For the past six years, I have taught a college course on sports and social justice, starting at my alma mater, the University of Pennsylvania, and then at Yale University and currently, at the University of Connecticut.
Inspired by topics that were targeted by the “stick to sports” mantra, the class was an opportunity to engage the next generation on the intersection of sport and society. It has been shaped by and vetted through years of academic research, current events, personal experience, and student feedback.
I have paid close attention to the debate over Florida’s Stop WOKE Act and the Advanced Placement African American Studies course created by the College Board for high school students. The law established a framework to limit a curriculum by declaring certain teachings illegal.
Then I saw that Jonathan Cox, a sociology professor at the University of Central Florida, announced that he was afraid to teach his courses on race and social media and race and ethnicity and would cancel them.
It sent a chill down my spine.
I began to think … would my course be illegal in Florida?
As we know, many of the events that shaped African American history have been disputed throughout the legal system. Making a sound legal argument was one pathway to establishing one’s humanity for people who arrived in this nation as property. When you look at Black history, our existence in various spaces, in certain relationships, even our right to live, has always danced between the sentences of codified law. So it is easy to be skeptical of laws that ride in on a white horse of censorship, backdated to recapture a certain order.
The Stop WOKE Act brings in an information filter meant to eliminate educational content that makes a student feel responsible or even guilty for the past actions of those with whom the student identifies. In theory, this will dissolve concepts such as “white privilege” and, if consistently applied, anything that perpetuates a belief in Black inferiority (such as teaching that the original The Birth of a Nation silent film was patriotic or that Black people were inherently less-than and criminal).
The Birth of a Nation was released in 1915, but Black inferiority still rears its ugly head in enacted policy. In 2022, the NFL was using the practice of race-norming in its dementia testing to determine the benefits given out in their settlements. League representatives and attorneys worked off of a lower cognitive baseline for Black players, making it more difficult to prove that the depth of their losses in mental acuity were directly due to football injuries.
Stop WOKE creates a new kind of protected class — a legislated innocence and unburdening from the past — meant to prevent educators from explaining our present in any way that puts responsibility at the feet of how one identifies or is identified. One clause of the Act states that we shouldn’t “be discriminated against or receive adverse treatment because of actions committed in the past by other members of the same race.” Under this act, it would appear teaching about actions committed in the past in and of itself can be considered discrimination, even when the only adversity suffered by the learner are their subjective feelings. What possible “actions” did Black people “commit” in the past that caused institutional or structural racial oppression in this country? In the Black experience, it’s circular. Those “actions” were merely the color of our skin that mostly just led to our own oppression. Just by the language employed, it seems this act was not meant to protect Black people from discrimination, or even to protect our feelings.
You could read Stop WOKE as a way to pretend we are not advantaged or disadvantaged by our identity. Yet teaching under this law, an educator would be constrained when trying to contextualize a time when a housing and lending system uplifted only white families. This allowed those families to get mortgages, which in turn created generational wealth at a time when other people (Black) could not get loans because of their skin color. We should all feel bad about that especially since it still happens.
To be safe from “woke” in the classroom, we would have to claim that those white families don’t have any advantages in today’s world or that even if they have advantages, we can’t make anyone in the classroom who aligns with their identity feel bad about it. If I were teaching about Stop WOKE in class, and trying not to break Florida law, then I would ask my students, “If people are unaware of those kinds of advantages, are they inclined to help ensure a level playing field? Does it just change on its own without intentional effort and education?”
A federal judge issued an injunction temporarily blocking enforcement of the Stop WOKE Act in higher education but Gov. Ron DeSantis’ administration is appealing that decision. “Defendants argue that, under this Act, professors enjoy ‘academic freedom’ so long as they express only those viewpoints of which the State approves. This is positively dystopian. It should go without saying that ‘[i]f liberty means anything at all it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear,’” wrote District Judge Mark E. Walker.
I have found that a classroom is much more than the curriculum. It is a collaborative workshop of exchanges and opportunities. More than just amassing facts, it is a chance to learn how to express ideas, how to disagree, and how to consider a new point of view with a curious and open mind. I have to trust my students with the truth. Mine included. But I must respect that they have a compass for their truth and will think critically to synthesize it all.
And yes, that truth may sting. Just like it stung my great aunts and uncles in Philadelphia because of the way the Phillies treated Jackie Robinson. They boycotted the Phillies for 50 years only to make peace once I became the centerfielder of the Phillies in 1998. And yes, race matters. In the Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921, people got away with murder. It is a disservice to students to be disingenuous about the racial dynamics of our history – and our present. It can easily and effectively be taught without assigning personal blame. But this law is a state-sponsored way to weaponize the arbitrary and fragile unprovable state of personal offense. It is interesting that African American studies was chosen as ground zero and public enemy No. 1 for our need to legislate feelings.
The confidence I have in the importance of elevating the long history and current impact of sports on social questions remains. This may be because, even in my many years in sports media, I know the feeling of touching on third rail topics that could be intentionally marginalized or pushed into the politicization machine. Or that only certain kinds of commentary are deemed acceptable in entertainment.
Of course, those limitations are convenient for those who are in the club whose history matches the story that power wants to tell.
It is already difficult when your experience with racism is doubted. It is more difficult when you are blocked from fully contextualizing it. And it is devastating when you take the time to build understanding about your experience and find that some people simply do not care to know. They want to swim in the ignorance that their privilege allows. Or they choose to use their power to make everyone swim in that same ignorant pool. Author Heather McGhee highlighted this in her book, The Sum of Us, by pulling data from every aspect of society to prove that racism hurts all of us, not just the targets of it. In one poignant chapter titled Racism Drained the Pool, she underscores that once integration finally granted Black people the right to swim in the public pool, many communities chose to fill the pool in with cement rather than share the water.
Still, I choose to look over my curriculum and ensure it is delivered in a way it would be best received by everyone. It remains important that my students contextualize the lack of accountability for the past. Some of the greatest crimes against humanity in our country never resulted in a single person going to jail. And that past is still shaping our future whether we put blinders on or not.
This was true for a long time about Rosewood in Florida. An accusation by a white woman in January 1923 led a white mob to burn down a prosperous Black neighborhood of landowners and farmers, taking lives with them. It took 70 years and substantial pressure for the state to acknowledge it and make amends. No one got jail time, the perpetrators just walked away. But education at least provides some restorative justice so that today the judicial outcome would hopefully have been different.
Classroom education does not operate in a vacuum, and we should not Jedi mind trick people who live through discrimination into believing that a swaddled history lesson matches what happens when they leave the classroom. Instead, we should talk about redirecting guilt to do better and calling attention to inequities, especially those that are subdivided by racial constructs. It is messy. That is what is so unique about experiencing racism or any form of identity-based discrimination. Sometimes, you are not sure if the past is the past. And certainly, one way to ensure we bring the past back is to choose to learn nothing from it.
It is easier to draw conclusions about what frames someone’s story when you control the storytelling. That kind of power knows that ignorance has always been a weapon in the subjugation of any people. Once they are stripped from land, culture, opportunity, faith, and every other way to look back at their history, the final blow is delivered by denying their ability to connect their dots to their present.
As Eric Liu teaches in his book, You’re More Powerful Than You Think: A Citizen’s Guide to Making Change Happen, one principle of power is that “power justifies itself” and those with power “invent stories to legitimize the power they have.” They also erase stories. That principle is at the heart of what is happening in Florida, with the goal of protecting the fragility of those who may merely share a skin color with the executors of Jim Crow terror. It would be a more defensible posture if we will then honestly explore the circumstances of our present day that keep the past, present. Instead, Stop WOKE prioritizes those who may feel bad (or not) about our history (past) over those who continue to negatively experience that history (present). Maybe we should do more to legislate against those negative experiences.
In my course, I teach about three incidents from my life: being stopped in my own driveway in Connecticut and questioned by an out-of-town police officer who asked if I was shoveling snow for money; trying to get a cab at Los Angeles International Airport and being told by the cab driver to take the bus; and doing a sideline television report at Wrigley Field in Chicago while a fan behind me flashed a hand signal associated with white supremacy. I could focus solely on the officer, but then I wouldn’t be acknowledging all the people who helped turn the incident into a law that restricted similar encounters. I could focus on the one cab driver but forget that the Los Angeles Police Department did an undercover operation to prove the rampant discrimination at the airport. I could focus on the worst interpretation of the fan who was hiding behind the coded ambiguity of his on-air hand gesture, or the many Chicago Cubs fans who came up to me afterward in support and to express their openness to learn about the racial nuance of these uninvited circumstances.
In recognizing that people from different walks of life often help to formulate a solution for change does not dismiss the racial undertones of these moments. When the police department collected its data at Los Angeles International Airport, six out of 25 Black people trying to hail a taxi were refused service on the first test day. That was not just one bad apple. It was systemic.
Therefore, in my class we lean into sports as a system. We look at sports activism through its history and its present, and view identity as a flashpoint in much of the discourse around social justice, while challenging students to consider other points of view.
This is done by touching on everything that flows through sports from WNBA superstar Sue Bird’s op-ed about gender bias in stat-keeping to MLB’s Cleveland Indians vs. Cleveland Guardians to transgender swimmer Lia Thomas to Confederate flags at NASCAR. One of my favorite pieces about race and identity is by Jay Caspian Kang and how he became a fan of baseball great Ichiro Suzuki in part because he believed that if a Japanese player did well, American society might better accept his Korean heritage even if, frustratingly, it was through lazy ethnic associations. I hope my students come away with an appreciation for the impact of sports. That sports are an opportunity to start from common ground. That we can work from being on the same team, which may give us a little room to listen to each other that much longer.
Recently in my class, the subject was George Floyd. I thought the most direct way to engage was to use a video essay I wrote for ESPN not long after he was murdered by police in Minneapolis in 2020. But as I loaded it up, I saw a new warning label pop up to alert viewers that it included disturbing images.
My plan had been to run it early in the lecture, but now I had second thoughts. I already knew I would have to contextualize it with how sports figures had engaged around this moment. But I also needed to be aware of my students’ emotional health and how each of them would have their own response to the violence.
I decided to show it at the end of class and said that any student who felt compelled to leave could do so before I started playing it. No one left that I saw.
The snapshot of violence is one aspect of the story. But how I would discuss the role of race in our reaction to Floyd’s death made me think of Florida. In class, it is a powerful discussion to consider the connection between policing in that moment to the horrific racial bias that was revealed in the Justice Department report on the Ferguson Police Department in Missouri.
I could take this conversation many different directions, ranging from the history of post-slavery policing that has roots in the enforcement of Black codes to my own positive sports history with police: My summer league coach was a volunteer police officer and many of my friends from that team became and still are officers many years later. How it is taught is as important as what is being taught.
And I have found teaching to be reciprocal.
When I was on a bus trip in the minor leagues reading a book about the African slave trade, a white teammate came up to me and told me that I didn’t need to know about the slave trade. Instead of his patronizing and defensive reaction, he could have been open to what he could learn as opposed to declaring what I shouldn’t learn. Those lessons don’t just come from the content but from the enduring emotions and experiences of a descendant of this painful history. This pain does not simply endure because I am reading about it. It endures because there are living effects of its impact, the systems of which are sometimes intentionally maintained for power. People still live it.
The quiet part of what Florida is trying to do with Black studies is basking in ignorance until it impersonates childhood innocence. Kids will be told comfortable fables. Kids will be told which persona is good and which one is bad based on who looks like you and which part of history we lift up in the curriculum.
You can be civil rights activist Martin Luther King Jr. — as long as you don’t pick the one who opposed the Vietnam War. You can be baseball pioneer Jackie Robinson — as long as you’re not the one who said he had an issue standing up for the flag.
Imposing that kind of silence does not just reverberate in a classroom. It makes Black families question their own history in their own homes. It is dismissive of the racism generations of my family experienced as if it was a figment of their imaginations and that it never warranted anger, or even a desire to teach it as a warning for the next generation. It frustrates one’s ability to love a country and yet insist it can be better. Yes, both can be true, just as we can both give a lecture and click to show the next slide at the same time.
Any chance I have to give students time to lean into education with humanity at its center, instead of bias, fear, and omission, is a chance for them to see their reflections in each other. We all matter — but I can still address the fact that Black life is perpetually in a struggle to matter in the same way as others.
I do not know what will become of Florida and other states fighting to shield students from the raw pain of history. We have long lived in a world that will bend and break facts for power or use racism and culture wars as a tool for advantage or to win an election.
I am a parent, so I can understand the instinct to determine when it’s the right time to tell my kids certain things about their family history or what happened to a Black man at the hands of Black police officers in Memphis, Tennessee. It is never simple, nor should we simplify all people by a color or a cross. I come from a history of one-drop rules and 3/5th of a person, of constitutional loopholes and the abolition of slavery with an exception for incarceration. Many of us do. But I also come from celebrations, not just trauma, even though I still face it every day.
Despite the suspicion that what’s happening in Florida was inspired by double standards simply because it was an African American studies course, in the spirit of consistency, we could now reconsider all histories and how they are delivered to students.
We should seize the moment to be straightforward about our track record of having curricula of indoctrination in schools that is damaging to the self-esteem of Black students. The African American history that has been ignored or taught over the past century was littered with propaganda and outright racism, just as other histories painted certain figures as near gods. We should recognize the damage that has been done. A case study of a people made to feel guilty because of their race, framed in textbooks to be inherently criminal and unqualified freeloaders, and valued for so long by only their proximity to whiteness, could be a place to start. We cannot act as if African American history is the sole repository of content that can make another group feel inherently devalued. That should be easy to recognize when African American history is inextricably shaped by some of the worst atrocities our country has ever perpetrated against a people.
We must learn that Washington, Jefferson and other founding figures were slaveowners. And that Francis Scott Key, author of The Star-Spangled Banner, who believed Black people to be “a distinct and inferior race,” fought mightily as a lawyer to ensure enslaver power. Or that many of the statues honoring Confederate leaders were erected for the sole purpose of reminding Black people of their place. These are facts.
We must look at all of our historic heroes with the same rigor that AP African American studies is receiving from Florida, recognizing that the G-rated version of events exposed Black students to a white-centered history that sometimes overtly perpetuated concepts of white supremacy and Black self-hate in the same chapter. If we look broadly at that biased education as a course, it would have violated every clause in the Stop WOKE Act. I hope Florida is ready to enforce that act from all perspectives. But given the title, we know who it is really protecting.
We also know that separate but equal was really separate but inferior. Now in Florida, we head down a path where we will be together but invisible.
That does not seem much better.