Sep 23, 2023; Eugene, Oregon, USA; Colorado Buffaloes head coach Deion Sanders watches the reply board during the first half against the Oregon Ducks at Autzen Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports

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CNN  — 

Last Saturday, as millions of college football fans were watching coach Deion Sanders and the University of Colorado suffer their first loss of the season, I received an email from an annoyed reader.

The reader had read my article exploring Sanders’ “audacious Blackness” and how his refusal to temper his brash outspokenness for White audiences had made him and his team heroes in the Black community. Sanders said that some people were threatened by him and his team because they were not accustomed to seeing “a confident Black man talking his talk,” coaching a team of mostly Black players.

You know what I can’t stand? Guys like you who assume that white people don’t want black men to succeed!” the critic said. “Everything isn’t RACE RACE RACE dude so quit puking that sh*t out of your mouth that has NOTHING to do with wins or losses on a football field.”

I’d like to answer that critic, because he evokes a common complaint – that people shouldn’t bring race into sports.

My response: Those who don’t want Sanders or any Black athlete to talk about race are evoking a shameful history in America.

Sanders, who appeared unbowed after his team lost 42-6 to the Oregon Ducks, stands in the tradition of Black athletes who are not content to simply entertain White people.

These athletes increasingly talk about race, social justice and other issues, and that offends some White Americans. One conservative commentator, responding in 2018 to NBA superstar LeBron James’ criticisms of then-President Trump, told James to just “shut up and dribble.”

“In America, Black athletes were supposed to be the workers, not the owners,” journalist Jemele Hill once said. “They were supposed to be the talent and never the power brokers.”

This was the subtext of many of the messages I received in recent days about my Sanders story. People said they didn’t want to hear about Sanders’ opinions – they just wanted him and his players to perform for them, on the field.

They also claimed that to bring up race was in itself racist, even though some of them used racial slurs to make their point.

But Black athletes have a history of ignoring that script – to the delight of many African Americans.

Activist athletes go way back — and aren’t going anywhere

Jack Johnson, the first Black heavyweight champion, scandalized White America in the early 20th century because he not only beat their Great White Hope, but lived with a bravado and disdain for their segregated rules that made him a hated figure. His victories sparked race riots.

NBA legend Bill Russell antagonized some White Americans because he didn’t just dribble. He brought a fierce intelligence and an outspoken civil rights activism to his prowess on the basketball court. Vandals once broke into his home, spray-painted racial slurs and defecated in his bed.

Tommie Smith and John Carlos, gold and bronze medalists in the 200-meter run at the 1968 Olympic Games, engage in a victory stand protest against unfair treatment of blacks in the United States. With heads lowered and black-gloved fists raised in the black power salute, they refuse to recognize the American flag and national anthem. Australian Peter Norman is the silver medalist.

In my home office, there’s a famous photo of Black sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos raising their fists in an iconic Black Power salute at the 1968 Summer Olympics. That defiant gesture on the medals stand in Mexico City made them heroes in the Black community. But their track careers never recovered because they didn’t just shut up and run.

And, of course, there was Muhammad Ali, who gave up his championship belt and sacrificed his career for a time by coming out against the Vietnam War and denouncing racism in America.

Not all White people who think athletes shouldn’t talk about race or politics are racist. But throughout American history, some White people have seen Black athletes as entertainers, not as fellow citizens with a constitutional right to express their opinions.

Sports can inspire but also mirror society’s divides

Race has a way of intruding into sports even when Black athletes don’t raise the issue.

Consider the Ireland video from 2022 that recently went viral showing a row of young White gymnasts being presented medals at a ceremony except for a lone Black girl who was skipped over, prompting four-time Olympic gold medalist Simone Biles to publicly defend her.

Sanders hasn’t been overtly political. But he has said that his race and his team’s racial makeup make some people uncomfortable. He made the same allusion Saturday, after his team’s first loss.

When a reporter asked why some opposing coaches seem to take a visceral dislike to him and his team, Sanders said:

“You know why that is. Just say it. Don’t try to get me and provoke me to say it. Just say it, man.”

There are times when sports can become a force for healing racial divisions. One of my favorite books is “Invictus,” an enthralling account of how Nelson Mandela, the anti-apartheid icon, employed South Africa’s 1995 Rugby World Cup championship run as a vehicle to bring together Black and White citizens.

But the sports world mirrors many of the same divisions we see across America. And it will continue to do so. I’m not alone in predicting that many Black Americans, along with White fans, will continue to embrace Sanders and his team, win or lose.

“No one thought Colorado was going undefeated or that there wouldn’t be brutal patches. Sanders is rebuilding a broken program and it was always going to take time,” Mike Freeman wrote in a recent USA Today commentary. “The bandwagon is still full. Of Black fans.”

And for the critics who say that Sanders should just shut up and coach, I’ll ask them to be mindful of this:

There is a shameful history of some White Americans telling Black athletes the same thing.

John Blake is the author of “More Than I Imagined: What a Black Man Discovered About the White Mother He Never Knew.”