Justin Austin, Mikayla Robertson, Kaya Senaya, Rashadeem Gray, and Davontae Johnson.
Those people are a small handful of the numerous, very talented and frequently engaging and quite candid African American track athletes that I have had the honor and privilege of covering over my 38 years in professional sports journalism.
They’ve stunned me with their talent, amazed me with their achievements and astounded me with their work ethic, candor and drive. They helped make my work a joy and allowed me to bounce in my car in anticipation the entire 3-1/2 hour drive to La Crosse for state track every year.
But I can’t imagine for one moment what it’s like to walk around with the burdens they have to carry. It’s a weight of presumption, of unspoken slights, of opportunities denied, of expectations lowered, of a fear of authority in a history so damaged and held down by centuries of American racism both overt and subtle that it’s a wonder that they can run, jump or throw at all.
We as a country can and need to do so much better by them and all people of color.
Brian Stelter of CNN reported on June 6 that peaceful protests over the death of George Floyd and about police brutality in general were reported in places as diverse as Shawnee, Kansas; Henderson, Kentucky; Vidor, Texas; Kent, Ohio; and Provo, Utah.
Not exactly liberal enclaves.
You can add to that list the Republican heartland of Menomonee Falls, Wisconsin, my hometown, where on June 6 young chalk artists wrote out “No Justice, No Peace,” “Justice 4 George,” and “Never Forget Tamir Rice” on the sidewalks of the famous Four Corners around the intersection of Main Street and Appleton Avenue.
On five concrete planters located on the clocktower corner of the intersection, these same artists also spelled out “TAMIR” in big block letters. Rice was a 12-year kid in Ohio playing with a toy gun in a park by himself five years ago when police drove up and shot him dead in alarmingly quick fashion.
The grand jury refused to press charges.
All told on June 6, there were also protests in communities blue and red across Wisconsin: Green Bay, Wausau (2,000 people there alone), Oconomowoc, Cedarburg, Whitefish Bay, Shorewood, Brown Deer, Brookfield and Stevens Point were just some of them.
Demetrius Johnson, Zack Baun, Chermond Thomas, Shon Pratcher Jr., and Washington Farrington.
Some of these athletes I got to know grew up in districts already highly diversified like Brown Deer, Shorewood and Nicolet; some in places that are well along in that process like Whitefish Bay and Homestead, and others in communities that have made strong inroads into integration, but which are still predominantly white and very conservative like the Falls, Germantown, and Brookfield.
The hoops which the kids who lived in those latter communities had to jump through and the adjustments they had to make on a day-to-day basis simply to get along, I just can’t fathom.
Many were multi-sport athletes, happily draping their arm over a white teammate’s shoulder after their team had done well. Some were transcendent, lifting programs and teams to new heights (Austin and Baun at Brown Deer; Thomas at Germantown, Johnson at Homestead, and Gray at Bay).
I didn’t speak much at all about race to them during their time as prep athletes, but maybe I should have. About the challenges of living in places where your sensibilities and your parents’ voting patterns didn’t always align themselves with the overwhelming community attitude.
FYI, I grew up in the Falls and have many relatives in Germantown and know many more civically active individuals in that wider area who truly try to make the world a better place.
And I am probably oversimplifying here, maybe these athletes, their siblings and their larger families didn’t face overt racism, but I try to imagine them walking down nearly lily white hallways between classes and wonder what was running through their minds from time to time as they tried to find someone, anyone who looked like them.
It had to be a bit of culture shock in certain moments.
Taylor Ruffin, Gabe Genovesi, Justin Barber, Bryan Keys, and Cameron Jemison.
And as I fast forward to current times, I was depressed and saddened for the kids and the coaches when Governor Evers did the prudent and correct thing by shutting down the state earlier this spring over the coronavirus pandemic. About the same time, the WIAA wisely concluded the state basketball tournament before either boys or girls champions could be crowned.
I and many others held out hope that a spring season could be salvaged but as virus numbers and deaths rose, that became a very small issue compared to an economy rocked with enormous unemployment and hospitals reeling from a lack of supplies, equipment and testing protocols due to an almost criminal lack of preparation and leadership on the federal level (one person in particular).
So it came as little surprise when the WIAA, like many other states, pulled the plug on spring sports in early May. My 30-year run of covering state track in La Crosse would be coming to an end for a very necessary and very sad reason.
And now there are even stronger reasons for this country to put sports on the backburner and really try to address the systemic problems of racially driven police brutality and racism in general that still plague it.
Along the way, I started this blog as a way to make myself and other track fans feel better. I have lots more stories on the way. I even made a quixotic road trip up to La Crosse on June 5, on what would have been the first day of state track, just because I felt I needed to.
Both the track and the bluffs in the background of the stadium were as beautiful as they ever were.
I had planned this trip in advance, but as the week’s events unfolded and the largely peaceful protests over George Floyd’s death at the hands of Minneapolis police became more widespread and larger by the day, I wondered how this year’s state track meet would have come off with the issue of police brutality as its backdrop.
Because track is the most integrated of the spring sports.
Stars are every color under the rainbow in this sport, because speed, strength and jumping ability know no skin color. Also, it is a sport that is not as cost intensive as others. For the most part you do not need specialized equipment to be a success in track, just a bit of talent and a really good work ethic, so poorer kids, often kids of color can make an impact without busting their parents’ budgets.
But you do need to trust implicitly the man or woman you are handing off to, or getting the baton from whether they be black, white or brown.
B.J. Tucker, Bryce McMurtry, David Dunlap, Patrick Burns, and Drew Bullen.
I also wonder if there would have been protests surrounding the meet and how diplomatically they would have been handled or if athletes might have taken the bold step and boycotted the meet in protest?
Would kids, black and white, who had worked so hard for this moment their entire lives have screwed up the courage to make such a bold statement? And how much support would they have received?
It’s an interesting thought and I would not have been surprised if some had taken that step.
Because many, many brave people are out there on the streets putting much more on the line protesting the death of Floyd, as well as those of too many other unarmed people of color across the country being killed by police. It has struck a nerve as it rarely has since the 1960s or the Rodney King riots in California in 1992.
There have been enormous marches around the world including Paris, Amsterdam and Australia and across America too. As noted, this is not just a big city or blue/red thing. Last week, protests were marked in over 430 communities of all sizes everywhere in this country.
And these have been highly integrated demonstrations, as many white people like myself are coming out of their cocoons of preconceived notions and trying for real change (I myself have not been on the street yet).
That show of unity is rare, because the story of America as the great promise, the place of equality where everyone can succeed if they try really hard and have a little bit of talent has largely been unfulfilled, been proven mostly to be a lie to people of color and people with limited means.
For every step forward for people of color over the last 100 years or so, there have been two or three steps back as economic and educational declines in large urban areas (the two go hand in glove) have proven to be great burdens for upward mobility. White privilege is real and takes many forms and it long ago headed to the suburbs.
Hell, I know I’ve benefited from it even though I have been a proud Milwaukee resident for over 20 years.
Santanna Ikpeme, Erynn James, Patrice McMillan, Khady Diarrassouba and Jakara Johnson.
As other journalists out there have written this past week or so, I don’t pretend to know all the answers, but some things I do know to be true.
That real reform has to come to the way police departments deal with race, especially in terms of tactics and the way they have been beefed up (largely by the federal government) with military style weaponry that put fear into the populace instead of inspiring trust. Communication and outreach programs, not military style assault vehicles and body armor are the way to ease tensions and make the streets safer.
There also has to be reinvestment in our cities to create better schools and economic opportunities, and a reform of the tax code so the super rich and their companies (Jeff Bezos and his company Amazon are prime offenders) pay far more than the pennies on the dollar they are now, so we can afford to make needed changes.
And for crying out loud, every elected body, city, state and federal needs to increase the damn minimum wage. Federally, it has been at a poverty insuring $7.25 an hour for far too long and needs to be raised substantially. Yes, I know the arguments against doing that, but with no national health plan to help relieve the poor and the middle class’s burden and with housing costs rising daily, it’s a pitiful remittance to try to live on!
Change also needs to come from our hearts too. Racism has been a stain on this nation since the first slave ships in the 1600s and we haven’t really addressed it at all but for one brief shining period in the 1960s.
We’ve been backsliding ever since then both in terms of the laws being written and in our attention span as a nation. And the results of that negligence are now showing up on our cell phone videos and in our streets. We have to make sure this moment is just not another blip in the news cycle but an impetus for real and lasting change!
A more equitable society with more opportunity for all is a happier, less acrimonious society and we need to make it happen. I’m 61 and trying to do my part (and I know I can do far more).
Will you do yours?
We need to stay active, we need to make a more honest effort to make sure that everyone does get a chance to make the American Dream a reality, that every kid regardless of color or economic status has a good school to go to, that people of color don’t have to fear being killed every time they have an encounter with the police or just go out jogging.
And we sure as hell have to pay better attention to the people we elect to public office, especially in Washington! Character, decency, compassion and honesty do count!
I know people like Kaitlyn Jackson, Demi Omole, Randee Drew, Justin Rabon, Travis Townsend, Melvin Thomas, Ashley Green, Dakari Williams, Robert Thompson and many, many others would greatly appreciate that concept.
And oh yes, it was a beautiful weekend in La Crosse, perfect for running the state meet!
UP NEXT: The promised discussion of Clyde Hart and the Baylor Method and the rise of the relay as Solinsky and other greats take a final bow.