Baffoe: Sports, Protest & Art

By Tim Baffoe–

(CBS) Chinua Achebe said in a 1980 conversation with James Baldwin“Art has a social purpose (and) art belongs to the people. It’s not something that is hanging out there that has no connection with the needs of man. And art is unashamedly, unembarrassingly, if there is such a word, social. It is political; it is economic. The total life of man is reflected in his art.”

I think about sports as art a lot. Sports is performance for an audience, be it of one or a billion. Sports is often painful. Yet in that pain, sports bears constant beauty. Sports is catharsis for producer and consumer alike, and sports belongs to both as well.

Sports is the culmination of innate talent fused with determination to express. And it’s perpetually expressive despite constant attempts by powers that be to depress, repress and oppress it.

Sports is gendered. Sports is racial. Sports is sexual. Sports is innately and forever political.

It’s particularly so in times like these, with the country (I hesitate to call it “our” country) a powder keg of political tension from disproportionate people of color dead after being shot by police. Awaiting is a presidential election that features two candidates who would sooner convert the corpses to voting fuel than do anything tangible to change the rotted system, one that perpetuates the Terence Crutchers, Tawon Boyds and Keith Scotts of this week and those transfigured into hashtags next week.  

Sports as reflection of such a climate is never more political and, therefore, never more artistic. It’s uncomfortably visible in the athlete demonstrations during the national anthem, quietly begun by 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick – -his total life reflected in his art, as Achebe says — and rippled into other games and venues. And it should be uncomfortable — great art tends to lean toward the bothersome, the difficult, the affront to status quo.

Sports as art shows in the selective silence of Richard Sherman, who on Wednesday decided not to fingerpaint football for the media and consumer that wants their art to be so easy.

Like Kaepernick and other athletes who have chosen not to stand or speak on command like trained dogs playing poker in a safe rec room painting, Sherman — who did end up speaking to reporters back in the locker room Wednesday and has gone on record promoting the controversial “All Lives Matter” mantra — had his football silence met with criticism.

From Pro Football Talk’s Mike Florio on Wednesday:

“Regardless of how Sherman and other players choose to proceed, all players should keep in mind that plenty of reporters agree that the problem needs to be addressed, and that those people are paid to show up and ask questions. Shutting the process down squanders an avenue for getting a message out to fans, and it also unnecessarily inflicts a potential hardship on people who support the cause and who are simply trying to do their jobs.”

But I’m writing a column just fine without Sherman talking football but still creating art. Most good writers would be fine in a scenario in which sports figures refused to talk their way through the artistic process rather than just let the performance be up to interpretation. (Some scribes might even become better by not needing to lean on quotes as much.)

Maybe more media would then be forced to talk about the actual roots of the artistic expression as Sherman’s control over his own words Wednesday demanded. Instead of focusing on the kneeling or fist raising or selective silences at a dumb press conference, maybe sports writers and talkers will have no other choice but to talk about the historical intersections of race and class and law enforcement and sports and art.

Besides gawking at a living sculpture of dismissing a slavery-soaked song, more of us start asking questions about how such difficult art comes to the surface. Ya know, do the job rooting out the why and not just pointing at the what. Why is the Mona Lisa smiling? Why is the Picasso so seemingly manic? Why (as Ezekiel Kweku has chronicled on Twitter, Tumblr and in essay form) is the American flag such a gravitational center of sports and other forms of art?

By not talking about the bubblegum comic art of football, Sherman asks that we consider why kneeling for the anthem before a game is controversial and necessary to the artist. Discuss and explore rather than condemn and dismiss. Talk is happening, if only bit by bit. There isn’t a full-blown dialogue going on because not enough people care more about the why of the art than the what, though.   

“It’s probably one of the best things to come out of the Kaepernick issue is that people are talking, and that’s a good thing,” Golden State Warriors coach Steve Kerr said on Wednesday. “No matter what side of the spectrum you’re on, I would hope that every American is disgusted with what is going on around the country, what just happened in Tulsa two days ago with Terence Crutcher.”

(Kerr’s father, oddly enough, was assassinated in Lebanon a la the Benghazi ribbons that yellow glare from the social media profiles of the biggest sports protest art critics.)

Not yet, they’re not disgusted. Too many want quiet, unassuming, clean dentist office art. Rich dudes should shut up and appreciate how good they have it. And run for President.

The NBA, the most progressive of the major sports leagues, is out ahead of this, thankfully. It’s fostering an environment for its dozens of individual and collaborative artists to express themselves as reflection of the real world.

This is a far cry from the ambivalent NFL culture, the backgrounded and distant NHL and paternalistic MLB environment that Baltimore Orioles star Adam Jones accurately referenced last week. Those are places where art is subject to depression, repression and oppression, places where the status quo reigns and perceived stability is paramount. (But it still manages to find a way to surface from time to time.)

Achebe also told Baldwin: “Those who tell you ‘Do not put too much politics in your art’ are not being honest. If you look very carefully you will see that they are the same people who are quite happy with the situation as it is.

“And what they are saying is not don’t introduce politics. What they are saying is don’t upset the system. They are just as political as any of us. It’s only that they are on the other side.”

Tim Baffoe is a columnist for Follow Tim on Twitter @TimBaffoe. The views expressed on this page are those of the author, not CBS Local Chicago or our affiliated television and radio stations.

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