“Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze, Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.” – Billie Holiday (from “Strange Fruit”)
I’ve always been a sports fanatic.
I mean, I can recall stat lines from Super Bowls in the 80s, I’ve attended sporting events in over three dozen cities world-wide, and I’ve been an athlete in sports ranging from fencing to running to rugby and now as an iRacing driver.
Sure, the athletic aspect amazes me, but what captivates me about sports is what they tell us about society and culture. Nowhere have I learned more about who we are as a people in the United States, hell, the world, than through the spectacle of sports.
Formula One (F1) racing exists at the core of my personal pantheon of sports. So much so, I even drive competitively online in eRacing leagues. My favorite driver is British racer Sir Lewis Hamilton, and he’s the reason why I started watching F1. It shouldn’t surprise you that he’s also the only Black driver on the circuit (the first Black F1 driver was American Willy T. Ribbs).
Hamilton is unique to the sport in more ways than his racial identity. He’s a seven-time world champion (tied for the most all-time), he was knighted by the Prince of Whales, and he’s as a global fashion icon.
Of course it’s this last piece about his fashion that’s made the F1 establishment squirm in discomfort and disgust.
F1, like most sports governing bodies, is top-heavy with white-male leadership. Even when leaders aren’t white men they embody and enforce dominant white cultural values. F1 is fairly young compared to its global counterparts, such as FIFA, but it’s been around since 1950 and done little in regards to self-reflecting on the racism it’s engendered through antiquated policies and rules enforcement.
This coupled with the fact that the sport’s most decorated driver happens to be a confident Black man who doesn’t mute his identity or his voice, we can predict the tension that eventually surfaces.
Sports, at their core, reflect larger societal values and perspectives. So, by analyzing how sports and sports fans treat the Black athlete, we can gain a deeper, clearer understanding what our society envisions for the Black person.
What manifests when doing so is a racist trope that’s woven not only in the fabric of the collective sporting history, but also in the story of modern humanity:
The perpetual effort to suppress and control Black bodies and voices.
“Just shut up and drive, Lewis.”
It’s an early Saturday morning and I’m engaging in one of my favorite pastimes in sports – reading the comments section of articles about Black athletes. How sports fans talk about Blackness offers me a lens into the “true” America.
This particular article I’m reading is about Lewis Hamilton bucking the FIA’s (F1’s governing body) jewelry ban for drivers. It’s true the FIA has had an article in the rulebook for a long time about how drivers need to refrain from wearing jewelry while racing. However, it’s not until recently they’ve begun to enforce the rule.
The main purpose for the rule, the FIA argues, is centered around driver safety – metals can rip out of the driver’s skin or burn them if they experience a fire in a crash. Simple enough, no?
This would be simple except for the fact that the FIA is honed in on a specific driver – Lewis Hamilton.
Sure the FIA articulated other rules that will be enforced beyond jewelry (including, comically, an underwear requirement), but it all reads like a distraction from their true motivation to attempt to reel in what they perceive as an eclectic distraction and not appropriate race appearance in Hamilton’s style and fashion.
Admittedly, Hamilton sports a medley of jewelry styles, including facial piercings. His pre-race outfits are usually wild, to say the least, while his guests on race-day include the likes of Michelle Obama and Tom Cruise. He’s vibrant, hip, and everything you’d dream of when thinking about a superstar race car driver.
He’s not, however, F1’s ideal face of the sport. Spend a day on the F1 chat boards and social circles, and you’ll quickly discover an immense disdain for Hamilton. Athletes naturally have their haters and advisories, but the tone of the language in the criticism towards Hamilton suggests something deeper at play.
Comments are frequently aimed at Hamilton’s braided hairstyle and his habit of addressing social issues and pushing to the forefront topics of race and human rights. “Just shut and drive, Lewis,” writes one commenter.
This type of language is ubiquitous in sports. Consider the comment made by a Fox News host in 2020 about Lebron James. “Shut up and dribble,” Laura Ingraham said in response to James speaking out against police terrorism and racial justice.
In both instances, the essence of the message insinuates to the Black athlete that their thoughts, perspectives, and voices are discouraged. They should choke their words down and get to the business of entertaining.
When framed in this way, we begin seeing motivation around the FIA’s jewelry ban. Fashion is a powerful method of self-expression for any of us, but particularly in Black culture. Our clothing, the brands we wear and choose to rock, are another form of voice. Fashion is a powerful tool that can transmit our values to the broader world. To control what one wears is essentially an effort to control their identity.
There’s no shortage of examples of this type of suppression playing out in sports. In 2018, just after returning from giving birth to her first child, Serena Williams wore a “Black Panther-inspired” catsuit for her match at the French Open.
Although her style received broad praise from social media and the sporting world, the president of the French Tennis Association, Bernard Giudicelli, said after the match that the suit “will no longer be accepted.” Giudicelli went on to justify his decision by stating that “one must respect the game and the place” and the sport must center tradition over individuality.
Here, Giudicelli, a white man, is commenting on what a Black woman can and cannot wear. Williams is also a mother returning to her profession after her pregnancy, and the “catsuit” is designed to support her physical recovery. So then, layered in the misogyny and racism around what women should look like when working is also the issue of controlling the bodies of women.
The French Open is essentially saying forget your fashion. Screw your physical wellbeing. Wear the skirt we approved and serve the ball, Serena.
In another instance, the National Basketball Association (NBA) introduced a players dress code. On October 17, 2005 then NBA commissioner David Stern issued what was at the time the first league-wide dress code for any major professional sports league. It’s not a coincidence a league that’s comprised of over 75% Black players would be the first to do so.
Included in the decree was a ban on fashion accessories often associated with hip-hop culture, including do-rags, baseball caps, jeans, tennis shoes, Timberland boots, and, you guessed it, large jewelry. Players were to refrain from wearing these items in interviews, on the sideline, and in other team related activities.
At the core of these fashion bans is the white supremist rationalization that leverages professionalism and appearance. When the best players in the world start looking more like the homies on the corner and less like Wall Street, then the powers that be must reel in the culture. Sponsors are watching, after all.
Similarly, when arguably the best driver in F1 history no longer looks like the chiseled chin white hero of the past (i.e. Micheal Schumacher), the natural tendency of the ruling cast of the sport and its fans is to reign in the culture in order to mask things with a tailored narrative, to control the voice of the sport.
It’s noteworthy that F1 to this day has a single Black driver, while out of the NBA’s 30 team owners, Micheal Jordan is the sole Black person in that fraternity. It seems these governing organizations place a lot of effort in maintaining “tradition” and “professionalism” without doing much to ensure equitable representation at the leadership and ownership levels.
Shut up and dribble, and, oh, don’t even think about acquiring power.
The FIA’s jewelry ban also includes “the wearing of jewelry in the form of body piercings…”. This is important as it’s almost entirely directed at Hamilton, the one driver on the circuit that wears facial piercings regularly.
Again, the central premise of the FIA’s argument for the jewelry ban is rooted in driver safety. Along those lines, Hamilton and most of the other drivers in F1 have gone on the record to say they’d be willing to forfeit liability from the FIA in order to make their own decisions on what to wear in the car. They’re the ones in the car risking their lives, so it only seems fitting they should have agency over their own bodies, they surmised.
And that’s the central issue, here, the body and the racist proclivity to fetishize and control Black bodies.
Look no further than the National Football League (NFL) for an exemplar of this very thing. The league conducts an annual event called the Combine as a means for its teams to identify and grade talent from the college system. These “rookies” undergo a medley of tests, including a timed 40-yard dash, bench press, and various agility activities.
The most problematic of these tests, for me, is the process of measuring the athletes’ bodies. To do so, the rookies stand in a large room with representatives from the teams present to take their measurements. Team officials use tape and rulers to measure the wingspan and limbs of each player. Although each team differs in what they look for, there is a general consensus around an optimal size for each position.
When juxtaposed to historical descriptions of what happened on slave auction blocks, we start to see how pervasive the racism is throughout the Combine. On the slave auction block, potential buyers would measure and assess the bodies of the enslaved for “desirable” qualities, often qualities revolving around strength and breeding characteristics.
This correlation is exacerbated when we begin looking at the identities of NFL team owners. Currently, there is only one BIPOC owner in the NFL, Shahid Khan, a Pakistani-American who owns the Jacksonville Jaguars. With 71% of league’s players identifying as people of color and a handful of non-white head coaches, the league exists as a haunting legacy of the plantation model.
American football, as a sport, is different from other sports, as the game is physically more aggressive on the body. From physical ailments of joints and tendons to chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) disease caused by concussions and head trauma, the average NFL player engages the game with a heightened risk of long-term damage to their bodies and minds.
Moreover, there’s a reason why football is the most popular and lucrative sport in the United States, at both the college and professional levels. Simply put, the systems that govern American football are incarnations of our society’s bedrock – slavery.
Create a system that uses majority Black bodies in a physical and dangerous way to generate ungodly amounts of profit for a few dozen white men… that’s the plantation in 21st century skin.
The FIA is iterating their version of the plantation mentality. In response, Hamilton is doing what most Black people have done for eons – fight against that mentality. He’s standing firm, saying, no, I won’t take out my nose stud, I won’t tone it down or be quiet or accept your rules. Hamilton would rather not race than abide by what he feels are targeted initiatives to dim his light.
As a Black athlete, Hamilton, Williams, and the like are always competing on multiple fields. One that engages their athletic prowess, and another that challenges their dignity.
For me, sports are a lifelong passion. I love the human story at the core of each competition. The arena, the field, and the track are platforms for personal and social transformation. On them we get to witness phenomena that inspire and move us. This is why I love sports, and this is why I’ll tune in to the next F1 Grand Prix.
I love playing sports because, as Bruce Lee has said, they allow me to “authentically express” myself. I get to connect my mind to my body as a means of trying something beyond my abilities. I endure pain, disappointment, euphoria, and community. For me, sports are not just a microcosm of life, they embody life.
I played in a YMCA basketball league when I was a senior in high school. I loved Allen Iverson, so, naturally, I had cornrow braids. We played at a recreation center in suburbia Denver, me being the only Black person on any team in the league. There was a game that got chippy and the referee penalized me with a foul. I disagreed and said something about it being a wack call. In response, the ref gave me a technical foul saying, “Tech on braids.” Needless to say, I went over the edge and lashed out at the ref for making the racist remark. I got ejected and never returned to play in the league.
Sports embody life, in every way. Even in ways I despise and loathe. That doesn’t mean sports are inherently evil, though. Instead, they offer us an effective lens to see the world through, to see ourselves through.
Lewis Hamilton uses a phrase regularly to describe his need to become a tenacious driver and athlete. He talks about the importance of driving with his “elbows out”, to take up space and make room for his progression on the track.
I sense a deeper meaning to that phrase when Hamilton talks about his come-up as the only Black F1 driver. In the game of life, Black folks can’t rely on a handout to get to where they belong. We have to lean in, plot, and press on the gas. Elbows out, take it.
I wish Hamilton was on the world stage back when I was 17 playing in that YMCA league. I might have been able to press forward to overtake that racist energy and turn it into unmitigated motivation to achieve at the highest level. Although I admire this quality about Black athletes, I’m left wondering something different.
What if instead of pushing out our elbows to make space for ourselves at white people’s tables, we build our own dining room, our own tracks, our own fields?
If sports offer us a platform for personal and social transformation, then let’s use our gifts to create a new game.
Elbows out, to the future.
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