Marist’s Center for Sports Communication invited former NFL wide receiver Donté Stallworth to discuss Uncomfortable Conversations with a Black Man by Emmanuel Acho, the common read for this year’s freshman class. Stallworth and Jane McManus, the Center’s director, discussed Stallworth’s life in and beyond the NFL that connected to Acho’s discussion-based narrative about racial and social justice in the United States on Wednesday, September 14 at the Nelly Goletti Theatre.
Stallworth recorded a decade of service as a wide receiver in the NFL. Selected 13th overall out of Tennessee in 2002, he totaled over 4800 receiving yards and 35 receiving touchdowns while playing for six different teams. Outside of football, Stallworth has experience writing about politics for the Huffington Post and has been featured in the New York Times for his advocacy of Black representation in the NFL.
Although not having met Acho, Stallworth sympathized from the perspective of an athlete, more specifically a football player, educating themselves and discussing social injustice “There’s this aura of about NFL players that we’re just dumb jocks,” Stallworth said, “so I was understanding from his perspective of how he would try to tackle this urgent and complicated situation.”
The largest message from the book was the ability to hold an educated and sympathetic conversation about the uncomfortable problems with racial justice still present in American society. Throughout the book, Acho discusses topics that he feels white Americans need to be more aware of, whether it be implicit bias or white privilege. He approaches these topics in a more conversational manner, something which Stallworth regarded as critical when discussing said topics, “After reading it I was very appreciative of him for writing it,” Stallworth said. “Any moment where you can open dialogue and start the conversation is a good start.”
McManus and Stallworth also discussed the significance of the nationwide protests of the murder of George Floyd, which happened roughly five months before Acho’s book was published. Stallworth compared the event to Colin Kaepernick’s presence in the NFL, notably taking a knee during the national anthem as a peaceful protest against racism and police brutality. Stallworth recalled seeing the video coverage of the murder and tweeting the video coverage on that fateful day, typing, “Why NFL Players Kneel: Reason one million.” Stallworth discussed the significance of the timing of the largest protests of civil rights we have seen in the 21st century, “All of this happening in a pandemic, yet we are [still] dealing with the oldest American pandemic of racism.”
Stallworth transitioned into the systemic problems with the NFL — how there are only two Black team owners in the NFL and only a handful of larger-role coaching positions held by African Americans. Even though the league is made up of a majority Black population, Stallworth said he would like “The pipeline [to head coach] has been quarterback coaches, who have an understanding of how playcalling, but there are not a lot of black quarterback coaches, so that pipeline has been plugged.”
Upon discussing more general themes about the book, Stallworth focused on his personal experiences with implicit bias, not necessarily about race. He recalled an instance from his younger playing days in the mid-2000s, where he started to reshape his own thinking of stereotypes. As a young football star, he told a story about a long discussion with a gay man he had met with his team outside of football life. Stallworth was able to admit his initial implications and see people for who they are, which he remarked as an important theme of the novel, “as long as you are open to change, as long as you are not rigid, you can always make the people around you purer, and that energy goes out to who knows how far.”
In the league, the former wide receiver had also experienced bias back at him. Stallworth explained that before taking selfies, he signed numerous autographs with fans on the sidelines. He stated that an older woman near the sidelines had signaled to him and asked him a very peculiar question, “Are you a rapper or an athlete?” The young receiver, containing his rage for the older woman, responded smartly with “No, I’m an attorney.”
Another remark that Stallworth accredited to Acho was his ability to create a new perspective on a topic that has been following Americans long after the Civil Rights era. He explained the difference in ideologies between Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr., two of the monumental figures in the Civil rights era. Even though Malcolm X was the most radical while Dr. King led peaceful protests, they worked to accomplish the same result, which Stallworth stated as a critical relevancy to social justice issues today, “As long as everyone keeps doing their role to push towards the end goal, then I think that’s what’s most important.”
Along with Acho, Stallworth restated the importance of Acho’s writing as a steppingstone for more and more athletes to begin to speak their minds about political and social issues. During the George Floyd protests, Stallworth spoke out on CNN against former President Donald Trump, stating he was, “Throwing gas on the fire” during the protests for the murder. Stallworth said that he was happy with more athletes becoming more active with social issues, citing Colin Kaepernick, Malcolm Jenkins, Chris Long and Richard Sherman to name a few of the many athletes who have been using their voice. “It’s more common than it was in the last 6 or 7 years, people have really more athletes speak about things that aren’t sports,” said Stallworth.
Stallworth supported Acho’s work. He made it clear that in that inside and outside the NFL, he believes that there is clearly much work to be done. He stated he did not foresee the change and uprise of activism inside and outside the sport of football. Most importantly, Stallworth believes it’s all about starting a conversation about uncomfortable issues. To quote Acho, “You cannot fix a problem you do not know you have.”
Edited by Sam DiGiovanni and Mackenzie Meaney
Photo Credit to Dan Aulbach