Dez Bryant And The Athletic Lottery

Dallas Cowboys standout wide receiver Dez Bryant recently made headlines with his comments on Instagram about the issue of race. Bryant expressed his support for the following remarks from NBA Hall of Famer Charles Barkley: “We as Black people we’re never going to be successful not because you white people but because of other Black people.” Bryant stated that “I hate to admit it but I understand the quote.”

Bryant wrote in an additional passage that “instead of making videos about the history of racism that get applause or people with influence merely doing things to post for social media we should focus on individual accountability as a whole.” Bryant is not wrong in his call for individual accountability, but he is wrong in his failure to acknowledge the formidable forces that systematically block opportunities from many Black people. His refusal to acknowledge the significant amount of deeply entrenched barriers that people face suggests that he may have fallen into an athletic version of “The Sunken Place.”

The Sunken Place is a reference to the movie “Get Out” where Black people are hypnotized into disconnecting themselves from the plight of the broader Black population. A more detailed explanation of “The Sunken Place” can be found here. Bryant acts as if his journey to NFL stardom is a replicable path for the masses of Black men. He seems unaware that he hit the athletic lottery.

The term “athletic lottery” is not meant to downplay the hard work and dedication that Bryant put forth perfecting his craft. It is a reference to the extremely small percentage of people who get the opportunity to play big league sports. As a result of winning the athletic lottery, Bryant is treated much differently from the majority of Black men in the United States. Black males receive a celebration and adoration in the athletic arena that they find in no other area of society.

Meanwhile, the vast sum of Black males who throw their everything into sports, but whose talent did not warrant college athletic scholarship offers or pro sports contracts are often those with the least access to viable post-secondary and employment options. As hip-hop artist Jay Z once stated; “I’ve seen hoop dreams deflate like a true fiend’s weight.” The parading of those fortunate few that win the athletic lottery masks the struggles of the Black community at large.

Bryant also referenced a friend of his who spent his adulthood dealing drugs and wished he had chosen a different path. There is certainly no excuse for engaging in the drug trade, but the lack of gainful employment options that many Blacks face can also not be discounted. A recent study from the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey found that several cities including Chicago, Washington, D.C., Philadelphia, and Baltimore with jobless rates of over 45% for non-institutionalized Black men between the ages of 20 and 34. In several urban areas there is a jobless rate of 40% to 50% for Black men. This prompts some of Bryant’s non-professional athlete peers to develop behaviors that go against mainstream norms in a quest to reach their economic aspirations.

Bryant himself told Sports Day in 2010 that “the reason my Mom sold drugs and went to jail is so we could live…. She paid a hard price for it. Now she doesn’t even have to do anything like that again. God put me in a position to help my family and others who have helped me.” Surely, Bryant must see all of those people who look like him that God didn’t put in a position to play in the NFL. If not for being a recipient in the athletic lottery, Bryant may very well have found himself unable find employment after being arrested on domestic violence charges in 2012.

Most Black men who have faced such charges have an additional level of difficulty finding employment. There is often no margin for error in a criminal justice system that feeds off of the mistakes or alleged missteps of Black men. Dez Bryant’s intentions with his comments were likely good, but he needs to acknowledge that there is a mass incarceration and economic crisis in Black America that scoring touchdowns can’t solve.

Marcus Bright, Ph.D. is a Scholar and Activist