How Sports Can Teach

February 28, 2019

Written by Jon Miller

This isn’t a column I was asked to write, or one I was forced to write. Nobody on the HN Staff or team had any idea I was going to write it….I didn’t didn’t even know until a few hours ago that I was going to write it.

However, after a lot of reflection over the past 48 hours, it was a column I felt compelled to write.

I learned a new word this week. ‘Unconscious Bias’. I learned of the existence of that term from Gary Dolphin’s apology statement relative to his comparing the play of a Maryland basketball player to the dominance of the fictional character King Kong.  If you are unaware of this story, click here for background.

I learned the definition of the term from this article from Marc Morehouse of The Gazette.

Being real here, I didn’t much care for what I read for the first half of the article. I am not a fan of phycological labels. I am not here to debate you on their merits, rather, I am personally not a fan of such things…although I am fascinated by Hippocrates’ Four Temperament Theory, and ‘Why You Act the Way you Do‘ is one of the most impactful books I have ever read, at a time in my life when I really need to check myself. I am complicated.

When I got to this line from Morehouse’s piece from Tuesday, my eyes rolled: “Dave Drustrup, 32, is studying counseling psychology at the UI. His Twitter account is “Black Lives Matter.” His emphasis is “whiteness” and racism. He is a white male from Des Moines.

I’m thinking, ‘Here we go…another woke white guy here to pass along a lecture on White Privilege and to tell me why I am somehow a bad person because I was born a white male and for no other reason than that.

As I said before, I don’t like psychological labels, and I dislike militarized political labels, whether they lean left or right, even less.

But I kept reading the article, and Drustup’s comments…and I thought more about them…and something that has long been buried in my memory was unsurfaced…and it was ugly.

I grew up in Lilly White West Branch, Iowa. Frankly, I can’t imagine a better town, time or place to grow up in than where and when I grew up. I loved everything about it. My memories from my childhood are so fond that I tell my nine-year old ‘West Branch Stories’ before bed most nights of the week.  What I am about to share should in no way splatter onto West Branch’s figurative shoes.

This morning, I remembered a few other things…I remembered the few kids who I went to school with who didn’t look like me. I remember there being a total of three black children in my school. There may have been more, maybe one or two I could have somehow forgotten but it’s a small town.

I knew one of them well enough to remember specific things. Let’s refer to this person as ‘Joe’ for the sake of this story. His name is not Joe, but wherever he is, I don’t want to bring him into something he isn’t asking for.

For the first time in three and a half decades, I remembered one specific instance where Joe was playing on our street in back of a friend’s house, where we usually congregated.

I recall one of the bigger, older kids picking on Joe…and then making fun of Joe’s hair, which was different than our hair.

The older kid said something to the effect of ‘What type of shampoo do you use to wash your hair? Gorilla Shampoo?’  And then a song/jingle was created on the spot…

I can’t begin to tell you how hard this is for me to type that, to remember that. It’s much less difficult for me than it was for Joe to hear that, or for Joe to be one of a hand full of black people in a rural white town…but it brings me pain to remember this.

It brings me pain to remember Joe beginning to cry…cry very hard, cry so hard that snot was running out of his nose…and through his sobs, and his tears, he hollers out ‘you guys are RACISTS!’

Joe ran off…and Joe was right.

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We were behaving like racists. I didn’t say those things. My brother didn’t say those things. My closest core group of friends who were there were not saying those things, but the older kid did say those things…and we didn’t do a damn thing about it. We just stood there, speechless. I think another person joined in, but I can’t be sure. This morning was the first time I had remembered this incident since it had taken place circa the early to mid 1980’s.

I called my brother Jason this morning to talk about this…I told him that this memory had just come back to me and I wanted to make sure I had it right, and he was there when it took place. His recollection of events corroborated my own…it was a heavy conversation. There were several silences as a 47 year-old Jon and a 45 year-old Jason remembered back on something for the first time in a long time, and looked at this scene through the eye of an adult’s mind.

Tears began to form in my eyes as I thought of the pain that Joe felt…the isolation…the hatred…so many things that I couldn’t put a finger on because I have not been in Joe’s shoes…being teased, chided or worse just because the color of my skin was different.

I as I replayed this incident in my mind, recalling the vision of Joe storming off, crying, and yelling ‘you guys are RACISTS!’…I saw myself standing there and doing nothing…and I feel immense shame in that.

I also feel compelled to apologize. I don’t know where Joe is…and I don’t know if Joe would even want to remember this day and if I tried to track Joe down and apologize for my inaction, would I be doing so to try, in some way, to right a wrong or assuage my own guilt?  But Joe, I deeply apologize for doing nothing.

My apology is also for some of the things I have written and said over the last six days relative to the King Kong reference. I’d like to delete some of them, but I won’t.

While I still believe intent matters a great deal, words matter, too.  If someone doesn’t intend to hurt someone with their words, but those words do genuinely hurt someone, was a wrong committed? Yes. I apologize for my wrong, and this isn’t a caveat apology that includes ‘if I hurt anyone with this, I am sorry.’ No; I am sorry for not recognizing the potential for hurt to begin with.

Or these two:

I don’t know, in my adult life, if I have ever been convicted of something so quickly as I am with these angry thoughts from late last week, but here I am.

To @RossWB and @ledvinam, I am sorry. That apology goes to several of you, many who may no longer care to read what I write, who I interacted with on social media pursuant to this topic over the past six days.

I wished I had remembered that long-forgotten and likely subconsciously buried incident involving Joe when I first heard of Dolph’s suspension. I would have reacted differently. I would have relayed this experience then.  I would have used my platform to stand up for the Joe’s who don’t have a platform like this.  Some of you actually took some time to convey that message to me last week, but I wasn’t having any of it then.  I was angry.

I had real life experiences to draw on, I had context…but I did not think of  those things…they were not there for me to grasp.

Why it came to the surface today, like a long-lost ship buried on a beach coming into view after a violent storm surge event, I do not know. I think it has a lot to do with Marc Morehouse’s article from two days ago, and Drustup’s words in the story, or Chad Leistikow’s column from yesterday. I owe Chad an apology, too.

Don’t mistake any of this as me changing my opinion on how poorly Iowa handled Dolphin’s suspension and created their own PR nightmare…and how they let this story hang out for so many days.

I heard Gary Barta’s comments yesterday, and in them, even he hinted that they could have done a better job here…but Gary Barta also said yesterday that this was not an easy situation and it involved a number of parts, including the Iowa campus community…in other words, this was complicated. I can see that.

I am not a big believer in coincidences. From my world view, I believe coincidences are another term for God tapping me on the shoulder and getting my attention, drawing my attention to Him.

I absolutely don’t believe my long-buried memories of the ‘Joe Incident’ coming to the surface today are a coincidence. I pray God uses this experience, these past five days underscoring my tendency to ‘ready, FIRE, aim’, to make me better.

Not all people of color were offended by Dolph’s remarks, but some were or at best, some were uncomfortable with it. Even if the majority were not, I sit here now thinking of the minority who were…because right now, I see a face that represents them.

I see Joe, running away crying from a horrible childhood experience…and I did nothing to stand up for him…and while I can never stand up for him specifically, because that time has come and gone, I CAN stand up for others…or to start with, I can apologize for being insensitive, obtuse and self-centered over these past six days and vow to not be a part of that problem again.

Unconscious Bias…yes…I do believe you exist…I have a lot of work to do.

One last thing about West Branch…I love that town…and it still reaches me.  To a former junior high teacher who reached out to me privately about some of my comments from this past week, who challenged me to examine my own thinking….thanks, Jim.  You’re still teaching.

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