When I was 20 years old I worked for a newspaper company down in Abilene, Texas going around covering high school football games. I didn’t get paid much but I had it pretty easy, I would go to small towns all around the area (and in Texas “the area” means up to an hour and a half away) and record stats and write a brief story about it after the game.
For a sports nut like myself it was a dream job, I got to watch a bunch of football games and bring home some extra cash in the process. Still the biggest takeaway from the job happened at one game, and it had nothing to do with football or writing.
The game was in a small town called Comanche, population 4,335. The day started out like any other, driving through the barren desert that is West Texas, out to a small town and following all the other cars to the stadium. I gathered up my laptop, notepad and other materials that I would need to cover the game and headed into the stadium.
I got to the gate told them that I was with the paper and they let me in. No credentials or anything, it wasn’t needed, who else could the stranger in town coming to watch their beloved Indians be? So, I trekked my way up to the press box and gathered my bearings.
There were the coach’s rooms (because only in Texas would you need two coaches calling plays down to the sideline from the press box for high schools of 50 kids), the radio and stadium announcer’s box, and a separate press box for me.
The press box was tiny, four seats across and already there was another man sitting in there. I headed in and set up my stuff, so I would be ready before the game started and struck up a conversation with the man beside me.
I’d done something similar at every game I’d went to, everyone had always been more than generous to me proving true their southern hospitality that you’re always hearing about. I’ve been offered free food and drinks, programs, and anything else that I could possibly need up in a press box.
This man was no different at first. The conversation that we struck up was much like the conversations that I had at every other game that I had covered. We started by talking about the game that we were about to watch and trust me when I say that everyone in a small Texas town is an “expert” when it comes to high school football.
The conversation went from that to college ball, and inevitably to the NFL. Now this was before players started kneeling during the anthem, but after the Ray Rice debacle showed how the NFL repeatedly tried to brush domestic abuse under the rug.
So, to me the man’s question of “Do you know what’s wrong with the NFL today?” didn’t seem out of sort. There were PLENTY of things that he could be talking about. So, I answered with what I thought was an intelligent response about how players coming from nothing are suddenly bestowed with millions of dollars and didn’t know how to handle it.
What I heard next from this stranger legitimately stunned me. He cleared his throat and said “No it’s more than that. The problem is all the black people”.
Now I’m not from Texas, my formative years were spent in a rural town in Pennsylvania. And we had racism, but not like this, at least not that I had experienced as a white male. People from my town know, and for the most part accept, that racism isn’t cool. So racist behavior, for the most part, is confined to the confines of one’s friends and family. In public you wouldn’t dare come out with it. So never in my life had I heard a full-blown racist rant before.
But while I sat there still stunned from the man’s second sentence that’s what I started to hear. He continued “You see the problem is somewhere along the line people got it in their head that black people are better athletes then whites, and that’s just not true. Just look at Peyton Manning and Tom Brady and all their receivers, they’re all white because whites are better athletes”.
Now I was only 20 at the time and I wish I could say that I had this super witty response or put him in his place. But still I knew that I didn’t want to keep hearing this man talk about how the white race is superior to all others.
So I did what I thought would help and started listing prominent African American receivers that both quarterbacks had played with, before finishing up by talking about how in some areas African Americans are generally athletically superior to Caucasian athletes (it helped that I had just finished reading The Sports Gene which is a book that high lights these physiological reasons for these differences).
But before I could finish my point he cut me off “no, no no. You see it’s just all in your head. White athletes are far superior. And the problem is that enough people in the NFL think like you, so they keep drafting blacks. They’re like animals and they can’t control themselves”.
Now I’m sitting there wondering how my perfectly normal conversation about football had morphed into this conversation based in nothing but bigotry. Bewildered how quickly it had gone from normal to insane. I guess the man realized that he had made me uncomfortable because he up and left or maybe he just didn’t want to deal with me anymore.
But the conversation with this man got me thinking in a way that I never had before. It made me think of my African American coworkers, especially the ones that worked at the newspaper with me. All that hospitality that I had experienced in every small Texas town, would I have still gotten those warm smiles and offer of food if I was black? Did they?
This was before I had ever heard of the term “white privilege”, but in that moment I understood it. I never wondered if the people I shared a room with were racist or not. I never had to worry about how they were going to treat me based off the color of my skin.
And if you’re a white male like myself and you haven’t had an eye-opening moment like this I don’t think you can ever fully understand how privileged you are. It’s not until you take a step back and look at what other people must go through can you understand how lucky you are.