy and white boy was that he was reminded he was black every day. We were in fifth grade.
In college, I brought a black teammate from Miami over to my particular corner of Arkansas for Spring Break. I took him way up in the whitewashed hills for a weekend’s worth of hiking and camping. At one point we had to go into a Walmart. I’ll never forget the looks my teammate received. The scalding stares. I’ll never know what it feels like to be a black man. I’ll never experience the searing pain of racism. But I was close enough to my friend that day to feel the heat.
And the only reason I was able to get that close — the only reason I was able to learn a lesson about racism — was football. I played football for twenty seasons. During that time, I became close with guys whose skin tone was much darker than mine. I saw how our lives were different, but more importantly, I saw how we were the same.
In the end, though, football is not a cure-all for race relations. The relationships built in the locker room oftentimes falter when the players get away from the field. For us to foster genuine empathy, we must push ourselves past our comfort zones. We can no longer shy away from our country’s history. We must have honest, sometimes awkward, conversations about race when they arise.
And rise they will.
To borrow the words of fellow Arkansan Maya Angelou, “Out of the huts of history’s shame, up from a past that’s rooted in pain… I rise.”
Eli Cranor is a former professional quarterback and coach turned award-winning author. Send questions for “Athletic Support” to email@example.com or visit elicranor.com.