Black Athletes and the Racial Politics of Sickle Cell
by David J. Leonard | NewBlackMan
With the Raiders losing on Sunday, the Denver Broncos backpedaled their way into the 2012 NFL playoffs. Although guaranteeing one more week of conversations about Tim Tebow, a fact that no one should wish for, their playoff birth is dramatically impacting the Pittsburgh Steelers and more specifically their safety Ryan Clark. On Monday, Tomlin announced that Clark would be unable to play with the team because he has a sickle-cell trait, which can cause problems in high altitude situations. During a 2007 game in Denver, Clark became terribly ill. Doctors had to remove his spleen and gallbladder; as a result of his organs being deprived of oxygen, Clark lost an astounding 30 pounds.
While the threat to his life is significant, and the decision to skip the game would seem to be a no-brainer, Clark had planned to play. “I mean, everybody knows I want to play and I would have played,” Clark told ESPN. “I talked to my doctors and we actually had a plan in place for me to play. All things pointed to me going until (Tomlin) told me I can’t. He said he wouldn’t have let his son play and so I’m not playing either.” It would be easy to dismiss Clark’s comments, assuming that his plans to play were never realistic or possible. Yet, it is not hard to imagine an NFL player risking life and limb to play “on any given Sunday.”
In an Associated Press story on San Diego Charges offensive Lineman, Kris Dielman, acknowledged a willingness to risk his health in his pursuit to win a Super Bowl title. Dielman, who missed 10 games as a result of a concussion, had a seizure during a post-game team flight, resulting in him being rushed to the hospital. “This was definitely a scare. Waking up in the hospital with my wife standing over me, that was pretty scary. I don’t scare easy, but that was something different.” Neither this scare nor his 2 kids at home changed his approach to the game. He is not alone. Two weeks ago, the Associated Press reported that half of the players (23/44) of the players they interviewed admitted that, “they would try to conceal a possible concussion rather than pull themselves out of a game.” So it should surprise no one that Clark wants to play.
In a sport and a culture that defines masculinity through toughness, invincibility, and competitive fire. In a world of sports that values “winning at all costs” and “a never quit attitude,” Clark’s response reflects the masculinist orientation of sports culture. This is why Coach Mike Tomlin’s decision to hold Clark out of the game, and his unwillingness to ask his players to do anything he wouldn’t feel comfortable asking his children to do, is one worth celebrating. It challenges the culture of masculinity and the ways in which a football culture puts victories and a particular vision of masculinity ahead of everything else.
What has also been striking in the media coverage of Clark’s situation is the absence of any discussion of sickle cell/sickle cell trait in relationship to African Americans. There is a missed opportunity here to differentiate between the trait and disease; Clark has the trait and not the disease. While some articles discussed the medical science related to sickle-cell and how it put him at risk in high altitude settings, with most treating his inability to play as another sports-related “injury story,” there is bigger story here as it relates to sickle cell and African Americans.
This erasure fits with a larger history whereupon the health issues faced by people of color are rendered invisible. Writing about the Black Panther Party and its efforts “to raise public consciousness about sickle cell anemia,” Alondra Nelson states in Body and Soul: The Black Panther Party and the Fight against Medical Discrimination. “The condition became a rallying cry for other representatives of the black community.” The media missed an opportunity to highlight how this disease disproportionately impacts African Americans. In the United States, 1 in 12 African Americans carries the sickle cell trait (1 in 500 have the disease).
The missed opportunity reflects an overall failure to acknowledge the ways in which sickle cell disproportionately impacts African Americans. As Imani Perry told me, “Being at higher risk, because one belongs to a particular ethnic group, has to be distinguished from the idea that the disease is actually a consequence of race, which is a social construct” notes the Professor of African American Studies at Princeton University, “Some diseases are more likely to be found in particular ethnic or racial groups, but that may be a product of environmental conditions or history rather than some genetics that correlate to what we call race.”
While race is a social construction, with zero biological imperative, this disease effects African Americans in devastating ways. In “Dying in the City of the Blues: Sickle Cell Anemia and the Politics of Race and Health,” Keith Wailoo argues that “history of sickle cell anemia in the United States,” is a story of “transformation from an ‘invisible’ malady to a powerful, yet contested, cultural symbol of African American pain and suffering.”
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