In the middle of an American turmoil between the police force and African-American men, what I would like in 2014 is more social awareness, logic and sensitivity from the Mike Ditkas and Charles Barkleys of the world.
Both high-profile Hall of Fame athletes and outspoken commentators came from poor, hard-working families. Dikta, born Michael Dyczko to an Ukrainian family in Carnegie, Pa., excelled in football to escape working in the Pennsylvania steel mills and factories of the 1950s and 60s. Likewise, Barkley excelled in basketball to escape generations of poverty and racism in Leeds, Ala. in the 1970s and 80s.
The pair of hard-nosed and tenacious athletes played their respective sports like gladiators with swords and shields in hand. They were manly and proud of it. They had no problem expressing themselves either, saying the type of things that other men would only think about. Ditka and Barkley were able to get away with it, too. That’s why hardened, old-school men love these guys. They allowed Joe Blow and Sammy Washington to validate their own unfiltered and uncompromised opinions. Now we have a nation full of no-named Ditkas and Barkleys all over the Internet on Twitter and Facebook, saying whatever the hell they want without enough thought behind it.
What does this have to do with Black America’s issues with the police? Well, if you haven’t heard, Mike Ditka, who calls himself an “ultra conservative,” recently made comments that the citizens of Ferguson, Mo. used the police killing of teenager Michael Brown as “a reason to protest and go out and loot.” He confessed that he didn’t understand the uproar, and that he doubted the St. Louis Rams football players who flashed a “hands up, don’t shoot” symbol during their introductions in a recent game against the Oakland Raiders “care about Michael Brown or anything else.”
Ditka says that there are a lot of different things in society that athletes can complain or protest about. Why choose Michael Brown?
Well, Tavon Austin, Steadman Bailey, Jared Cook, Kenny Britt and Chris Givens – who all happen to be Black and play professional football for the St. Louis Rams – consider the loss of Black life, coupled with injustice from the local police force, important enough to talk about. And why shouldn’t they? The last time I checked, a human life was more important than anything, including football and basketball.
After playing professional football for 11 years, coaching for a dozen more, and now commentating on hundreds of NFL games and thousands of players, many of whom happen to be Black as well, you would think Mike Ditka would know a little more about African-American culture to at least be sensitive to the complexities of American society and race. But evidently, at age 75, with more than 50 years of being a teammate, a coach and a commentator around African-American men who are fathers, sons, husbands, brothers, uncles and so forth, Ditka has apparently learned nothing about them. Or, maybe he only cares to think about the ones he knows and likes.
I find this lack of knowledge and sensitivity amazing. But it happens every day in America. Many ethnicities, cultures, races, creeds and classes go to work and stand right next to each for 40 or 50 years, and still don’t know enough about each other to care. Mike Ditka calls it being “old-fashioned.”
I call it being selfishly American. We are surface people, who find it very uncomfortable to dig deep enough to understand someone else’s truth and struggles, even as we begin 2015. But real truth is more complex than a bunch of shocking sound bites. That’s where Charles Barkley comes into play as an Alabama Black man, who often gets away with saying things that Whites and Blacks consider cute, mainly because he says it so shamelessly with his country accent. But that doesn’t make what he says factual.
Barkley has now aggravated his own family members by commenting on the same Missouri issue as Ditka, calling the Ferguson looters “scumbags.” He then went on to explain himself by adding more kerosene to the fire. “In all fairness, there are some people out there who are crooks. We, as Black people, got a lot of crooks.”
Yes, Barkley said it and he’s not backing down from it.
Well, thanks a lot, Charles Barkley. That comment sure helps America to deal with its police issue with African-Americans. I’m sure thousands of hardcore police will just love that one. But the truth is: every race, culture and class has crooks, particularly when they are challenged by economic imbalances. British, Italian, Irish, Jewish, Polish, Russian, Australian, Spanish, French, Mexican, Canadian, Brazilian, Jamaican, African, Korean, Japanese, Chinese, you name it; we all have crooks. The United States of America itself is based on the stolen land by crooks, who no longer want us to talk about it. African-Americans, also happen to be stolen people. But that’s too much information to handle. This is supposed to be a sports column with no history lessons or politics.
That’s the problem with Mike Ditka and Charles Barkley. Their shoot-from-the-hip comments create more American extremists, who are eager to press the kill button, while still lacking vital information.This extreme emotionalism of uniformed people creates a society of angry warmongers, who are unwilling to comprehend the logic of more humane compromise. I’m speaking to law enforcement officials as well here. Please learn more about the people you police instead of blindly dictating terms to them. Is America still a democracy?
Meanwhile, Ditka and Barkley remain above the fray as esteemed and wealthy citizens, corralling the masses to war with their gladiator swords and shields in hand, whether they understand their uninformed words and actions or not.
My New Year’s wish is that ex-athletes and public figures will develop the appropriate social awareness, logic and sensitivity about our serious world issues before they speak, text or videotape the wrong things. That way, we can prepare ourselves to avoid more of the atrocities that have yet to come. At the very least, I pray for more qualified journalists to offer voices of reason.
Yes, informed journalists matter, too.
Omar Tyree is a New York Times bestselling author, an NAACP Image Award winner for Outstanding Fiction, and a professional journalist, who has published 27 books, including co-authoring Mayor For Life; The Incredible Story of Marion Barry Jr. View more of his career and work @ www.OmarTyree.com