Jaylen Brown on uncomfortable conversations and sports

Some people live, breathe, eat and sleep basketball, but Jaylen Brown isn't one of them.

For some people, that's a problem - one unnamed GM reportedly wondered if he was "too smart for the league" - because of his off-court interests and politics. A few of you reading may be of this variety, and I am not here to tell you you are wrong, but if so, you should probably skip the rest of this article. Brown's off-court persona is complex, and fully engaged with all aspects of his young NBA career, as well as the forces shaping both his career and his private life as person of color who grew up in the south. 

It's not lost on Jaylen that many of his fans do not see things the way he does, and he bears them no ill will for it. In fact, he thinks it's pretty common, so common most of us are blind to the daily lives of those who live lives unfamiliar to what we are accustomed to - said Brown (per the Guardian's Donald McRae):

"We’ve got two young fish swimming one way and an older fish swimming the other way ... They cross paths and the older fish says: ‘What’s up guys, how’s the water?’ The two younger fish turn around and look back at the wiser fish and ask: ‘What’s water?’ They’ve never recognised that this is what they actually live in. So it takes somebody special like Martin Luther King to see past what you’ve been embedded in your whole life."

For Brown, the idea of a post-racial America is just that - an idea. Many of us believed a decade ago that having an African-American president signaled the dawn of a new era, but recent events have shown that to be anything but the case. Said Jaylen of his personal experiences with racism growing up in Georgia:

"Racism definitely still exists in the South ... I’ve experienced it through basketball. I’ve had people call me the n-word. I’ve had people come to basketball games dressed in monkey suits with a jersey on. I’ve had people paint their face black at my games. I’ve had people throw bananas in the stands."

And it's not limited to the southern U.S., either, according to Brown:

"Racism definitely exists across America today. Of course it’s changed a lot – and my opportunities are far greater than they would have been 50 years ago. So some people think racism has dissipated or no longer exists. But it’s hidden in more strategic places. You have less people coming to your face and telling you certain things."

Overt racism may indeed be less commonplace, but for Brown, there's other issues to contend with, such as how many ideas and practices reproduce inequality in ways that are, like those young fish Brown mentions in the David Foster Wallace quote at the top of this article, as invisible as water to most of us - Brown included - for much of his life:

"[W]hen I got older and went to the University of California [Berkeley] I learnt about a more subtle racism and how it filters across our education system through tracking, hidden curriculums, social stratification and things I had no idea of before. I was really emotional – because one of the most subtle but aggressive ways racism exists is through our education system."

I know, some of you are not here for this. But trust me, Jaylen knows - and he's going to keep talking about it, whether it is going to make some of you uncomfortable or not. Hear me out here: nobody expects you to listen if it's not what you watch and read about sports for. But the "making you uncomfortable" part? That's the idea, actually:

"We’re having some of the same problems we had 50 years ago. Some things have changed a lot but other factors are deeply embedded in our society. It takes protests like Kaepernick’s to make people uncomfortable and aware of these hidden injustices ... It takes a special person like Kaepernick to force these changes – because often reporters and fans say: ‘If you’re an athlete I don’t want you to say anything. You should be happy you’re making x amount of money playing sport. You should be saluting America instead of critiquing it.’ That’s our society."

For those who think he might be "too smart", and that he (and others like him) should "stick to sports", Jaylen disagrees:

"Some people think that, in basketball, we have a bunch of masculine adults who don’t know how to control themselves. They’re feeble-minded and can’t engage or articulate ideas. That’s a narrative they keep trying to paint. We’re trying to change it because that statement definitely has a racist undertone."

You may not agree with Jaylen's message or his use of his NBA celebrity to spread it - and that's your right, if so. But this guy is no fake intellectual posing as a deep thinker to further his own career, he's a guy putting himself in the same lane as Colin Kaepernick with awareness of what that did to his career in the NFL. However we like our sports (or politics), we should at least respect someone brave enough to put their money where their mouth is when it comes to complex social issues like those Brown seeks to address.

Check out the full article by McRae, if you have not - it's an excellent read, and well worth your time. 

For more stories by Justin, click here.

Image: Justin Lane/EPA
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