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  • Writer's pictureDr. Tré Watkins

There’s No Crying in Basketball

Sports matter to people.

Sports are relatable.

Sports are one of the central tenets of American society.  From Teddy Roosevelt saving football at the turn of the 20th century by promoting it as a training ground for the military to Barack Obama filling out his March Madness bracket on primetime television, sports continue to be one of the most-watched, participated and celebrated forms of entertainment our country has to offer. 

Going beyond spectatorship, sports are a part of our collective and individual identities, primarily because organized team sports are a mechanism through which we teach young people valued skills such as teamwork, hard work, discipline, and the great American myth: meritocracy.  Although most have never played in packed arenas or hit a game-winning shot, most Americans have participated in sporting activities, and their personal experience allows for a connection to teams and players that increases their empathy for the athletes.  

In his most recent article for The Undefeated, senior writer Jessie Washington ponders why Black athletes are allowed to cry during the NCAA tournament. Washington, using evidence from this past weekend as the University of Central Florida was a missed bucket away from upsetting the favorite Duke Blue Devils in the NCAA tournament, posits that racial dynamics may play a role in the acceptance of Black athletes crying after tough losses in college basketball. 

“Perhaps America thinks basketball is the most meaningful thing these young black men will ever do. So we send the message: Feel free to show your pain — on the court.”

Although the old trope that “there are more Black men in prisons than are in college” was disproven years ago, there is no denying that systemic racism is the preeminent cause of opportunity disparities for young Black men. From being underrepresented at elite universities to being overrepresented in our carceral system, young Black men face an uphill climb toward the American Dream. They know they must be twice as good to earn half as much. For many of these young men, sports have been one of the only avenues through which they can see positive representation.  A place where Black men can be considered the GOAT (Greatest of All Time) of their profession. Not to mention that the allure of lucrative professional contracts also serves as a means of upward mobility for many disadvantaged youths. The idea that a certain level of sympathy is reserved for Black college athletes because this may have been their “only way out” isn’t a difficult conclusion to jump to. The only problem is, as Washington points out, there are few other examples in which this type of empathy is extended toward Black men. 

“Barack Obama cried publicly several times during his presidency, and he was sometimes mocked for it or accused of faking.  Michael Jordan let down his impenetrable guard for a moment while being inducted into basketball’s Hall of Fame, and he was punished with the GOAT internet meme.”

However, given the ongoing callousness towards providing fair compensation to college athletes for the billion-dollar industry they have created, believing that these same people have this level of social understanding is a bit of a stretch. 

The truth is, it is socially acceptable for Black athletes to cry during March Madness because all sorts of socially unacceptable behaviors are allowed and even encouraged in sports. Look no further than the support that  Michigan State Head Coach Tom Izzo received after his recent on-court tantrum aimed at freshman Aaron Henry.  Positions ranged from the defensive, “he was just showing his passion,” to the celebratory, “that’s what father figures are supposed to do.”  The confounding thing about this type of caping, as ESPN personality Bomani Jones points out, is that “most people are saying why it’s okay to berate athletes when none of them would tolerate it anywhere in their own lives.” 

Regardless of the type of behavior being excused on the court, empathy has more to do with fandom and the perceived relatability to the particular incident rather than selfless concern for the plight of underpaid Black athletes.  People care because they’ve played sports and lost because their favorite teams have let them down in big moments and because a certain level of appreciation and rawness is reserved for our sporting champions. 

After this weekend, only eight teams will remain in a field that began with 68, which means that emotions will once again be on display for a national audience. But let us consider that although only one team will experience its “one shining moment” as tournament champions, all of these young men have beaten the odds and deserve the right to express themselves how they wish—even if that means…*gasps* crying. 

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