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MLK panel series discusses race, sports

Aubrey Butts | Wednesday, January 25, 2012

In developing this year’s third annual Martin Luther King, Jr. Series for the Study of Race, Assistant Director for Multicultural Student Programs and Services (MSPS) Tobias Blake and First Year of Studies Professor Oliver Jenkins decided to explore the complex relationship between race and athletics in the United States.

“When approaching the series this year, we first and foremost decided our objectives,” Blake said. “We wanted to bring awareness to the subject, further educate and develop a deeper understanding of the issues and, most importantly, inspire people to action. Race and sport is a complex intersect, but we didn’t want to shy away from this complexity.”

Titled “Playing with Fire: Race and Sport in American Culture,” the series is sponsored by MSPS and began Wednesday with a panel discussion. The speakers featured Raghib “Rocket” Ismail, a former Notre Dame football All-American, Briann January, a current WNBA player for the Indiana Fever, and Dwight “Doc” Gooden, a former major league pitcher and Cy Young award winner.

Blake said he hopes the panel discussion will engage Notre Dame students, faculty and the surrounding community.

“We are trying to involve more people in the conversation by dealing with a subject with far-reaching potential,” Blake said. “Race and sport in American culture brings a lot of people together to discuss the inequalities still perpetuated in our nation and here at Notre Dame.”

Prior to the panel, Iris Outlaw, director of MSPS, discussed the significance of race and sports in society in her opening address.

“Race and sports inform and influence American society,” she said. “Sports serve as an appropriate model of and a microcosm of American society in a profound way.”

Keith Embray, associate director of Student Welfare and Development, prompted the panel participants to discuss the first time they became aware of their race and the role it played and continues to play in their personal athletic endeavors.

In response to this question, January spoke about her experience as one of a few African-American athletes in her Washington hometown.

“Growing up in Spokane, Washington, a predominantly white city, I have always been immersed in a different racial culture,” January said. “I have always been the token of the team. As I made my way through the basketball circuit, I realized even my teammates had stereotyped different teams based on their race.”

Rather than focusing on the stereotypes surrounding African-American athletes, Gooden explained how baseball helped him achieve his version of the American dream.

“Growing up as a kid, the American dream was having a job, being respectful and gaining respect from others,” Gooden said. “Once I made it in sports, I felt fulfilled in a way. I never had the goal of winning a bunch of rewards. I just wanted to play the game and have personal success.”

January, Gooden and Ismail agreed about the dangers of the media and its representations of professional athletic culture, especially its tendency to present images of prosperous African-American athletes to children without also showing other professional possibilities.

“Whatever shapes your imagination controls your destiny,” Ismail said. “In the black community, the love of money has taken the hearts and captured the imagination of the culture. Whatever is the vehicle allowing you to get the god of this world [money] is what you focus on. Athletics is a vehicle to this god.”

Gooden expressed a similar attitude towards the representation of professional athletes in the media.

“I think young athletes watch TV and see the salaries of professional athletes,” he said. “They embrace this quick way to success.”

The series will continue with discussions featuring prominent athletes, coaches and university athletic directors every Wednesday through Feb. 15.