Can basketball be a force for good? Or is that a mirage? | Mike Jensen
“We decided to use basketball and the college image as a shield,’’ Sam Sessoms said. Some dribbled basketballs as they marched.
As Dhamir Cosby-Roundtree, a basketball player at Villanova heading into his senior year, scrolled through his Instagram feed this past week, he saw a post from Sam Sessoms, an invitation to be part of something.
Cosby-Roundtree is a year ahead of Sessoms, who has transferred from Binghamton to Penn State. Cosby-Roundtree, a Neumann Goretti High graduate, is from Southwest Philadelphia. Sessoms, a Shipley School graduate, is from West Philadelphia.
Philly hoops, however, is its own little neighborhood. Cosby-Roundtree said he messaged Sessoms: “Let me know what you all are doing.”
The idea became a walk from 52nd and Haverford to 52nd and Baltimore, a march along one of the main commercial corridors, one that had experienced protests the day before, and also destruction.
Cosby-Roundtree brought up: “Yo, we should have something to say.”
Sessoms knew that. About 50 friends joined in, as he led a chant, “Say his name, George Floyd.” There were more words. How Black Lives Matter is a movement for future generations.
Is it a mirage to think a ball, a basketball, can be a force for good and for change in this current damaged landscape? Sessoms sees that ball in his hands as both a platform and a shield.
“Initially, we wanted to gather as many athletes as possible,’’ Sessoms said the next day. “But soon we figured it was much greater than just us. Everyone is being affected, so we should include everyone.”
Some dribbled basketballs as they marched. That symbol was intentional.
“We decided to use basketball and the college image as a shield,’’ said Sessoms, who also joined Sunday’s larger protest. “We figured if cops knew it was young college athletes, then they would react differently. We believed they would view us differently and it not being violent, and that is exactly what happened. When we showed up, the cops said they wanted to help us and they did not want any trouble.”
“This isn’t a situation just against the police, against just white people, against just any people,’’ Cosby-Roundtree said. “We live in a society of systemic racism, where everybody looks at each other differently based on how our society is brought up.”
Is it a mirage to think basketball can impact that?
“I believe that all sports have that power, to be able to affect how people view everybody,’’ said Cosby-Roundtree, talking over the phone on Wednesday. “Kids want to be like LeBron, or Tom Brady. Kids want to be the greatest of these players, try to be like them.”
Across the landscape, you see activism and statements. Greg Rosnick, an assistant women’s basketball coach at Columbia, wants to make sure you understand the difference between the two. On Twitter, Rosnick warned against a phenomenon he was seeing on social media. “A quick message to all the coaches out there tweeting on the social issue du jour: Please chill with the slacktivism.”
Rosnick defined the term: The practice of supporting a political or social cause by means such as social media or online petitions, characterized as involving very little effort or commitment.
“It’s transparent at best,’’ Rosnick tweeted. “And meaningless at worst.”
He then provided a list of programs that could use support, including one that Rosnick and a Haverford College basketball teammate, Mike Fratangelo, started when they played together back in 2007. DiverseCity is still going, still run by Fratangelo. The goal was to bring city and suburban kids together, West Philly and western suburbs, on a court and in a classroom. It has since expanded to other cities.
“It can be a great equalizer, but I don’t think it just happens,’’ Fratangelo said of basketball, of sports. “I don’t think sports alone is the answer.”
But just the act of bringing people together is crucial, he said over the phone. He’s had suburban graduates of the program tell him they had not talked to any African Americans before they took part in a DiverseCity summer program. And players from West Philly who said they thought the suburbs were miles and miles away, another world.
“We’ve seen the change in people’s understanding,’’ Fratangelo said. “I’d love to get more people involved.”
He talked about the need for “having the often-uncomfortable discussions about social injustice.” He said all this in response to that question about whether basketball can be a force for good, or a mirage.
That, by the way, has been happening within some teams. A coach at another school, John Linehan at Georgia, applauded Penn basketball for having such discussions.
“It is very difficult, but achievable,’’ Kenny Holdsman said in regard to that same question about basketball being a force for good. Holdsman runs Philadelphia Youth Basketball, which describes itself as a “dynamic sports-based youth development organization with a mission to create opportunities for young people to reach their potential as students, athletes, and positive leaders.”
It’s all difficult, Holdsman said, “because ultimately what we’re talking about is power, and the distribution of power, and the sharing of power. The establishment has a very hard time ceding power.”
So if a community is looking to have the ability to self-determine, Holdsman said, “it’s really hard to self-determine when you’re without powers and resources.”
So symbols are important, Holdsman argues, crucial even. If a school such as St. Joseph’s Prep hires an African American basketball coach for the first time, that’s a big deal. Also, Holdsman said he’s seen even middle-school students in his program jump into discussions on weighty subjects.
“I didn’t think a sixth-grade kid would want to have a point of view on criminal justice reform,’’ Holdsman said. “That’s an adult conversation. We see that happening.”
And seeing athletes such as Tobias Harris get deeply involved in the issues of the day, that’s significant, Holdsman believes. Saturday, Harris was joined by Sixers teammate Matisse Thybulle and Philly native Kyle Lowry of the Toronto Raptors in walking in the Center City protest.
“I think the basketball community is really well-positioned to lift up the individual and collective voices, to speak on the issues as it relates to structural racism and equality oppression,'' Holdsman said.
It’s hard to dispute that point when you see Sam Sessoms and friends who play ball at Rider and Quinnipiac and other schools out marching, dribbling basketballs with no hoop in sight.
“Even us, in a small-time way, college players and high school players, we have influence,’’ Cosby-Roundtree said. “We all understood we have a following. Seeing what’s going on, us being positive, it’s not just being negative and being violent. We feel as though we can use our platform and say we want change, and it doesn’t have to be violent.”