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James Baldwin wrote: "Every Negro boy...realizes, at once, profoundly, because he wants to live, that he stands in great peril and must find, with speed, a 'thing,' a gimmick, to lift him out, to start him on his way. And it does not mailer what the gimmick is." For some it is narcotics. For others it is crime. For more than a few the only gimmick that seems feasible is sports.
Melvin Rogers, 45 years old, gym teacher and basketball coach at all-Negro Eula D. Britton High School, in Rayville, La., sits at a table in the jerry-built "separate-but-equal" school and speaks softly. "If people only knew what we have to go through to produce that one boy out of hundreds who makes it. People say, 'My, my, aren't you proud? You coached Elvin Hayes, and now he's got a $440,000 contract in pro basketball.' Well, I'm proud of Elvin, sure I am, but look out that window over there. See that big fellow playing baseball? He went to school here, had a high IQ, too, but for him it was sport or nothing. He was a catcher; he could throw from his knees to second base when he was a sophomore in high school. He was right out there on that field morning and night. Baseball, baseball, baseball. He got into college, but he didn't have the basics. All he knew how to do was hang onto the third strike. He went up to the majors for a tryout and didn't make it. Now age has caught up with him, and he's a nothing. He fell for a dream. He could have been just about anything he wanted—except a major league catcher."
The Negro who overemphasizes sports has become the caricature of his race. He turns it into a system of esthetics, his own private art. Sport becomes his raison d'�tre, and all too often it is a savagely misleading one. The black athlete who fails to become a Wilt Chamberlain or an Elgin Baylor or an Oscar Robertson finds himself competing for employment in an economic market that has little use for the breakaway dribble and the fadeaway jump. "A white kid tries to become President of the United States," says Melvin Rogers, "and all the skills and knowledge he picks up on the way can be used in a thousand different jobs. A black kid tries to become Willie Mays, and all the tools he picks up on the way are useless to him if he doesn't become Willie Mays."
Nor is it true that the successful Negro high school athlete steps automatically into a paradise of fair play and equal opportunity. Most often he picks up his college scholarship and enters a schizophrenic world where he is lionized on the field and ignored off it. "I don't want to be known as the fastest nigger on campus," says Tommie Smith of San Jose State College—but he is. Most famous Negro athletes try to become accustomed to this double standard, but few succeed. Other black athletes twist and squirm and fight to become accepted, suffer losses, lick their wounds and return to fight again and wind up embittered and discouraged.
Don Shanklin, a senior next fall and a star running back for the University of Kansas, is one of these resistors, and although he has scored a few minor social victories on campus, his college career has been a shatteringly disillusioning experience. Shanklin has steadfastly refused to accept an inferior position in the university social structure, but the inferior position has steadfastly been thrust upon him. Now he has turned coldly cynical. He expects to get a pro contract, and when he has signed he will depart from the lovely green campus in the hills of Lawrence as fast as he can get away.
What will Don Shanklin's college career add up to? "Well, it kept me off the trash trucks in Amarillo," he says. "That's where most of the cats in my home town wind up." He has learned next to nothing. All he has been permitted to add to KU is some long runs with a football. All he has added to his own experience is four years of acute loneliness and alienation in the white man's world—and a chance for a pro contract. He is honest and direct and admits that the contract is what he really wants. Which may be fine, if he gets it and then, having gotten it, makes the grade as a pro. And, almost any time of the day or night, you will find Kansas sports followers standing around the Jayhawk Cafe or the lounge of the venerable lily-white Beta house or the locker room of the Lawrence Country Club, telling one another what a lucky guy Don Shanklin is, and how lucky KU was to get him. They are telling one another what sports has done for the Negro.
Until very recently the Negro athlete—amateur and professional—has been expected to stand fast and take it, keep his mouth shut and perform valiantly in front of cheering white audiences. If he wanted respect off the field, if he wanted to collect the hero worship and social advantages that are the traditional reward of the good athlete, he had to go to Blacktown. There, long into the night, he might hold court while one by one people of his own color dropped by and congratulated him on the third round knockout or the home run in the 11th that won the game. Each such achievement was regarded as an achievement for the Negro race. The totality of such achievements was going to add up to full equality at some vague future date. Behind every victory, every knockout of a white boxer, every new sprint record and every long run from scrimmage, Negroes saw a tiny step forward in their everyday relations with the white majority. They tended to regard individual achievements as progress for the race as a whole. What they did not realize was that the white American was able to compartmentalize his attitude about the Negro, to admire his exploits on the field but put him in the back of the bus on the way home. The white American expected the Negro to perform, to put out, but after he had showered and shaved, he was supposed to know his place.
"The black athlete was always expected by the honkie to play the role of the responsible Negro, the good Negro, no matter what else was going on in the black world," says Harry Edwards. "The black athlete was the institutionalized Tom, the white man's nigger."
This old-style black athlete may still be seen, in prepackaged form, in the Harlem Globetrotters, the white man's favorite black road show. The Trotters help to perpetuate the Negro stereotype. Running about the court emitting savage jungle yells, shouting in thick Southern accents ("Yassuh, yassuh!"), pulling sly tricks like walking with the ball when the (white) referee's back is turned, calling one another inane names like Sweetwater and Showboat, they come across as frivolous, mildly dishonest children, the white man's encapsulated view of the whole Negro race set to the rhythms of Sweet Georgia Brown.
Says Willie Worsley, a member of the Texas at El Paso (then Texas Western) national championship basketball team of 1966: "The Trotters act like white people think black people should act. They tell the whites exactly what they want to hear. If you turned the Globetrotters white overnight they wouldn't draw the manager the next night."