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Things That Make White People Uncomfortable [Book Review]

Summary

Things That Make White People Uncomfortable is a memoir by NFL defensive end Michael Bennett. As expected, Bennett discusses his early life along with the pros and cons of playing collegiate and professional football. But less expected is Bennett’s frank discussion of topics related to race, violence against women, sexism, mental health, identity, and male vulnerability.

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When I first picked up Things That Make White People Uncomfortable I didn’t know exactly what I should expect. Beginning with the foreword, I was a little apprehensive because I thought the book might end up being entirely about the author. Excluding maybe cruiserweight and heavyweight boxing at present, every other Olympics, football for maybe a year, and basketball when I was a kid, I don’t have the patience to follow sports. I wasn’t relishing the idea of reading a book about the exploits of some random athlete.

But once the book got into the first chapter, Bennett told his story but used it to connect to broader themes. The title seemed a bit intriguing and in reading the summary I thought the book might be interesting. I was increasingly pleasantly surprised once I got further into the book. Things That Make White People Uncomfortable was written just a few years after Colin Kaepernick began kneeling during games which sparked a movement within sports.

In some ways Things That Make White People Uncomfortable reminded me of Forty Million Dollar Slaves by William C. Rhoden. That book charts the history of Black athletes in professional sports. But it also discusses the financial abuse committed against Black athletes in the past. It explored the reality that in exchange for Black athletes being accepted into mainstream sports they were required to not be vocal about discrimination or hardships that they face with regards to racism.

Things That Make White People Uncomfortable doesn’t delve into the history of sports yet otherwise touches on many of the same topics but from the perspective and experience of one person. There is some background on Bennett’s early life which offers perspective on who he is and where he comes from. It was interesting when he reached the point of speaking about being a student-athlete. Not just in college but the entire experience of moving through the pipeline that hopefully deposits a student-athlete in a professional league.

There’s been a lot more conversation in recent years about student-athletes playing sports that generate tremendous amounts of revenue for their schools but them not getting a share of the proceeds. The explanation that’s often cited is that these are amateurs so they’re not allowed to earn money directly but are instead given scholarships enabling them to get a free college education. This is stated as though it’s a fair exchange.

But the reality is as Bennett points out these schools, really the entire institution and structure of college sports make millions if not billions of dollars off of the work of these student-athletes. In exchange, the students get what are actually conditional scholarships. Should they be ineligible to play due to injury or getting cut from the team, their scholarships and thus education can be in jeopardy.

Bennett mentions something which I had an inkling about, which is that a greater focus is placed on the athlete part of the term “student-athlete”. Take into consideration that athletes are required to maintain a minimum GPA but I’ve seen and experienced it myself during college that the rules might be bent a little. That’s not to say that they’re allowed to cheat on exams but rather that they’re often guided towards easier courses. The focus is placed on selecting an academic track that would accommodate the high demands of playing sports at this level. Thus they are placed on degree tracks that have less consideration for them being able to obtain a career after college.

Student-athletes are constantly training, practicing, and traveling for games where much of their time is given over to their sport. I had been an athlete in earlier levels of school but had little interest in sports by the time I became a high school senior and was completely over it by college. I liked the training and discipline but lost whatever passion I had for actually playing or following sports.

The colleges that I attended weren’t great sports schools or rather I have no idea how any of the teams performed and they weren’t a big deal on campus. But the student-athletes that I had classes with frequently had games that required them to miss classes on Friday. This was an honors program with set classes three times per week. Only attending two-thirds of classes for much of the fall semester seemed like a lot of classes to miss.

Look at programs like Last Chance U on Netflix, where because the students showed even a twinkle of athletic ability as kids they were pushed deeper into sports. That’s where the adults around them placed focus rather than also ensuring they were equally good students. Now they’re in college and some of the athletes are stuck at lower-tier schools because they struggling with basic academic requirements and/or behavioral issues.

It’s sad because they have all the confidence in the world with regards to sports. But they struggle in the classroom in part because they’ve been told from the time that they were very young, that they’re not smart. Without even giving them a shot to equally develop in other areas, they’ve been told that all they have going for them is their physical stature and ability to play a particular sport. If all of their time outside of class and even some of that is dedicated to playing and practicing their sport, when would they have time to study or pursue other potential interests? Is it any wonder that some get to college and are struggling academically?

There is so much pressure put on these kids as focus and emphasis is placed on them being athletes and the possibility that they might go pro. But the reality is that as students move up through the different levels going from peewee on to college more and more people fall by the wayside. So much effort and energy are put into these students with the slightest chance that they might make it to the NFL and achieve a massive payday. It requires so much sacrifice along the way but even when they make it to the college level or the pros there are still obstacles.

Getting to the NFL is regarded as the promised land but there are still so many ways to wash out before you get a chance to cash out. Whether in college or the NFL, you can be a good player, and a superstar joins the team resulting in you sometimes stepping in as a backup but mostly riding the bench. You can also be having a great career only to suffer an injury or get caught up in a trade that ends your momentum and cuts your career short. And that’s before you get to the point that after years of playing sports once retired a lot of former players suffer from the lingering effects of injuries and putting their bodies through years of gruesome training and playing.

Not only do student-athletes put their bodies on the line for these teams but they also give their likeness. This is not high school where you play and the school mostly gets bragging rights if the team wins. Some companies give uniforms and equipment to students but there are more restrictions. At the college level, games are broadcasted for which schools receive huge payments from media companies such as ESPN. Brands such as Nike, Adidas, etc. sell jerseys with these athletes’ names based on if not their likeness then their name.

These various licensing and media deals generate millions if not billions of dollars and the players get scraps. I don’t have an issue with anyone making money but the players should get paid some kind of a percentage. The coaches, sports administrators, higher-ups within NCAA management, etc. make hundreds of thousands or millions of dollars. It’s incredibly lucrative for the adults in the system who aren’t putting their bodies on the line. But yet, the student-athletes who sacrifice so much for the sport are given peanuts in comparison.

Not just in this book but also a few documentaries and even television shows about sports have begun discussing the financial exploitation of student-athletes. A lot of athletes are encouraged to just shut up and play the sport rather than express their views and opinions. Any discussions that require true thought or with which anyone might disagree or there might be a difference of opinion are to be avoided. The expectation is that in exchange for a shot at a payday you stunt your growth as a person. Just focus on your sport with no other views or opinions, or at least you don’t share them publicly.

I stopped following football since moving to Atlanta as I’ve been unable to consistently watch the New York Giants. But there are a few other sports that I follow casually. And within those sports, there’s a heavy emphasis on maintaining your personal brand. Leaning into your persona but not doing anything to make your brand sponsors uncomfortable. With that, there’s a lot of fear of saying the wrong thing or going off message.

To avoid these potential problems, athletes are encouraged to say nothing or to just make very basic comments or rather non-comments. Either you’ll be encouraged to say nothing or you’ll become the unwitting spokesperson that lazy media folks reach out to and/or quote out of context. When other people complain, you’ll be the one trotted out to speak as to how well everything is going to downplay the existence of any problems.

It’s worth noting that some athletes who are dismissed as being too passive are later found out to be more active behind the scenes. But to maintain their image and relationship with the public they might have felt the need to hide it. They might later explain that the platitudes and bland statements they made weren’t their ideas but they felt compelled to say them at the time. These were the talking points that they were told to voice and express but it wasn’t necessarily what they believed.

I didn’t know who Michael Bennett was before picking up Things That Make White People Uncomfortable but I have a lot of respect for him speaking out now rather than waiting until after retirement when he wouldn’t stand to lose anything. He explains that a lot of athletes play sports with hopes of improving their lives and the lives of their families. This creates discomfort with saying or doing anything that might upset fans, brand sponsors, team management, or owners.

I also appreciated him speaking about pain and injuries but not just with regards to the physical damage incurred by athletes. Sure in recent years there have been more discussions about concussions and similar injuries. But less widely discussed is the psychological impact of playing sports. Athletes and the people around them place so much focus on whatever sport they play and the related business. But this results in athletes being stunted in other areas of development. When many retire, get injured, or are on a losing streak they fall into depression because the sport has become such a part of their identity. It’s such a major part of their life that they don’t know who they are or what to do with themselves when the sport goes away.

It’s not often that men, especially Black men, speak openly let alone publicly about their fears and insecurities. Though in recent years it seems more men and not just in sports are beginning to speak more openly about these topics. That’s a good thing and a major plus that more people of both genders are speaking about mental health.

Bennett gives some perspective on collegiate sports explaining that as young athletes move through the system it tries to strip away their individuality, humanity, and any independent thought. This makes the players easier to control. Until recently, the media seemed to rarely ask athletes about and they didn’t offer comments on social issues. It’s refreshing to have an athlete not just speak about various social justice issues and initiatives but do so knowledgeably.

Athletes are often portrayed as being obsessed with whatever sport they play along with money, cars, clothes, jewelry, and having a whole bunch of women. I don’t know anything about Bennett or his personal life beyond what he mentions in the book. But I liked that he showed himself to be deeper and more complex than what is portrayed as the typical athlete. That includes being married to his high school sweetheart, having three daughters, and his relationships with his brother and extended family.

He appears to be the antithesis of the athletes described in Forty Million Dollar Slaves. With Black athletes and celebrities, you find that once they reach a certain level of success, many are less open to discussing social issues. Their financial success grants them access to a different experience and thus perspective in comparison to regular Black people. And when asked, some feel that these are topics that don’t apply to them anymore. That is unless something specific happens to them where they’re blatantly discriminated against or find themselves in problems and need of support in the court of public opinion.

Often you just get sound bites from the NFL and other sports leagues during their themed months. That’s not to say that you don’t have athletes who are involved with community service and social justice initiatives. But rather that’s not what’s promoted on the same scale as vapid lifestyles and the commentary offered tends to be uninformed and/or contrived.

Bennett was fair and balanced in providing commentary and voicing his opinions but didn’t hesitate to point out both pros and cons of being an athlete. There are advantages to being an athlete in the NFL, but also drawbacks, some specific to Black players. He also comments on the lack of Black professionals in the front office and a lack of Black team owners in football but this is also an issue in other sports. Within the last few years, police harassment and brutality have become hot topics and are now more widely discussed. (Actual action and changes have been a different matter.) Not only does Bennett discuss these topics but also sexism and violence against women.

Sometimes when people are new to topics or subjects, they can be a little over-crunk and develop a holier-than-thou attitude. Bennett takes the time to explain that some of these topics are new to him and he didn’t necessarily hold the same views in the past. It might be that he wasn’t as concerned or aware of some of these topics but took the time to research what he didn’t know. Not many people are willing to admit when they don’t know something. Instead, they fake the funk and double down on being wrong and strong to position themselves as an authority on the subject, despite knowing little to nothing about the topic. It’s more important for them to appear knowledgeable than to seek knowledge.

It’s different to have someone openly and honestly share their progress, development, and growth over the years. I haven’t read a lot of athlete biographies but this along with Mike Tyson’s Undisputed Truth and Forty Million Dollar Slaves would be a good literary starter kit for aspiring professional athletes. Reading these books and asking yourself questions would aid in your development. You’re not going to agree with everything that the author says. But reading books that challenge your ideologies pushes you to consider other ideas and perspectives which will allow you to grow as a person.

They say that you can learn a lot from mistakes but you won’t live long enough to make them all so it’s more efficient to also learn from the mistakes of others. When a person has already been where you’re trying to go and made mistakes along the way you might not have the same experience but they’re better equipped to relate and offer you guidance. Reading about Bennett’s experience going from a mixed community to attending a predominantly White college with an environment very different from what he came from was a culture shock. As was adjusting to coaches and team management who expected him to conform to their way of life. Student-athletes, really college students in general, from similar backgrounds could relate to his story.

There are a lot of athletes and entertainers who say that they’re not role models. And that’s fair, why should they feel obligated to stand in for parents or family members in a child or teen’s day-to-day life? But the reality is that mainstream culture in America worships athletes, entertainers, and other celebrities. Why not use that influence to promote a positive lifestyle? That’s not to say that you have to be a paragon of virtue or can never make a mistake because we’re all human.

The flip side is that quite often you have these young men and women who come of age in a sort of bubble because they play sports. And because so much focus has been placed on their development as athletes, there’s less attention paid to who they are as people. Whether they make it to a collegiate sport or the pros because they’re so underdeveloped in other areas, there’s a lack of maturity. We see this with regards to their handling of money, relationships, etc. They think they’re prepared to be professional athletes and they might be but many are woefully unprepared to manage their money or their lives.

In a sense, the book’s title, Things That Make White People Uncomfortable is a bit of a misnomer. The title was probably selected in part because it’s at least in part about race which is a subject that some or maybe many White people are uncomfortable discussing. It’s a topic that many people shy away from discussing.

But then it points out the importance of recognizing intersectionality so not just race but also gender and income level. And how all three of those things in addition to the smaller subgroups are used to discriminate and why all of them need to be addressed. If we’re being honest, some of these topics are uncomfortable for people in general, not just White people. Sure you might have some White people that are uncomfortable with discussions of race. But you have some men (and women too), regardless of their race who hold and/or promote sexist beliefs.

Because Things That Make White People Uncomfortable isn’t just focused on race but rather also touches on gender, income, etc. uncomfortable might not be the best phrase to describe what to expect. Bennett is more accurately discussing challenges and the need to get out of your comfort zone. None of those subjects are pleasurable though they might not necessarily make you uncomfortable or uneasy. People don’t feel joy discussing or trying to address them either. They’re difficult challenges and problems that, quite honestly, some people don’t care about if they’re not affected by or actually benefit from them.

At the same time, they’re issues that are big hairy problems and are difficult or would require effort to address and overcome. These are not easy topics to discuss. But by making yourself uncomfortable by challenging yourself and your beliefs, asking questions, and exploring other perspectives you can learn and grow as a person.

Yet and still, I don’t have a problem with the title as it’s a little bit provocative but that might be to grab the attention of potential readers. When you get into the book it’s about so much more. Just based on Bennett’s commentary with regards to race, student athletics, professional sports, and police brutality. There’s certainly a lot to discuss and unpack.

In recent years pressure from social media and elsewhere sometimes make brands, celebrities, and athletes feel pressured to comment on issues. And because of differences of opinion public figures don’t typically want to rock the boat so they end up making milquetoast comments and statements. I didn’t agree with all of his views but respected that he addressed these topics when a lot of other professional athletes, professionals in general actually, would shy away from voicing their opinions or speaking out on possibly controversial topics.

So often with men, especially athletes, and it’s something that he touches on, vulnerability is seen as being unmasculine. I liked that he pushes against those stereotypes and expresses appreciation for his vulnerability as well as his willingness to open up and discuss his feelings, problems, and shortcomings. It’s cool to learn about where he’s come from and the places he wants to go as a person. Opening yourself up to growth by being able to recognize and address your shortcomings puts you in the position of being better able to address them.

Consider Muhammad Ali, Colin Kaepernick, or other individuals who have spoken out on social issues and found themselves ostracized. Bennett kicks around some ideas for improving things and proposes creating a group where athletes would join together to support each other and speak out about social injustices. A coalition where athletes harness their strength in numbers would make it more difficult for the sports establishment to isolate individuals and box them out.

It’s a good idea worth exploring but designing strategic action by committee comes with its share of problems. Not to mention that during the Civil Rights Movement, many groups and organizations were dismantled despite their numbers. Though to be fair that was largely due to government rather than business operations.

Things That Make White People Uncomfortable is incredibly short and went by unbelievably fast. I completed the audiobook in about a day. Granted, I was on a tear listening to audiobooks in general. From start to finish, I thought it was an incredible book. It’s worth reading for the personal story of his life and growing up with football but also with regards to his discussion of various social issues and ideas as possible solutions. Highly recommended and a definite must-read.

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