TFJ Playbook, Page 5: Know Thy Enemy

It is said that if you know your enemies and know yourself, you will not be imperiled in a hundred battles; if you do not know your enemies but do know yourself, you will win one and lose one; if you do not know your enemies nor yourself, you will be imperiled in every single battle.” –Sun Tzu, The Art of War

It is surely sage wisdom that to be victorious we must know ourselves and we must know our enemy. Afterall, how can we do battle successfully if we don’t know our own strengths and weaknesses? And how can we be victorious, without pure luck, if we don’t know who we are up against?

Football teams spend a remarkable amount of time seeing to these two important tasks. They scout other teams and they “self-scout” their own team. Coaches and players watch hours and hours of film to track the tendencies, strengths, and weaknesses of their next opponent. And teams come in from practices and games and watch themselves. They track mental errors, bad reads, and missing assignments. And they take note of plays that work and what kind of production players and plays generate across time.

This careful mapping of who a team is and who their opponent is would seem to indicate that in the world of sports, we understand what it means to know ourselves and know our enemies. At least we can assume that winning programs have this “art” of being victorious over time down pat. Winning programs don’t “beat themselves.”

In my book, Touchdowns for Jesus,  I argue that sports hold a mirror up to humanity, reflecting both our distortions and our possibilities. Human beings can have a hard time facing the truth, especially when the truth feels like it will cost us. In this way, we are often our own worst enemy, we often “beat ourselves.”

The failure to really look at ourselves and to really know who we’re up against reflects back some difficult images of who we humans are sometimes. And these images are especially difficult to face around one of the most painful layers of human life in American culture—the layer of race.

The tragic unfolding in Ferguson, MO of racialized disadvantage and ruptured relationships has long been in motion. The shooting of Michael Brown is the most recent flash point. And, we have seen this common script play out in many others moments that surface the wound of race in our country.

Shock, anger, speaking up, speaking out, blaming, tension, stereotypes, and the stories of real people and real lives flood into the collective American consciousness in these moments. And everyone begins to weigh in. Most recently, in the case of Ferguson, many are reacting to the announcement yesterday that Michael Brown was a suspect in a convenience store robbery in which some cigars were stolen.

And without saying it blatantly, many in the white community secretly (and not so secretly with tweets and Facebook posts) suggest that now we know that the victim was culpable and we shouldn’t have rushed to judgment and made the police our enemy. In other words, the core sentiment goes something like: “Michael Brown deserved to be shot because he may have stolen some cigars.”

It’s pretty ugly when you hear it out loud—that attitude of disdain and mistrust that many white people feel toward people of color in this country. It percolates underneath the surface all the time. And when it bubbles up and shows itself, many of us white people wince and squint. We don’t want to look at it. It’s too hard to see it there out in the open.

And many of us white people want to distance ourselves from those sentiments. We want to look in a different direction than accepted white mentalities for the enemy. Is it ignorance? Is it blatantly racist attitudes? Is it fear?

But what if the enemy is us, we well-meaning white people? What if the systems and institutions our culture helped to form, serve to create and to sustain racialized disadvantage for people of color in this country? What if well meaning white people really do get propped up by these systems, even if we didn’t ask to be? What if the privileges of being white really do increase life-expectancy, health outcomes, wealth, achievement, and our very capacity to imagine a future for ourselves and our children?

What if the enemy is us?

The ravages of race and privilege are real aspects of our American story, and they are potent determinants in what life in this country is all about for different people. And these patterns play out in the streets of Ferguson and in the architecture of big-time sports.

Sports hold a mirror up to us human beings, and the truths reflected back have to do with just about all our ugly secrets; the distortions of race and privilege are no exception.

Multiple studies bear these facts out in sports.  These studies include those that surface these tendencies in the subtleties of our gut reactions and our unexamined biases. Some of these studies track how many times black players are penalized in football games compared to whites.  And some surface how our collective assumptions assume the worst about players of color versus their white teammates.  Many of these studies are cited in my chapters in Touchdowns for Jesus  on “White Lines” and “Higher Learning.” If you are skeptical, I hope you will take some time to explore the findings.

Notre Dame has just released the names of four players,  all are young men of color, who “might” have committed academic fraud. They are apparently “not suspended” but are being held out “just in case.” To those of us who were at University of North Carolina during the NCAA football investigation, this sounds very, very familiar.

Notre Dame’s President is already talking about his readiness to vacate wins if it turns out these players were ineligible during games because of academic improprieties. Guilt until innocence is proven is how the NCAA and their member institutions generally operate. And white power brokers don’t like to come clean about how easy it is to jump to conclusions about black players being guilty and being aberrant members of the community.

And white people tend to position themselves alongside institutions and the systems of accountability that have been developed by those least affected by the rules.

One athletic administrator told me during the NCAA investigation of the football program at UNC that, “if you only knew the things they [the players] did you would not be advocating for them.” He was assuming that I would think it was ok to deny someone their civil rights if what they did was horrible enough. I shared with him then that even if they murdered someone (which we can safely say no one did in the UNC football scandal), they still have rights—including rights to due process, a right to be assumed innocent before guilt is proven, and the right to a capable advocate in our justice systems.

There is nothing that could surface about Michael Brown that justifies shooting an unarmed man over a box of cigars. If he did steal them, hopefully the communities he called home could have helped him learn from it and move on with his life. Instead, his life is over—any promise, any possibility extinguished with the gun of an officer charged with serving and protecting the same community that raised Michael.

And there is nothing that the players could have done at Notre Dame that would mean they, too, should not have the right to due process, to assumed innocence until guilt is proven, and to an advocate with the players’ interests as their priority in the investigation.

What would it mean for well-meaning white people, for white people who are the keepers of the rules and systems our (white) culture helped create to do a “self-scout” like winning sports teams, too? What kind of mental errors, missing assignments, and bad reads would we find when it comes to race? If we want to win the battle raging in this country, may we find the courage to know ourselves and know our enemies. And may we not be afraid to take a closer look when the enemy looks a whole lot like us.

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