Stephen A Smith and the Problem of Black Obedience

Kevin Ssonko ‘20, Student Senate President

As a fan of pro-sports, I am just as much a slave to morning sports talk radio as any guy with any meaningful buy-in to conventional norms of masculinity. So of course after the news, of pro-athlete and activist Colin Kaepernick’s work-out in front of NFL teams down in Atlanta, one that was marred with controversy due to questionable actions by the NFL in it’s framing of the opportunity, I knew I had to listen to the discourse. One would think that given the neo-fascist era that we exist in, where the evils of corporate power are so clearly rubbed in the face of those on the margins of high society, that many journalists would recognize the dirty tricks the NFL played against Kaepernick in framing the work out and would have lauded Kaepernick for once again being a brave symbol of the struggle. But once again we saw most of the mainstream press almost uniformly condemn Kaepernick, both for not submitting to the terms of the NFL and also for engaging in too much radical rhetoric in the post-workout press conference. 

One of the loudest critics being acclaimed sports analyst Stephen A. Smith, a black man himself who cut his teeth in sports journalism dealing with issues of race and politics. Stephen A. went as far as to say that Kaepernick doesn’t even want to be a pro-athlete anymore, rather he simply wants to be a martyr for the cause and should have conducted himself more appropriately. Of course, these comments came much to my disappointment. But I think there is an important lesson to be learned from this clearly wrongheaded reaction from voices like Stephen A. The problem with Stephen A’s analysis is a problem for all black people resisting white supremacy, and that is the problem of black obedience. 

Stephen A’s issue with Kaepernick is that he didn’t conform to the more normative behaviors of athletes in pro-sports and simply did whatever was asked of him in order to get a job. He does this all the while ignoring the long history of white athletes in pro-sports being allowed to be every kind of criminal, including being explicit racist, and getting a pass from the higher-ups of pro-sports. This is indicative of a larger problem in pro-sports etiquette, the status quo is ok with all types of actions from its athletes, except the ones that challenge the power structure. This indeed shows how racism has shifted through time. The one thing that is unacceptable in the NFL is not black athletes but black power, black resilience, black solidarity, the kind of ideas that have had the power to lift black people’s conditions throughout the generations, and the very things that Kaepernick has struggled for. But Stephen A has fallen in the same trap that many black people have fallen into since the first slaves arrived on the shores of these United States exactly 400 years ago. Stephen A buys into this backward belief that if black people just conduct themselves the right way if they just do as they are told, then white society will make room for them and allow them their proper space. But this is not the function of racism, and therefore this is not how opportunity functions. 

Racism is a predetermining force and it condemns its victims by branding them at birth. It didn’t matter what Kaepernick did out on that field, those in power had already decided his fate. Therefore Kaepernick did what he could in order to resist so that the world could at the very least see the truth of his ability. Obedience cannot save black people from racism, but it is in radical disobedience that there is hope for the creation of a better world. Kaepernick has demonstrated this from the beginning and as a result, he has helped to raise the consciousness of black people everywhere to better recognize the conditions we live under. When journalists criticize Kapernick for his lack of obedience they aren’t advocating his liberation but rather they assert that he accept his chains. 

One of the most dangerous parts about power structures built on exploitation is that after a while it’s not just about how they cause people pain, but also how they limit people’s ability to imagine the world being any different. If we are truly to take serious the prospects of a different world, part of that is allowing people to express themselves as fully human, rather than as the pawns of those who ultimately have more power. If we are to have any hope of overcoming things like racism, it won’t be hope in the abstract sense. But it will be when we allow oppressed people to embody hope itself, not acquiesce to the terms of the world as it is, but to boldly say to hell with the terms and conditions of the status quo and live lives that push boundaries and bring about a world that is not yet. It is for this new world that Kaepernick has struggled, and for this, we should not criticize him, but rather go and do likewise.