This week I was disturbed by a photo of a thirteen year-old child that came across my timeline. The photo was posted on twitter by a high school football team and showed a twelve year-old Black boy standing next to a white female teacher with a caption stating the child’s height and weight and declaring the football program was
“looking forward to him in the next FOUR years!” and instructed the public to “get the popcorn ready!”
The white teacher served as an effective prop to emphasize the child’s larger than average size. The caption made it clear - the child’s size made him a predetermined star for the football team, a promise, and a potential legend... also known as a young, Black commodity. While his age would certainly make him a child, I’ll refer to him as a young Black man, because that is likely how the world will treat him from now on. I know, because it happened to me.
As a mixed Black and Haida man from a small village in Alaska, I was bigger than my peers most of my life and my large stature was constantly emphasized. When I began to show an interest in sports, my size and athletic nature were immediately tied to a “grand potential as an athlete”. While still a child, at 14 years old, I left home to pursue NBA dreams and was featured in newspapers and magazines. Over the course of the next several years, I was preyed on by AAU coaches, college coaches, boosters, strangers, and many adult women. I faced extreme pressure to “make it” for my family, friends, and community and was made to feel like my only value and path forward was through professional athletics. Without a mentor or support network, I felt isolated and depressed amidst the extreme pressure placed on me.
For many young Black and Brown men who have larger statures, this is the sad and unfortunate reality.
At young ages we are treated as commodities - potentially lucrative products that perform and entertain. While we may be lauded for our athleticism we are likely to be denied our humanity. The commodification and obsession with the athleticism of Black male bodies began during slavery and continues today, creating a pipeline of unprepared Black youth chasing the elusive path of professional sports. Only 1.6% of NCAA college football players will be drafted (Football. ( 2015). http://www.ncaa.org/about/resources/research/football). The college sports schedule leaves little space for academics or personal growth, creating limited opportunities outside of sports for these men. And we all know playing college ball, won’t spare these men from the experience of racism.
While our larger sizes may be idolized on the fields and courts, it’s this same size tied to darker skin tones that is demonized in our day to day lives. When we see Black children being adultified through the sports commodification complex, we should be alarmed because this adultification has mortal consequences. Black children are six times more likely to be shot to death by the police (https://eji.org/news/black-children-are-six-times-more-likely-to-be-shot-to-death-by-police/). When Black children are harmed by the police, the media regularly refers to them as adults to justify police wrongdoing. We saw this with Ma’Kia Bryant, the 16 year old Black girl killed by the police who was constantly called a ‘young woman’ by the media (https://www.nytimes.com/2021/04/24/us/makhia-bryant.html). We need to be careful with the words we choose when referring to young Black athletes so we aren’t fueling these dangerous racist stereotypes. Because, trust me, the police will still wrongfully pull you over as Black athlete.
On the field, we may be treated like heroes, but we won’t necessarily be treated like humans and we see this in the problematic ‘celebration of our features’.
The hyper sexualization of Black bodies is well known for Black women yet often overlooked when it comes to men. For young Black men, like the child athletes we see being idolized, this can lead to sexual abuse and trauma. When I look back at the media surrounding my early athletic years, the hyper sexualization cannot be ignored. One article describes me, “with his chiseled jaw, heroic physique and bedroom eyes.” (https://indiancountrytoday.com/archive/nba-prospect-fathermodel-15-pics-of-haida-hunk-damen-bell-holter). At the time, without much guidance, I fell into the trope. I became the womanizing and overly mature athlete. I was 13 years old when I had sex for the first time, with an 18 year old woman. I regularly had sex with women in their 20s and 30s while still in high school. During my basketball career, I continued the cycle of womanization. While I didn’t see this as damaging at the time, it has taken me years to unpack the internalized racism and toxic masculinity that fueled this behavior and contributed to my struggles with emotional intimacy and depression.
When I speak about these experiences now and the mental health burden of them, I’m often dismissed. Culturally, Black men are expected to be strong and stoic; any sign of mental illness is portrayed as a weakness. Black men seek mental health care at almost half the rate of white men (https://www.nimhd.nih.gov/docs/byomm_factsheet05.pdf). This culture of silence has deadly consequences. Suicide was the 3rd leading cause of death for Black males aged 15 to 24 as recently as 2014. We need to speak up and support one another. When we see young Black children being commodified as adult athletes, we need to denounce this problematic practice rooted in racism and misogyny. These boys – yes boys, not young men – need the chance to be children and to grow up in a healthy way, without prematurely facing the pressures of adulthood. We need to create networks for support for young Black and Brown athletes to help them process the racism, sexualization, and commodification, that unfortunately accompany their journeys.