Facing Race in the NBA and NFL

Professional sports are a celebrated American tradition. As a result, professional athletes are often held up as heroes and role models, idolized for their actions in the game and held to certain standards in their outside lives. This treatment of professional athletes becomes particularity interesting when considering the racial tensions that exist within them, and how these tensions possibly point to a larger problem in American society overall.

In his book Black Planet: Facing Race During the NBA Season (Bison Books, 2006), author David Shields reflects on the 1994-1995 NBA season for the Seattle SuperSonics. Instead of reporting on how the season was played out on the court Shields instead closely observes how it was talked about, specifically focusing on how he and other white fans spoke about “black heroes, black scapegoats, and black bodies.” With basketball being a predominately black sport, the NBA is an interesting setting where black athletes and white fans come together and, as Shields claims, “enact virtually every racial issue and tension in U.S culture.”

Shields continues to explore the role of racial tensions in American sports in his documentary Lynch: A History, which is loosely based on Black Planet. The documentary focuses on professional football running back Marshawn Lynch, using found footage to exhibit his career and his controversial relationship with the media. Starting with the small act of declining a reporter’s question, Lynch is eventually refusing to speak to the media or stand for the American National Anthem. Shields observes how Lynch’s initial small acts of defiance become increasingly disruptive to the outside masses, transforming the celebrated player into a “more threatening kind of symbol.” Despite being the center of controversy, the documentary also highlights how Lynch “protects his spark” by refusing to cater the expectations set by those around him. Lynch’s life is interwoven with images of violence in America, creating an association between his experiences and a greater underlying problem that needs to be addressed.

At its debut on June 3 at the Seattle International Film Festival, Lynch: A History received the Golden SunBreak Award for best documentary. Tentative screenings are scheduled in cities across the country, including New York and Los Angeles in late July, Oakland in August, Indianapolis in September, Minneapolis and Chicago in October, Iowa City in November, and elsewhere. Follow @FilmLynch@_DavidShields, and @UnivNebPress for updates.

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