A movement not just a moment: Thoughts for my son on racism and sport

Donnovan Bennett and his son at home in Toronto. (Sportsnet)

Dear son,

What a time for you to be alive.

You were born minutes before Vladdy Jr.’s debut. Clearly you were ready to witness history.

In the first year of your life you’ve already seen the Raptors win an NBA championship, a global pandemic and a race revolution.

That’s right: revolution. I pray for your sake that this is a movement and not just a moment. Because people who don’t look like you and I are starting to care.

A man by the name of George Floyd had his life stolen from him, screaming for help for longer than it will take for you to read this letter.

This time social media wasn’t a distraction. Instead, it brought action. And on a scale bigger than I realistically hoped to see while you are still so young.

Which made me contemplate your future. If your name trends, I want it to be for the way you lived your life, not the way you lost it. And right now, that hope actually feels attainable.

Our society has had so many moments before where it felt like real progress was possible, and sports has often been the catalyst for change. Which has always made perfect sense to me. You see, everything good in my life has come from sports. And it’s taught me lessons about being a Black man.

Outside of our family, my role models on what Black fatherhood should look like have come from sports. Stephen Curry and Kyle Lowry being unabashedly present in their children’s lives continues to inspire me. It is one of many examples of what sports have taught me about how society interacts with Black people.

Some of the other lessons have been harder to accept.

Donovan Bailey and his three West Indian teammates winning gold — that was first the time I felt Canadian pride, the first time I saw Black excellence. But even when Bailey brought up race, after all he’d given this country, he was criticized.

The first Black man I saw celebrated on TV was another sprinter, Ben Johnson. When he won gold in 1988, he was Canadian. But when it was revealed he didn’t exactly follow the rules, he was suddenly described as a Jamaican immigrant.

From that moment I knew: the colour of your skin colours how people treat you. And Black men can’t afford to make a mistake.

My dad, your grandfather, gave me the talk back then, and he’s given it to me many times since: If you’re not moving forward, you’re moving backwards. You have to work twice as hard to get half as far. Hands at 10 and 2, “yes, sir,” “no, sir” when you encounter the police.

That’s not fair. But our life’s not fair.

I know this sounds crazy, but you and I will face different realities than our white friends and family.

The language I speak — sports — offers plenty of examples of that, too.

Like Jackie Robinson, you’ll often have to wait years after your white counterparts to get the same opportunity.

Like Willie O’Ree, you might have to hide information about yourself to keep that opportunity.

Like Muhammad Ali, you might lose what you’ve worked for if you stick to your moral convictions.

Like Colin Kaepernick, you might be blackballed if you peacefully make your point.

Like LeBron James, you might be told to shut up and do your job.

And like Akim Aliu, you might have to endure horrendous treatment just to do what you love.

The sport this country loves the most, may not always love you back. The same goes for the country itself. You’ll turn on the TV some days and see people stereotyping you without even knowing you. Don’t listen to them. Men and women who look like you built this country, died for this country. This is your country, too.

You will be stereotyped in person, as well. Don’t you lose an ounce of self-esteem. Racism was woven into the fabric of this country’s institutions well before you were born.

You see, being Black is both a tremendous source of pride and a tremendous source of pressure. We haven’t reached the mountain top where Martin Luther King’s dream will be realized. Instead, many of our people are still living a nightmare. Like MLK, many of our brightest and best are dying too young.

But you can rise above all that. Because as Nelson Mandela said, “Sport has the power to change the world.”

Many men sacrificed medals and money so race wouldn’t limit your future the way it did their past.

Thanks to them, you can decide to play and be “more than an athlete.” Or you can be the president of a championship team and “dream big.”

Regardless of the path you choose to follow in life, know that you are a champion.

Know that you are Black.

You are the dream of a slave.

You are the product of the sacrifice of immigrants who came to this country with the hope that one day you would have the freedom and opportunity to be whatever you want.

Which means you stand on the shoulders of giants.

Which means you’re a king.

You are my legacy.

Sports has changed my life. I’m hoping its power gives you a better one.

And that this is a movement and not just a moment.


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