Helping minority youths dream beyond sports

Former President Obama and ex-NFL player Martellus Bennett are among those who want to lift stereotypes and limits off young black boys and men.

AP/Evan Agostini/Invision/File
Former NFL player Martellus Bennett, now a businessman and entrepreneur, participates in the Yahoo Finance All Markets Summit: A World of Change last September in New York.

On Tuesday Manny Machado, a baseball player from the Dominican Republic, signed a $300 million contract to play for the San Diego Padres. It was the biggest free-agent deal in the history of Major League Baseball. 

In the National Basketball Association, players – most of whom are African-American – brag when they succeed in earning a “max contract,” the highest salary allowed.

Success in professional sports continues to be a way – however low the odds – for young men from minority groups to gain fame and fortune. But as Martellus Bennett, a 2017 Super Bowl winner as a tight end for the New England Patriots, pointed out in a recent essay, overemphasis on this narrow definition of success sends a limiting message to the next generation. 

Only eight of 10,000 high school football players will ever get drafted by a National Football League team, he notes. At 65 universities in the top college conferences, black men represent only 2.4 percent of undergraduate students but make up more than half the players on their football and basketball teams.

Mr. Bennett, an African-American, urges those with influence on young black males to do more to broaden their vision of success.

“No one ever made us feel that we could achieve anything and everything we dreamed of,” he wrote in a Washington Post essay, recalling his own upbringing. “The NFL is nearly 70 percent black, so we knew we belonged there. But the tech industry is less than 8 percent black, so we didn’t really feel like that was for us. Only 6 percent of doctors are black. Only 2 percent of teachers are black men. There are only three black CEOs in the Fortune 500.”

When people look at African-American youths they should “see them as the future writers, composers, chefs, tech moguls, presidents, film directors, architects, illustrators or fashion designers that they are,” he says. “The world is more beautiful when we let black boys dream big.”

Undeniable progress for minorities has been made. But acknowledging and applauding that isn’t at odds with also seeing an urgent need for more progress. 

This year’s Oscars ceremony Sunday night will include two films nominated for best picture helmed by African-American men (“Black Panther,” directed by Ryan Coogler, and “BlacKkKlansman,” directed by Spike Lee). They feature mostly African-American casts. 

In 2018 Hollywood films put more women and people of color in prominent roles than ever before, according to statistics gathered by the University of Southern California’s Annenberg Inclusion Initiative. Yet women and minorities are still underrepresented compared with their numbers in society.

Some viewed the 2008 election of President Barack Obama as reason to end the discussion about limits on what black men could achieve. But Mr. Obama himself has not agreed. In his post-presidential years he continues to urge African-American boys and teens to raise their sights beyond narrow dreams of wealth or fame that may be all they know.

Parents, teachers, religious leaders, all of society, have the responsibility to offer a different vision of success and fulfillment. Even if there are no young black men currently in people's lives they can help organizations such as Obama's My Brother’s Keeper, which, as its website says, provides the support these youths need "to think more broadly about their future." 

“We tend to rise to the expectations that are set for us,” Obama said. “Often times, historically, racism ... sends a message that you are less than and weak, so we feel like we’ve got to compensate by exaggerating certain stereotypical ways that men are supposed to act,” Obama said. “[W]e have to constantly lift up examples of the successful men who don’t take that approach.”

Since leaving professional football Bennett has claimed a much broader identity, listing his occupations as children’s book author, film director, painter, illustrator, entrepreneur, app developer, and more. He’s walking the walk, proving that young African-Americans can dream and achieve far beyond sports.

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