Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Guns, Violence, and Sports

Here we go again with an all-too-familiar story in collegiate athletics. This time gun violence has touched the life of an up-and-coming sprinter from University of Southern California.

Bryshon Nellum was shot in the leg three times at 2 a.m. after attending a Halloween party. According to the Associated Press:

"He was walking out to his car and group of guys in a car pulled up next to him and yelled some sort of gang-affiliated name and shot him," said police officer Sam Park. Nellum was shot three times in the left thigh and hamstring.” Park said, “No arrests had been made by Saturday and it was unclear whether Nellum knew his attackers.”

At this time, it is unclear whether Nellum will be able to resume his track career. In shooting Nellum, the assailants not only disrupted a life, but may have robbed track and field of one of its rising superstars. Nellum’s high school career was noted by experts in the sport, many of whom predicted that he had a good shot at a professional 400-meter career on par with LaShawn Merritt and Jeremy Wariner.

The words are always the same in this kind of situation: Unfortunate, upsetting, maddening.

Athletes at all levels – high school, college and the professional ranks – are perpetuating or finding themselves victims of violence at an increasingly alarming rate. What makes this even more upsetting is that when most people hear that an athlete was shot in the wee hours after a party they don’t wonder about his race . Most don’t want to admit that, for the most part, we are talking about African American athletes.

Here is a brief roll call of athletes involved in violence or that have been a victim of violence: Joey Porter, Jason Williams, Adam “Pacman” Jones, Sean Taylor, Darrent Williams. There are more – and new names are being added to the list with depressing regularity.

As an African-American and former athlete myself, I find it sickening to read about the seemingly endless violence and murders affecting young African-American athletes.

The logical question is why this continues at such a startling rate – and what can be done to curtail it. The next question is why African-American athletes find themselves disproportionately involved in violence. I’m not looking to blame the victim, I just think that this issue needs to be explored, discussed and addressed head on.

Well, athletes of all ethnicities at some point in their careers go out and have a good time. On the face of things, there’s nothing wrong with this. Should it be that different from an accountant out to blow off some steam on a Friday night?

Unfortunately, under the surface, there exists a culture that glorifies violence and danger in many of the venues that these athletes choose. “Kickin it” with homies from the block that might have ties to the street game is alluring and dangerous -- and may seem to help these athletes maintain their “street cred” off the field.

Athletes often quickly find themselves in a tense environment – competing for women and becoming a potential target for others trying to prove something. After a few drinks, tempers may flare, punches get thrown and weapons are brought into the mix.

Adding to the situation is that African Americans typically socialize in environments that blur economic or class lines. A decent number of African-Americas are the first members of their families to graduate from college or land an attractive career. By leaving the neighborhood, they may return to face a certain stigma or may feel to overcompensate to “fit in” with their old friends.

What are the choices? To run the risk of having their ethnicity challenged because they went off to school. This accomplishment may make them perceived as being “too good” to hang out with very people they grew up with – some of whom have taken markedly different directions with their lives.

Unfortunately, the athletes and scholars that we send off to school often find themselves without a support system when they return home – or even on some college campuses. This is one of the first places that we, as a society, fall down. Millions of words have been written about the challenges African-Americans face when they excel at something, but it’s time to do more than write about it. When we don’t support these people, an atmosphere ripe for violence grows. Athletes bear the brunt of this because they are more exposed and often celebrated.

While the questions around why this violence continues are simple, the answers are not. It’s a complex issue that will not go away without some serious dialogue. I don’t have the answers, but it’s time to start asking the questions more loudly, forcing our communities to ensure that more African-American athletes are given room to succeed without the threat of violence, murder and destruction.

Jay Hicks for Prerace Jitters.
Seed Runnerspace

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