By Autumn A. Arnett
I wasn’t going to write about LaDainian Tomlinson’s Hall of Fame Speech. But I gave him the side eye from the stands of the Tom Benson Hall of Fame Stadium in Canton, where I’d traveled just for him, to see my favorite player be inducted into football’s greatest fraternity.
I wasn’t going to publicly question how one could trace his slave roots through his paternal lineage and claim mixed race heritage. Or wonder how he could, today, in the year of our Lord two thousand and seventeen, with Donald Trump as president of these United States — a president who was propelled to power on the back of the most vile, divisive, racist rhetoric we’ve seen from a public figure in decades — utter words which seemed so disconnected from all that is going on with black men and women in this country.
I was going to completely ignore it, choosing to remember him for the 2005 and 2006 seasons which solidified my love for him to begin with. Even when I got on the shuttle back to the parking lot and heard all of the white attendees fawning over his speech, and when I returned to the cabin where I was staying for the weekend and saw all of the articles by white writers doing the same, I was annoyed, but chose to move on.
I wasn’t going to write about the events which transpired this weekend in Charlottesville, Va., either. Even when I received the text from a source alerting me to his availability to comment on race relations in Charlottesville. Upon receiving his text, I revisited my 2015 article and decided I had nothing new to say. Mostly because I’m tired. And also because I have to choose my written battles more carefully these days.
So I turned to the one thing I always turn to when I need to escape: football. It’s just preseason; the Seahawks are whooping the Chargers in an unimpressive game that doesn’t count for anything anyway. But it’s my happy place, nonetheless.
And then it happened. They showed clips of that trifling speech during halftime of this otherwise mundane match-up. It makes sense. Tomlinson went into Canton as a Charger, and this is their first time back on a football field in 2017. But it made my blood boil. Perhaps because it showed on the screen at the exact moment I was reading more news coverage from Charlottesville.
Listen. Not one bit of what happened in Charlottesville this weekend surprised me. I knew before the election of Barack Obama how white people feel about any threat to their dominance in this country. I’ve sat at the dinner table and rolled my eyes at the idea of reverse racism. None of the ideas which have propelled the protests which erupted
this weekend near the University of Virginia are new.
We know how Southern whites feel about their statues and flags and other symbols. We see Colin Kaepernick blacklisted for not standing for the anthem — for awhile, we could say it’s not like he was a great quarterback teamsshould scramble for, but then, you know, the Ravens passed on him at the advice of another future Hall of Famer who, despite his own questionable moral past, didn’t think it was a good idea. And then the Dolphins signed Jay Cutler, and there’s no way we can argue he is better than Kaepernick.
What is supremely frustrating, though, is how Tomlinson could adopt the pull-yourselves-up-by-your-bootstraps, work-hard-and-you-can-be-anything-you-want language, invoking the ideal of the American Dream, while referencing his enslaved great-great-grandfather, without acknowledging the American Dream remains out of reach for numerous men and women who look like him. For those whose athletic talent did not or worse, could not save them, the persistence of the capitalist at any cost ideals which first allowed Tomlinson’s relatives to be brought to this country and held as slaves remain evident.
For those who aren’t the die-hard football fans who were tuned in for all seven of the (very, very long, largely unremarkable) speeches last weekend in Canton, you don’t know Tomlinson’s speech came after Kenny Easley’s, in which the former Seahawks safety said:
Black Lives do matter. And yes, all lives matter, too. But the carnage affecting young black men today, from random violence to police shootings, across the nation has to stop. We’ve got to stand up as a country, as black Americans, and fight the good fight, to protect our constitutional right to keep people from dying while driving or walking down the streets for being black in America. It has to stop and we can do it. And the lessons we learn in sports can help.
Many who support Black Lives Matter probably excused the “all lives matter” thrown in, focusing instead on the pointedness of the sentences which followed. Perhaps Easley only uttered those words so the remainder of his message wasn’t lost.
But no one talked about any of Easley’s speech. Today, as we watched Governor Terry McAuliffe declare a state of emergency in the state of Virginia following more racially-charged violence, it’s Tomlinson’s vanilla speech which is receiving all of the acclaim.
Part of this is because Tomlinson was the star. But it’s primarily because Tomlinson’s speech was “safe.” It didn’t challenge the comfort zone of whites who wish to believe they aren’t racist, though they may decry “reverse racism” and think perhaps it’s time to re-evaluate affirmative action and murmur that Good Americans are out of work because “illegals” are taking all of their jobs. It didn’t call out anyone who might even be further on the extreme. There were no threats of insurrection or calls for plantation revolt or boycott, or any real call to action at all.
We can’t believe these things are disconnected. The white supremacist insurrections in Charlottesville and in other places around the country, as well as the election of Donald Trump as president, these things couldn’t have been made possible without the complicity of others which gave way to the extremism on display. Charlottesville was the result of individuals needing to reassert their dominance and inflict fear upon people of color following a black presidency. The same happened after abolition and during voter registration drives and the fight for civil rights and any time the white-first power structure has been disrupted in this country. But the extremists could not thrive without the more moderate “good” people who either turn the other way in silent indifference or in feigned ignorance — both of which, provide more fuel.
LaDainian Tomlinson’s speech is 2017’s “I have a dream” for “good” whites wanting to feel good about calling for equality without feeling and more importantly, without having their own comfort zones threatened. Such a notion is nothing short of laughable because until people are willing to sacrifice their own comfort, nothing will ever be equal.
But what do I know? This all started because I, refusing to give up my own comfort zone in football, found that disrupted by clips of this deplorable speech.
LT, I’ve known since you started working for NFL Network in 2012 that it was not your oratorical skills which propelled my love for you. I guess we’ll always have the 2005 and 2006 seasons.
I’m just saying…