The Unlevel Playing Field

This article is more than 17 years old.

It was intriguing to learn from David Wiggins, the co-editor of "The Unlevel Playing Field (A Documentary History of the African American Experience in Sport)" that he could not include in the book some of the material he wanted to use. Wiggins, a Bill Russell fan, had intended to include a chapter from Russell's autobiography, but he couldn't get Russell's permission. I wonder why? Who wouldn't want his thoughts out there again long after they'd gone out of print? Especially given that both of Russell's autobiographies are terrific.

Still, this book is full of thought-provoking material. The collection of exceprts and essays belies the book's subtitle, which suggests that there is such a thing as "the" African American Experience in Sport. There are only the experiences of many African Americans, which differ greatly from each other because the athletes themselves are all unique.

There are themes, of course. African American athletes competing in different sports in different eras have had to battle (or ignore) racism that has ranged from subtle to violent in its manifestations. They have had to deal with stupid rules and the ignorant people in charge of the games.

The strength of this book is in the diversity of opinion evident in contributors. You can find the case for young men devoting themselves exclusively to basketball to escape poverty in an essay
by Harry Edwards, who worries that in a culture determined to kill or jail so many young, black men, "sports may be our last hook and handle." You can also find the compelling contention that thousands and thousands of young black men have wasted and are wasting their time on playground games in a world where the chance of succeeding would be much, much greater if they worked to become lawyers, doctors, teachers, engineers...almost anything but pro athletes.

Nobody but a graduate student is likely to read "The Unlevel Playing Field" cover to cover, but the collection is ambitious and full of remarkable moments and some chilling suggestions that over time, some things don't change. Consider the following poem:

Juggling basketballs
And women
You won't work
You won't study
You won't marry.

But you have four "letters"
And a fraternity pin.

College education
Of a hundred like you every year
Will bring the race along rapidly.

Allison Davis wrote that in 1928.

This program aired on July 12, 2003. The audio for this program is not available.