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Evening an uneven professional playing field with Howard Bryant: podcast and transcript

Chris Hayes talks to ESPN's Howard Bryant about the intersection of racial politics and professional sports.

Professional sports are never more than an inch away from the deepest core of what's happening in America. They are an amazing crucible of politics and culture that manage to reflect the issues we are working through as a country. And because these spaces are so integrated, particularly in football and basketball, racial politics quickly come to the foreground.

This is the intersection ESPN writer Howard Bryant examines in his new book "Full Dissidence: Notes from an Uneven Playing Field." In it, he explores what it means to be black in an industry hostile to blackness. Why isn't Colin Kaepernick playing in the NFL, why do football games have military flyovers, and when do opinions become dangerous? What is happening with the Houston Astros cheating scandal? And why should non-sports fans care about what happens to players with multi-million-dollar contracts? Howard Bryant has the answers.

HOWARD BRYANT: What happens when you don't believe there's anything you can do, whether it's winning championships or gold medals or putting on the uniform to belong? How can you say you don't belong when you've got $30 million in the bank, but yet at the same time, you risk all of that by taking a position supporting African-Americans? How can these two concepts exist?

CHRIS HAYES: Hello, and welcome to, “Why Is This Happening?” With me, your host, Chris Hayes. So, if you've been listening to podcasts for a while or watching the show, you may know that I've written two books, and the first book that I wrote was published back in 2012. It's called “Twilight of the Elites,” and it's a book about what I call “The Failed Decade,” from 2000 to 2010. Things didn't really get a ton better after that, but that's another story.

But a lot of it was about institutional failure and, particularly, institutional rot, how institutions kind of rot from the inside and what it means when they do. And I write about a lot of different institutions, but I ended up writing in that book a fair amount on Major League Baseball, particularly the steroids scandal, because to me, the dynamics in Major League Baseball and steroids were very similar to dynamics that would later happen on Wall Street, particularly in the run up to the housing crash. Which is basically an open secret culture of cheating that flourishes and develops in a place where, inside a locker room or inside a lot of these big Wall Street banks or at the ground level of mortgage brokers, everyone knows that there's a con happening and there's a cheating, and that the whole thing's going to come crashing down, but there's money to be made in the interim.

So, that argument is laid out in “Twilight of the Elites,” and I was thinking about that argument in the last week because of two reasons. One, I'm a big sports fan and have been since I was like five years old. I'm pretty sports obsessed. I watch sports all the time. I'm trying to wean myself off football, which I sort of quit, and then kind of gone back to a little. I have the same relationship towards that as eating meat, which I think I've said before on the podcast, is not really defensible intellectually, but then I do it.

But I'm a big sports fan. But I also think that sports ends up being this sort of amazing crucible of culture and politics and particularly in these very fraught and polarized times, and there's been this remarkable sports cheating scandal that's blown up in the past few weeks that I've been really obsessed with, which is that the Houston Astros got caught cheating in this pretty systemic and remarkable way in which, basically, they used a camera from center field, it's the one that you see on the screen when you're watching a game, and shows the catcher putting down the sign to the pitcher. So, right before the pitch, the catcher puts his fingers down between his legs, and indicates to the pitcher to throw.

Now, the reason he does that secretly is because they don't want the batter to know, because a big part of Major League Baseball is fooling batters by surprising them with pitches. Well, the Astros had set up laptops in the locker room, where they were looking at the sign and then very quickly signaling to the batter at the plate what was coming using a system of bangs. So, they would bang twice for a curve ball, or three times for an off speed pitch, or no bang for fastball. And look, the batter still has to hit a Major League Pitch, which is hard, but it is an enormous, enormous, enormous advantage for a batter to know what pitch is coming. Enormous.

And they did this for like two years, and then they got caught and busted, and there's this huge fallout. The GM is gone. The manager's gone, the bench coach who devised the system, Alex Cora, who went on to manage Boston, he just got fired. One of the players who went on to be the manager of the Mets, he just got fired. Now, there are all these crazy rumors swirling around that the system got even more elaborate, that it may have involved a buzzer worn under the shirt of players at the plate, and they would get a buzz on their shoulder, and the number of buzzes would indicate the pitch. This has not been established. MLB said they found no evidence for it, but there's a lot of stuff floating around, including this crazy clip of José Altuve, who's an Astros player, hitting a walk off home run in the playoff last year.

And then as he rounds third base, it's the end of the playoffs, he sent the team the World Series, and they're going to rip his shirt off, and he's, like, clutching his shirt being like, "Don't rip my shirt off." Everyone's like, "Was he concealing a buzzer under his shirt?"

So, there's a lot in this scandal because there is a lot in sports that reflects what is happening in society, particularly because the model of sports, which is cutthroat competition and the best of meritocracy, and the best rise, and the people can't hack it, they get cut from the team. Like, that's bizarrely our model for how society should work and how capitalism works. And it's also a place where all of racial politics in America comes to the fore, because professional sports, particularly, I would say, football and basketball, tend to be some of the most integrated and the most prominently black spaces that exist in American life.

And so, to talk about all this, I wanted to talk to a fantastic sports writer, an essayist and thinker about all this stuff, Howard Bryant, who's been writing for years, and I've read him for years. He was actually very helpful to me back when I was writing “Twilight of the Elites.” He didn't remember this, but I had emailed him to be like, "How do I interview baseball players out of the blue?" And he was like, "Here's some tips." Which was useful.

So, he's got a new book out called “Full Dissidents: Notes from An Uneven Playing Field” that's out now. He's a senior writer for You'll see in this conversation, we start with sports, but very quickly we get to the deepest core of what is happening in American politics and society. And I think one of the lessons there is that sports is never more than an inch away from the deepest core of what is happening in American politics and society.

CHRIS HAYES: So, my first book, I did a lot of reporting on the steroids era in baseball, and part of the reason that I talked about it in that book was that it was this fascinating microcosm of a culture of cheating.


CHRIS HAYES: Which actually looked very similar to the culture of Enron or the culture of big banks, the sort of Petri dish in which cultures of cheating grow, and in which people come to normalize, basically, things that they know are wrong.

HOWARD BRYANT: That’s right.

CHRIS HAYES: They're violations of the rules. And in the case of baseball it was, "Well, that guy went back to the other part of the locker room to inject his buddy with steroids." Everyone kind of knows what's going on.

HOWARD BRYANT: That's right.

CHRIS HAYES: Wink, wink, nudge, nudge. In the case of Enron, it was like, "We know we're screwing with these energy markets."

HOWARD BRYANT: That's right.

CHRIS HAYES: And there's all these exchanges. In the case of the housing crisis-

HOWARD BRYANT: In the housing crisis, there's the same thing.

CHRIS HAYES: Yeah, all these people know that they're lending to people that can't pay it back but everyone's making money. So, I wanted us to just start with the latest news on this Astros thing, because to me, it's just a perfect example of that.


CHRIS HAYES: It's a crazy situation.

HOWARD BRYANT: No doubt. No doubt.

CHRIS HAYES: So, what do you make of it?

HOWARD BRYANT: Well, it's one of the sad things about book writing, in that I keep saying, "I'm never going to write another moving target book." Because the news keeps going after you've delivered the book and it's like, "Okay, well this idea is not in there and that's not in there."

But absolutely, this is no different than the old edict that they used to say during the steroid era. If you're not cheating, you're not trying. And you knew it was only a matter of time, when you started putting center cameras in there, that someone was going to try to manipulate them.

I find it interesting that Alex Cora is the one who's considered to be the ringleader behind the whole thing when it's actually the analytics department, and he was the one who sort of related it. It was actually the junior members of the Astros who were the ones who devised the scheme.

CHRIS HAYES: Is that true?

HOWARD BRYANT: Oh yeah. It's in the report. And it says. But they didn't want to punish the junior members because they figured the senior members, the bench coach, the manager, the GM, it was their responsibility. But the ones who hatched it were actually the new Ivy League, smarty pants guys, who decided to use the technology and take this one step further.

CHRIS HAYES: And you've got, now there's a crisis. It's not quite at the scope of the steroids era, but the thing that happened in the steroids era that's fascinating-

HOWARD BRYANT: Well, it might be.

CHRIS HAYES: Right? Well that's the big question, right? That's a great question, which is, was it just this team doing this?

HOWARD BRYANT: No, it wasn't just this team, because in the report, as we know, remember in 2017, the reason why the Astros and The Red Sox are getting nailed now is because The Red Sox and the Yankees were involved in this in August of 2017 with the Apple watch scandal. So, The Red Sox were doing the same thing. They were looking at the center field camera. They were using the replay room to bring signals in via Apple watch to the Red Sox players.

CHRIS HAYES: Wait, I didn't know that.

HOWARD BRYANT: Yes, and so that's when the commissioner came down, and then the Yankees were manipulating the review room as well by telephone, and they both got fined by this. The commissioner came in and said, "Hey, cut it out. We're onto you. Don't do this anymore."

HOWARD BRYANT: The Astros were the ones who kept it up, went to the World Series, won it, and that's why they're getting nailed right now. Because the commissioner says, "We warned you guys September 15th, 2017, to knock it off." And Alex Cora and A.J. Hinch and Luna and the rest of the Astros, instead of knocking it off, they essentially had a meeting and said, "Let's find ways to improve on this."

CHRIS HAYES: What do you think about the ethics of this? Because to me, it's at some level like, who cares? No one's getting their home foreclosed on. It's not like selling opioids.

HOWARD BRYANT: You can take that argument and use it for sports in everything. We're not dealing with the real world, except that we are in a lot of ways. We are dealing with the real world because you're dealing with kids who were incredibly, incredibly influenced by them. And this is where people learn. Where do you learn your attitudes from? Where do you learn your ethics from? You learn them from high profile things.

And let's also not forget that baseball has now embedded gambling into the business model the same way all the other sports have, too, so that it's not as harmless as people make it seem. And obviously you can take the argument the same way you can do it with steroids and anything else that takes place on the field, like going, "Oh, well, it's really not the real world anyway." You can do that with a lot of things. But I think this is important, and I think part of it is important because these guys are looking you in the eye and they're telling you that the game is legit. That's the whole thing about sports. Otherwise, it's WWE. It's wrestling, right? If it's not real.

CHRIS HAYES: Right, right. The whole conceit of it as a professional enterprise, as a value proposition, is that it's legit.

HOWARD BRYANT: That's right. And it's not scripted. It's supposed to be real. And then the other part of it that I think is important to consider, as well, you're cheating! You know damn well you're cheating. And this is one of the things that I was trying to get at in this book, is that sports and the culture, it's mirroring each other in so many different ways, where you're starting to see...

Okay, like the section in the book is called "The Joke's On You", where there are numerous opportunities to cheat. It's like it's open season. Whether you're talking about the cabinet, whether you're talking about what's happening in sports, whether you're talking about the privatization of public money, all of it. It's the same, "If you ain't cheating, you ain't trying," attitude.

CHRIS HAYES: That's such a good point. And the crazy thing, too, and one of the ways I think that sports and society mirror each other, is that we have increasingly adopted a kind of competitive ethos in non-sports situations, right? Like the way that firms are run, the way that we think about the market driving everything, the idea that the person that makes the most money wins, the superstar performers.

HOWARD BRYANT: That idea of meritocracy.

CHRIS HAYES: Right. Exactly. That's what we have for a social model, is that everyone's engaged in these constant essentially iterative tournaments with each other.

HOWARD BRYANT: Yeah, that's right. And don't forget the racial element of that, which is, "Okay, we've got racism everywhere else, but if my 40 times is faster than your 40 time, or if my score is better than yours, I win." And so sports has been used historically to combat racism in so many ways, right? That this is the pure thing. Okay we've got problems in society, but here the arena is fair." And now this arena isn't fair either.

CHRIS HAYES: The other thing about it, to me, and this relates to some of the stuff you talked about in the book and your last book, too, particularly the role of players, sports athletes, in our public culture, and particularly with this scandal, people are saying, "Well, they're going after management, not the players, because players are in the union." And there's a really interesting and tortured relationship that sports writers, sports culture, and fans have with players.


CHRIS HAYES: This very intense love/hate.

HOWARD BRYANT: And the love/hate with it is so rooted in labor.

CHRIS HAYES: That's what it is.

HOWARD BRYANT: Yeah. and I think one of the biggest problems that I have with it, and it's one of the themes of a couple of the essays in the book, is what we're asking of the athlete. We talk about not wanting politics in sports, but what we're really saying is we don't want a certain type of politics. We don't want the players' politics. And essentially what we really don't want is we don't want the black players' politics. We have a real professional respect for the player. So, we get angry with them for the money that they make. It's the only area that I can think of in the culture where the more money you make, we want to hear less of you. Why are we listening to Donald Trump? Why are we listening to Mark Cuban? Why are we listening to Tom Steyer? Why?

CHRIS HAYES: Because they're rich. Right? Its like, "Tom Steyer, shut up and dribble."

HOWARD BRYANT: Exactly. Exactly. "What are you doing here? Why are you here?" Right? And then when Colin Kaepernick speaks, or when LeBron James speaks, or when high profile black athletes speak. "Well, you've got tons of money. What are you talking about? Be quiet." They're the only ones. You can be president if you have money, but we want the rich athlete, particularly the rich black athlete, to be quiet.

CHRIS HAYES: You know, it never dawned on me until I had this job that there's a difference between the money you make and your status of whether you are labor or management.

HOWARD BRYANT: That's right.

CHRIS HAYES: And it's so easy to conflate those two. And my whole life, even though I wasn't one of those asshole fans that's like, "Shut up. You're overpaid." I never felt that way, honestly. And I sort of didn't like fans that felt that way. But I did have some idea of like, "You can do whatever you want. You have a lot of money."

HOWARD BRYANT: That's right.

CHRIS HAYES: But you're labor, and management is management. And even if management makes less money than you, you're still labor.

HOWARD BRYANT: You're still labor.

CHRIS HAYES: And labor, that category, that's the way I live my life. I'm very well compensated and I'm extremely lucky and privileged to be so, but I'm labor.

HOWARD BRYANT: You're still labor.

CHRIS HAYES: Like I'm labor. I'm not management.

HOWARD BRYANT: That's right.

CHRIS HAYES: I got bosses.

HOWARD BRYANT: Well and that's how I look at it. When I did "The Heritage", the last book that came out in 2018, one of the arguments of that book was the exploration of the power of the athlete, the return of the athlete as a political figure, in Muhammad Ali, Tommy Smith, John Carlos mode. That these guys had so much power that they had to be listened to.

And now, in this book, 18 months later, I'm writing these essays, and one of the first essays I was thinking about was, "Is that actually accurate?" And especially for the black athletes, how much power do you actually have if you have to risk everything to speak? If you can't speak, do you really have power? If you are going to get blackballed for talking, for speaking your mind, maybe you don't have as much power as we think they have. What we do know they have is a lot of money. We do know that.

CHRIS HAYES: And those are different things.

HOWARD BRYANT: And they are two different things.

CHRIS HAYES: And the Kaepernick example, you just brought him up and we should talk about that. So, the first essay in the book's about Kaepernick. What was it about the Kaepernick moment that sort of set off this explosion culturally?

HOWARD BRYANT: Yeah, I think that the biggest thing that Colin Kaepernick taught us in that moment was something that we were going to learn a few months later in the 2016 election. You think we're tight, we're not tight. You think sports-

CHRIS HAYES: What do you mean by that?

HOWARD BRYANT: What I mean by that is you think sports brings us together, it doesn't bring us together. And all of these different moments came together within a few months of each other, that what Colin Kaepernick was really doing was saying, "Listen, here is an issue that's important to me, that is happening, that I'm not going to let pass." And it struck the absolute core of this country, which is policing, and what policing means to people. And what it did was-

CHRIS HAYES: And patriotism.

HOWARD BRYANT: And patriotism. Absolutely. And the two combined, and I find it really interesting because I don't think Colin knew that he was combining these two. It was a perfect storm. It was an explosion, that what was really being said was this country is divided along these two lines, and that they are so personal to people.

And I talk about this in one of the essays later on, when you talk about policing, in, if you talk to your neighbors and your friends and we're all middle-class, and we all make the same money, and we're all in the same boat and our kids go to the same schools, then you start talking about the racial difference in policing. Suddenly, you realize, "Wait a minute, we're not in the same boat after all. We view things very, very differently. We view policing in a very different way." And Kaepernick captured that.

On top of that, the way that people viewed him as unpatriotic and threat, that what he was representing was something so clearly divisive, but divisive to whom? It wasn't really divisive to black people. If you talked to black people about Colin Kaepernick, they pretty much agree with what he's saying. What divided it was white America. They were divided about this. There were some folks who said, "Hey, he's got a right to do this." And then there were a lot of people who said no, but especially the owners. That, what was he suggesting? And what he suggested was that, "Guess what? We don't have the same paths. We're not on the same paths."

And the threat that he represented to the NFL was so powerful that it's been three years since he's given an interview. And I felt like-

CHRIS HAYES: I try to book him all the time.

HOWARD BRYANT: Yeah, exactly. I talk to him and I'm like, "Hey, can we speak in public?" He'll text you. He won't talk in public. And so what I was trying to get at with what Colin Kaepernick taught us was all the different lines where Kaepernick sort of represented sports and labor. The difference between that, where the players and the anger between him and his fellow players, in terms of whether to align themselves with the owners through the Players Coalition, or whether to strike out on their own, whether the players were willing to back him or be tools for management, or whether there were other ways to go about trying to affect change.

And also about what the black athlete meant to the NFL. Notice that you had people like Ray Lewis and Michael Vick, and these guys who have criminal pasts somehow being treated as the legitimate ones.

CHRIS HAYES: I mean Ray Lewis.

HOWARD BRYANT: It's kind of craven right there.

CHRIS HAYES: Ray Lewis getting up to pronounce about the good and the great. The first principles. And again, Ray Lewis, we should just say, was present at a double murder, a stabbing.

HOWARD BRYANT: Still unsolved.

CHRIS HAYES: Still unsolved. He took a plea for his involvement in that, and also, I think, in the moment that was happening, was also the picture of the bad black athlete, right? The thug who has, now, because they're big and strong, can get a lot of money, but the worst kind of racist tropes about these overpaid, overgrown black athletes. Ray Lewis was that for a moment in the culture. And then has kind of revived his reputation. He's now a commentator on TV, and then he was one of the leading voices against Colin Kaepernick, and it was so head snapping for people that remembered all the white racist football fans who was like, "Ray Lewis is a thug." And now it's like, "Yes, Ray Lewis is carrying the banner for the flag.”

HOWARD BRYANT: He's our guy now. Well, that's right. And then, on top of that, he has a statue in front of the stadium in Baltimore, and he's a legend to them. And all of that is okay because it certainly makes sense to me. It's how people treat their sports heroes. If you wore their colors, that's how they treat you.


HOWARD BRYANT: Go to San Francisco and ask about Barry Bonds. Right? He's a legend, no matter what. No matter what he did or didn't do, whatever. But what I found particularly galling about Ray Lewis was his Hall of Fame speech. At no point did he show any sort of contrition at all. While this is happening, you've got Colin Kaepernick, who committed no crimes and has never been in any sort of trouble at all, he's the pariah.

And so I was asking myself in part of that essay, what does that teach us? What does that say? What does it say about the values? What does it say about the League's values? What does it say about Ray Lewis? What does it say about everything? And I just couldn't help but think over and over again, that the real threat is the black man's brain. That this is what we're asking for. You're going to allow the Ray Lewis's and the Ray Rice's, and all of these athletes who have done horrible things.

And Michael Vick was another one who said, "Oh, well, Colin Kaepernick should cut his hair and he'll be accepted." I'm like, "Wait a minute. You went to a prison, dog!" No pun intended. You went to prison for dog fighting, and you're going to offer up advice about rehabilitation? That the NFL was willing to rehabilitate a certain black voice and not another one. And then I think the other thing about that essay as well that struck me was I wasn't sure how I felt about Colin.

There was a point in time when I was wondering, because he didn't speak. He wasn't involved and he began to back away and began to do marketing and selling things. And I was sort of wondering what that meant. I was like, "Okay."

And I talked to a lot of activists who were asking the same question. One of them said, and I quoted them in the book saying, "We're with Kap, but is he with us?" They wanted him to speak. Because obviously as we know, if you don't speak some other voices, take your place.

But then I had to change my mind because after the Nike affair where he came out and Nike brought him in as a brand spokesman that you had police officers and you had store owners and you had a lot of people out there trying to boycott Nike.

And I'm thinking to myself, "Well, my mind needs to change on this, because why is it so important to destroy this man? Why can't he even work? You're going to take on Nike because of Colin Kaepernick? It's that important to you? You're going to try to boycott one of the biggest athletic companies in the world?"

So, to me, that told me that regardless of how you feel about whether Colin Kaepernick handles his business properly, whether or not you think he should be a more vocal activist, the bottom line is, is that there's an element in this country that is going out of its way to try to destroy him, and that required support of him.

CHRIS HAYES: I mean, the thing about the Kaepernick situation is that ... And you say this explicitly in the book. Sports really is unique in American society, and I think in a lot of societies and I don't know how it plays in other places, but for two reasons.

One is that American society is extremely an increasingly balkanized and polarized. People have very different experiences of the world. They watch different television shows. They listen to different music. There really isn't, in a way, that in 30 years ago or 40, 50 years ago, there was much more mass culture that sort of everyone partook on.

Like “The Tonight Show” would have 40 million viewers at a certain point. Nothing happens like that. My favorite set about this is the comedian, Tiny Tim, got married on “The Tonight Show” and there were like 55 million viewers. Every American watched Tiny Tim get married. It never happens.

HOWARD BRYANT: Well, the Super Bowl is the last thing.

CHRIS HAYES: That's the only thing. Exactly. So, the Super Bowl is literally the last part of truly mass culture. Maybe Marvel movies, but sports is like this last vestige in some ways of mass culture.

HOWARD BRYANT: That's right.

CHRIS HAYES: So, that's one thing, right? Across these kind of political, socioeconomic, cultural divides, racial divides. And also, it's visually one of the most integrated spaces in American life, particularly the NFL and NBA, less so Major League Baseball, which we can talk about.

CHRIS HAYES: And so those two things are both there and it's like I'm watching the national championship game the other night. The field is black and white standing next to each other. Offensive line is like black men and white men together. And then you look up in those stands and you look up in the luxury boxes and it is ...

HOWARD BRYANT: Or look at that coaching.

CHRIS HAYES: You look at that coaching and it is just all white.

HOWARD BRYANT: That's right.

CHRIS HAYES: And it's like, "Okay, this is the tip of the spear. This is the thing happening right now." The subtext that Colin Kaepernick articulated was everywhere in that stadium. President comes out, first lady comes out, huge applause. They're in New Orleans. It's like we're going to watch this integrated team of black and white people go at it. And it's like, "Okay, something else is happening here."

HOWARD BRYANT: Yeah, there's nothing integrated about it.

CHRIS HAYES: That's exactly what it is. It looks integrated, but it is not integrated.

HOWARD BRYANT: Well, that's right. I refer to it as a sort of that full dissidence moment when you recognize this is bullshit. You look at and you go, "Wait a minute." You've got white owners, white coaches, white media, essentially white season ticket holders and black players. That's the filter of professional sports, and that's why these conversations go along their lines that they do. Because who are we really talking to? You're talking to the people with the money. And the only people that don't have the money is the black non-player.

CHRIS HAYES: That's right.

HOWARD BRYANT: Because when you start thinking about the filter of this, everything else is middle-class, but you have these black athletes who essentially are the ones who made it. They're the magic bullet. They've got the golden ticket. But what they don't have is a seat at the table. They don't actually have the money to buy full season tickets. They don't have the radio power. They don't have the coaching.

CHRIS HAYES: And it's the only time in America. That's the other thing. The post-game interview, like Marshawn Lynch up at the microphone or a post-game interview or Jimmy Butler who's an NBA player who is brilliant and incredible, kind of a head case. Comes from an incredibly difficult background. I mean, psychotically difficult background, right? Those people never get to speak in a microphone in American life in any other context.

HOWARD BRYANT: That's right.

CHRIS HAYES: A person who's like ... A poor black man who was in foster care was ... No one puts a microphone in their face in American life just in this instance.

HOWARD BRYANT: And to do that, you have to have world-class ability. In order to be heard, you've got to have world-class ability. And I think that's been the big question whether we're talking about the dearth of coaching opportunities for African Americans.

The attitude is that, "Okay, is this arena of sports different from the other arenas of labor because you have an incredibly highly paid workforce? Do they then have the right and opportunity and the expectation that they're going to infiltrate the coaching ranks and the executive ranks? Because you don't do the same.

You don't ask that same question of strawberry pickers in California. You don't say, "Well, they're all Latino. They should own the place too." You don't do that.

CHRIS HAYES: No. That's just the way the hierarchy of racialized capitalism works.

HOWARD BRYANT: Absolutely. Except there's one thing. That workforce is so incredibly well paid. We think it should translate to ownership and we think it should translate into management. And when it doesn't, we get upset. And why do people get upset? Because it exposes the lie of that integration that you're talking about. You are just labor at the end of the day.

This isn't some pathway for you to somehow move into the executive ranks. You're not going to get a seat at the table because you've got great athletic ability. And this is the mistake that we make in this sort of capitalist structure that having a lot of money is going to open up all doors for you, and it doesn't necessarily.

CHRIS HAYES: It's something more than that.

HOWARD BRYANT: It's more than that.

CHRIS HAYES: There's a power relationship that is greater than money.

HOWARD BRYANT: Well, that's right. And so what I was trying to get at in thinking about this project was, where do we go? If you're a sports fan, I want you to watch ... The book is an opportunity for you to watch sports with these things in mind. That when you're watching the game and you're watching a basketball game, ask yourself why is it that there's a police officer directly behind the coach. Are we all in that much danger?

Why is it when you're watching a football game during halftime or in the handshake at midfield, you got two deputies following the coach. And the reason, of course, is because it's product placement. And it coincides and collides immediately with the Kaepernick question. There is a product placement of policing whether we're talking about entertainment and now we're talking about sports.

CHRIS HAYES: Well, they're not there protectively ...

HOWARD BRYANT: They're not there.

CHRIS HAYES: ... or performativity essentially.


CHRIS HAYES: They're a part of this enterprise.

HOWARD BRYANT: Exactly. And then also, if you're not a sports fan to also look at sports and recognize that sports is mirroring a lot of the different questions that we have racially in terms of wealth inequality, when you think about it, you were watching the national championship game. There's an essay in this book about that wealth inequality. I think it's called the Jokes on You.

HOWARD BRYANT: And think about this. We silenced these athletes because they have the opportunity to make so much money, to make that much money. But if you blow your knee out as a junior at Clemson ...

CHRIS HAYES: That's it, buddy.

HOWARD BRYANT: That's it. And not only is that it, because we also say, "Oh, well, you've got your education to fall back on." A lot of these athletes can't make it in the classroom. So essentially, you want to talk about wealth inequality in the United States. Look at it from a sports standpoint.

HOWARD BRYANT: If you don't make the NFL, you're going back to Home Depot. There's nothing in between, because a lot of these athletes don't have the grades. So, the argument had always been in terms of the original, as sports integration in the '30s, '40s and '50s that sports was supposed to be the pathway to the middle-class for a lot of black athletes.

Okay, even if your athletic ability didn't take you to the pros, now you were in the white integrated college environment, and this was going to take you to other places if your jump shot didn't fall. But these guys, they can't make it in the classroom and they're not being compensated at the college level while the white coach and his coaches are making $90 million.

CHRIS HAYES: When you say like I want you to watch sports, it's like with football, it's existential to me. Can you watch football? I mean, honestly, like ...

HOWARD BRYANT: A lot of people are doing it.

CHRIS HAYES: Well, that's the thing. I mean, to me, the reason that the Kaepernick thing and then Trump sort of piling on it and all that was it was an existential threat to the NFL's business model, because the NFL's business model is to be the last place of mass culture in America.

CHRIS HAYES: The Super Bowl is the highest rated thing every year. And the reason the Super Bowl is the highest rated thing every year is because lefties who vote for Bernie Sanders in Brooklyn and folks that have MAGA hats in Alabama all sit together and watch the Super Bowl.

CHRIS HAYES: And so the NFL can't afford a universe in which either side of that equation is too alienated because they need all those people. That's what the NFL has become. It's the last bastion of this mass culture and society that's kind of at war with itself.

HOWARD BRYANT: That's right. And on top of that, you have this argument that the player is the political element to it, but we don't call into question the absolute political ambitions of the owners. They are selling you a political product. And that's what I mean about this sort of moment where are you paying attention to what you're watching.

Supposedly, we're on the brink of war right now. If you look at the wonderful work that the Cost of War project does over at Brown University, we've got a military presence in something like 76 countries. It's 40% of the world. And yet at the same time, you have people tell you that I don't want politics in my sports.

CHRIS HAYES: Except here come the flyovers over the halftime.

HOWARD BRYANT: Exactly. That's right. Here they come. You got the Tomcats flying before the game.

CHRIS HAYES: Literally.

HOWARD BRYANT: Exactly. And you've got the servicemen and women all on the field. And so what you're really saying is you don't want a certain type of politics. You want politics. And that the NFL and the NBA and all the other sports, they are selling you politics. They are actively selling you politics. What you don't want is blackness. You don't want black politics. You don't want politics that challenge.

CHRIS HAYES: Or dissent.

HOWARD BRYANT: Or dissent, and you certainly don't want dissent. You don't want dissent at any level. And what I found really interesting about that is the idea that people still ... They still really cling to this. This idea that when they're watching sports, they're not watching a political event because they refer to it as ... Well, that's not politics, that's patriotism.

What are you talking about? What kind of mental gymnastics is that? Especially now when you're looking at where we are in the world. And so I thought it was really important to try to at least have that conversation throughout the book to say these entities mirror each other.

CHRIS HAYES: You mentioned that the NFL and the NBA are both selling politics, but I want to get into why the two leagues handle those things differently. Right after this.

There's an interesting contrast to me between the NFL and the NBA in this way because I feel like the NBA ... I think for a bunch of reasons. The players, the coaching, the commentators around the sport and the fans are much more black than other sports that it changes a little bit how they deal with these same issues.

To me, the NBA, it has a less contested relationship to outspoken blackness than the NFL, but maybe that's wrong. What do you think about that?

HOWARD BRYANT: No, I think it's true. And I think part of the reason is, is that the NFL has made a deal. And it's a 60 year deal. It's been going on for a very, very long time with the military. Football treats itself like it's a branch of the military. They really do. I mean, "This guy, run in a foxhole with him." All the languages, all the same. "I go to war with these guys every Sunday." No. Actually, you don't.

CHRIS HAYES: It's also a literally violent undertaking.

HOWARD BRYANT: That's right. Literally violent.

CHRIS HAYES: Literally violent. People get brain damage.

HOWARD BRYANT: And people die. Yeah.

CHRIS HAYES: It is a literal enactment of physical violence between two opposing sides.

HOWARD BRYANT: That's right. And there's a huge division of labor in there as well, because football is not like basketball. Football has true division of labor.

CHRIS HAYES: Specialized.

HOWARD BRYANT: Specialized game. And then the other thing about it too is that there are many more opportunities in basketball to go into coaching than there is in football. When you watch a football game, it's very simple. The players are black, the coaches are white. Really simple.

CHRIS HAYES: And the fans are mostly white.

HOWARD BRYANT: And the fans are mostly white.

CHRIS HAYES: The difference to me is when I go to an NBA game, I'm always struck by the difference between an NBA game, the fans.

HOWARD BRYANT: Well, it's an 80 percent black product as well.

CHRIS HAYES: That's the point. I'm saying like when you're in an NBA arena ... I was just at the Nets game this weekend and it's just a much more diverse crowd in that arena. Then when you go to a baseball game or an NFL game, like the actual fans are much closer to parody. It's not parody with the athletes, but it's much closer than those other sports.

HOWARD BRYANT: Well, and no question. And what's interesting about it too is that the prices of the NBA aren't cheap. There is some disposable income that's being spent on that sport very differently than spending it on baseball.

CHRIS HAYES: It's a really good point.

HOWARD BRYANT: It's not like you go to an NBA game and they're $2 seats. They're not.

CHRIS HAYES: No, they're expensive.

HOWARD BRYANT: They're very expensive.

CHRIS HAYES: I mean, the thing to me about the NBA and basketball as a cultural phenomenon too, is always just my personal experience of basketball, which I played throughout my youth and then in high school and I've continued playing pickup even now at 40, which is a risky proposition, but I'm just trying to get out without an injury every week.

HOWARD BRYANT: It's all you can do.

CHRIS HAYES: It's all you can do. It's like I'm out. I had like one or two nice assists there and then I'm out. In the experience of basketball for me as a white kid from New York City, basketball was always a black dominated space. And you just knew that culturally. You were the minority and you were also in a space where whiteness did not control, really, in the world of New York City basketball.

HOWARD BRYANT: That's right. It's the one place where ... "Who are you guarding? Guard the white boy."

CHRIS HAYES: Yes, exactly.

HOWARD BRYANT: That's your name. I'm the white boy, right? That's who you are.

CHRIS HAYES: Yes, that's right. And you go into a gym and you're just like ... Man, you were just getting called every goddamn…

HOWARD BRYANT: I actually had this conversation with Danny Ainge a bunch of years ago and I said to him, "Danny, what happened to the white American basketball players? When I was a kid, there was you, there was Kevin, there was Larry Bird, Tom Chambers, there were all these American. Who's the best white American player right now?" I said, "Gordon Hayward?"

And I remember to asking. His response was amazing. His response was, "I think we have too much money." He says, "When Kevin, Larry and I went out there and played, we wanted to prove that we could make it in the black game." He says, "And I think that today, we have a lot of white kids that may not want that challenge. They'll just go on and go play lacrosse or go play something else. They don't want to be a minority."

CHRIS HAYES: Dude, you know what I discovered recently? My good buddy is a volleyball coach. There's like a whole bunch of 6’7” white dudes who jump 48 inches.

HOWARD BRYANT: Yes. They play different sports.

CHRIS HAYES: They play volleyball.

HOWARD BRYANT: That's right. They play different sports.

CHRIS HAYES: I'm looking at these tapes, these kids like, "Damn dude."

HOWARD BRYANT: Where did you come from?

CHRIS HAYES: "Like you're 6'7" and you're just touching 12 feet. You're 6'7"." Yeah, he's playing volleyball.

HOWARD BRYANT: Playing volleyball.

CHRIS HAYES: He's got a good ride to a very, very good school.

HOWARD BRYANT: Yep. Well, I thought Danny's point of not wanting to be the minority was really interesting, because that is a point too that I thought is a theme throughout this project as well, where you look at it and you say, "Who would want to be a minority?" Nobody wants to be the minority. And yet, when you talk to people, they'll tell you that, "Well, black people have it better than whites." They'll tell you that the opportunities are there. They'll tell you all of these different things that are complete and total nonsense and yet they're embedded into it. They believe it.

Image: 2019 NBA Finals - Game Five
Kevin Durant of the Golden State Warriors reacts after sustaining an injury during the second quarter against the Toronto Raptors during Game Five of the 2019 NBA Finals at Scotiabank Arena on June 10, 2019 in Toronto.Claus Andersen / Getty Images

CHRIS HAYES: And they would never switch places, right?

HOWARD BRYANT: And would never switch places.

CHRIS HAYES: I can feel in my gut, when I talk about these were black dominant spaces, I could feel my stomach now to this day clenching going into that space.

HOWARD BRYANT: Well that's right.

CHRIS HAYES: Because of that, right?

HOWARD BRYANT: Well, that's right. Well, there's an essay in the book called "The Worst Thing in the World," and it's all about this. It's about that price. It's about the conversation that we were having earlier about how much power do you actually have if you lose everything making this transition.

And if the price of success in the United States is your blackness, are you actually succeeding? What is the deal that you're making? And I feel that in so many different ways ...

I think one of the points I was really trying to get at too in that essay was if you have to surrender your blackness here in this arena where the players are 80% black, where you're so culturally dominant, what chance do you have as a scientist at Lawrence Livermore, what chance do you have anywhere else if you risk being blackballed for standing up as a black, making a black political choice here? This should be the one place where you should be able to say what you're saying because you have so much economic power and so much cultural influence. But even here, you lose that.

CHRIS HAYES: I mean the way this connects to some of what you write about in the book that's not related to sports is just ... I'm trying to think of the right word, because I think pessimism is too pejorative, but just this kind of like ... I feel like there's a strain in this book that I've seen echoed elsewhere and you cite Baldwin and Baldwin has this ...

HOWARD BRYANT: The way to do that.

CHRIS HAYES: Yes. He writes about this obviously is as well as anyone ever has on this question of just like, "Oh right. It's still the case that we're black in America.”

HOWARD BRYANT: Well, that's right.

CHRIS HAYES: And that still means this sort of intractable thing.

HOWARD BRYANT: Yeah. And I thought that the question that I was asking was if you are an African-American now, what has been asked of you? I think that the real difference to me has been the idea of aspiration. What we have been told over and over again is to be patient, to join, to trust, to be a team player and all of these things and that education is going to bring you in. Accomplishment is going to make you a member of this society that you're going to be an American.

And then you elect this man. And that to me was ... There's nothing you can do. It is intractable in terms of the message being sent was do not think that there's more to it than this, that everything you say ... The first sentence of the book is “to be black is to be a dissident.”

It's to say that there's nothing you can do to go beyond the station that you have right now. You can make a lot of money, but if you say anything, then maybe you don't belong here. Maybe you should go somewhere else.


HOWARD BRYANT: Go back. I used to have an email file when I was at the Boston Herald. Go back to Africa file where these are ... Anytime you speak up about something, anytime you ask for something, suddenly you do not have an ownership in this American Dream anymore.

HOWARD BRYANT: And so the question for me had been, how then do you navigate this? Because the attitude that I hear today that's very, very different that really led me to write about this is people aren't saying be patient anymore. You don't hear from your national conversation that we have a long way to go, but one day we'll get there.

HOWARD BRYANT: You're hearing something different. You're hearing a very, very different message. And that message is if you don't like it, too bad that there is no joining this now. And that to me told me, "Okay, it's time for me then to assess all of those relationships. What does this mean to all of the friendships that you've made?" I didn't grow up in the hood. We left the hood because we were exactly that family.

CHRIS HAYES: The aspirational trajectory.

HOWARD BRYANT: The aspirational trajectory, and that trajectory was what? You had to go to school with white kids to get a good education, you had to leave the community to be safe. So, you had to move in to all of these white spaces. Moving into all of those white spaces, there was supposed to be a payoff. That payoff was we would accept you, once you got the good grades and went to the same schools and aspired and did those things. Then you reached this point, then you respond to the first black president with this. To me that was the question, what do you do with that? Where do you go there? There is no payoff, but I didn't feel pessimistic about, that I actually felt somewhat optimistic about it because it meant that you didn't have to buy into it anymore. That it actually gave you some freedom.

CHRIS HAYES: Right, exactly. Like if the whole thing has been a con, then all of the performance around pursuing it-

HOWARD BRYANT: Then I don't have to play anymore.


HOWARD BRYANT: That doesn't mean checking out. That means finding different avenues that help you, that allow you to feel like you have your own morality. Someone asked me yesterday when I was getting ready to start this tour, "Do you feel pessimistic and depressed that the book is relevant or more relevant than you want it to be?" I said, "Well, I think any writer wants their book to be relevant. So, I'm not upset about that." But what I do feel is I feel a lot of hope in some ways even though I don't feel like this is a survival guide book for you. It's not something that I'm... It's not a how to survive Donald Trump. It's not that at all.

What I found is I found it to be in writing at a process where you could think about your life in a different way, that you are able to look at it more honestly. In looking at it more honestly, you are able to not engage in spaces that you felt were hostile to you because people tell you to, that you were able to say, "No, this isn't for me," that there are other ways.

CHRIS HAYES: What do you mean by that specifically?

HOWARD BRYANT: Well, what I mean by that specifically? What I mean-

CHRIS HAYES: Like sport, do you mean that... Well, personally, not sports.

HOWARD BRYANT: No, I mean it personally. I mean it in terms of how many different times, whether it's on social media where somebody wants you to debate them, "Debate me." "I don't want to debate you."

CHRIS HAYES: Yeah, they don't. Yeah.

HOWARD BRYANT: Exactly. They don't. I don't really want to debate you. Or when you have people believe that it's your responsibility then to bring them along and to help them and to show them what... You're arguing about race and you're arguing about gender or class or all of these different things. I think to me it was a point where you could say, "Listen, this is an acknowledgement." Especially when you combine it with what took place in November and the election of 2016, that we all understand each other now, that if you-

CHRIS HAYES: The mask is off.

HOWARD BRYANT: The mask is off. 63 million people elected Donald Trump. So don't tell me that all we have to do is get him out of office, and we'll be fine. No, no, no. There's something terribly physically broken here. In recognizing that, I thought that it was somewhat liberating to me.

CHRIS HAYES: I'm curious what the world of sports writing culture, sports media is like because I know that in the same way what I was saying before about the NFL, like you just referred to your Boston Herald column. It's like you're writing for an audience who's got a lot of different politics when you're writing about sports.

HOWARD BRYANT: Yeah. Well, that's right, which is why they keep trying to silence you.

CHRIS HAYES: Right, exactly. It's the exact same sort of situation as Kaepernick in the sort of slightly smaller stakes, but not if you're experiencing it personally.

HOWARD BRYANT: Well, that's right.

CHRIS HAYES: Than say, being an MSNBC host, right? You're like anyone who's ever listened to sports radio in any major city.

HOWARD BRYANT: Well, once again, white owners, white coaches, white media, white season ticket holders, black player. That's the same in some ways for the writers as well. We know who the filter is, we know what the filter is, we know what the audience is. So, constantly, being in this business, you are told that you've got two dueling attitudes. On the one hand, you have people telling you that they do not want their sports to be political. On the other hand, they're constantly beating you over the head with their politics, that they believe in the neutrality of whiteness. They believe in white-

CHRIS HAYES: Which itself is political.

HOWARD BRYANT: Which is political, which is completely political. So, you're constantly, in this business, you're in a relationship with the black players in a lot of ways, trying to represent an attitude that they want conveyed, that they don't feel can be conveyed either. So, the relationship between the sport-

CHRIS HAYES: That's interesting.

HOWARD BRYANT: ... and then the relationship between the black players, I mean, they're looking at you to see if you're an agent, the double agent, travel agent or whatever. Can you be trusted with my message? That puts you in a lot of situations as well considering, because we're still... I don't really like them. Do you think I get along with every black player in sports? So, you're also-

CHRIS HAYES: Of course… [laughter]

HOWARD BRYANT: Because like I said, we're not going to get along either. So, it all depends on those relationships, too. But in general, what you end up finding is you end up finding you are representing a hostile voice, or your voice is being met with hostility.

CHRIS HAYES: To the extent that you're channeling the voice of those players.

HOWARD BRYANT: Of those players as well. Absolutely. And your own because you've got this dueling message being sent to the country that they don't want to hear from you. They want you to perform. They're couching that, and it being apolitical, and yet at the same time, it's completely not.

CHRIS HAYES: I always think about the vulnerability. I now am a professional television broadcaster. So, I talk to people on TV for a living. Talking to people on TV is hard. Certainly, I think harder than it looks.


CHRIS HAYES: I think about the fact that from the time these players are teenagers, in many cases, they're playing in, say, a big football program in a state like Texas, where there's broadcast of the games. They're being asked often, like when they've just had this insane amount of adrenaline release, sometimes half naked, in a physically vulnerable state, literally, like unclothed.

HOWARD BRYANT: Yeah. We have had to remind interns and such, when you go into the locker room, they're naked.

CHRIS HAYES: Right. That they are being asked to do what I'm paid to do and what has taken me a long time to develop a set of professional tools to do, which is communicate to people through the medium of television. They're being asked to do that from the time they're teenagers through of the exact frame that you're saying, which is a frame that they're not controlling.

HOWARD BRYANT: That's right. That is the reason why it is so interesting when you have those immediate moments. That's why they say that you have the cooling off period after the game. You've got to wait 10 minutes or so before you can go into the locker rooms because they're all so amped up. But that's not the case immediately following the game when they do it on field, the game just ended. When you watch someone like Richard Sherman go off as he did a few years ago, I mean he's amped up, he's fired up. He just played a championship game.

Richard Sherman
Richard Sherman

So, these messages are being sent, and they're being sent to specific people and through specific people. What I mean by specific, is it's still being sent through that lens of the mainstream.

CHRIS HAYES: Yeah. It has to be.

HOWARD BRYANT: It has to be. That's right. So, there's no real way around that. So, the question really is, is how do we filter those messages? In today's world, in the social media world, they get rid of the filter. They do it themselves. A lot of these players have their own social media presence. A lot of these guys, if you look at someone like Kevin Durant or Steph Curry, LeBron James, now they have their own production companies. So, essentially, what they're trying to do, because of their enormous wealth and their influence now, they're trying to pull some power back. and Colin Kaepernick does the same thing, sometimes by speaking, sometimes by not speaking. It's a-

CHRIS HAYES: I think that development is fascinating, too. The world of athletes on social media because it's like, at one level, you have power; at the other level, it's like that shit gets messy.

HOWARD BRYANT: It gets messy fast.

CHRIS HAYES: Kevin Durant to me is a particularly interesting case because here's this guy who's probably one of the five best basketball players on the planet.


CHRIS HAYES: Of six billion people.

HOWARD BRYANT: Maybe three.

CHRIS HAYES: Maybe top three. There's six billion people on the planet. There's maybe two to four other people who can do the thing he does as well as he does. None of us and no one listening to this podcast will ever be as good at a thing as Kevin Durant is in basketball.

HOWARD BRYANT: Unless LeBron James is out there listening. He can have this conversation, right?

CHRIS HAYES: Yeah, unless LeBron is listening.

HOWARD BRYANT: Or Kawhi Leonard is listening to the podcast, they can have the conversation.

CHRIS HAYES: Yet, so I think in my head like, "Man, if you are that"... That dude has been that good at that thing since he was 13 years old. You think to yourself, man, like, "Man, if I was that good at a thing, I would you just walk around all day being like, 'God damn, I'm so good at this thing.' I would think nothing else, but like 'I'm f------ Kevin Durant. I can do whatever I want in a basketball court.'" Yet when you see his life on social media, the dude is just wracked with insecurity, wracked.

HOWARD BRYANT: Thin skinned, rabbit ears. The whole thing, it's bizarre.

CHRIS HAYES: Beefing in the DMs with random people that talk s--- about him on Twitter, like some 19-year-old. We don't-

HOWARD BRYANT: Or a bot. You don't even know who you're talking to with social media.

CHRIS HAYES: The window into that psychology to me has been a fascinating thing to see.

HOWARD BRYANT: Yeah. It's true. Once again, I think that's the... When I have tried to explain the position of the black athlete, the argument falls apart. It always collapses on along one line. Well, they're rich. I mean, that's the response to damn near everything. It crushes every conversation. It destroys-

CHRIS HAYES: It’s like, "You want me to feel sorry for this person?"

HOWARD BRYANT: Well, what should I feel then? Well, nobody put a gun to his head. These are the conversations that you have with people. What that does is it completely undermined their humanity. It doesn't allow them to speak. So in other words, once again, we talk about this, and this is a theme throughout the book where you say, "Okay, you're supposed to be the one who made it. That's supposed to give you the power, that's supposed to give you... You're supposed to have it all now. Yet in some ways, you have less than what other people have. But the one great equalizer is the one thing that diminishes you." It's not all the money.

CHRIS HAYES: Not only that. Not only that. It's that you have been... There's a psychological process you've gone through to get as good as you are, which is you have to be a little obsessed to your own deficiencies to get that good.

HOWARD BRYANT: That's right.

CHRIS HAYES: People, I think, really don't realize, fans don't realize. I think there's a little more dawning awareness that no one is that good without being just a psychotic work ethic, meaning a preternaturally disciplined human being, more disciplined than... Again, almost guaranteed more discipline than anyone listening to his podcast. We're just, well more disciplined than me, for sure.

HOWARD BRYANT: Well, of course.

CHRIS HAYES: LeBron is, I think, the most disciplined human being I've ever encountered in my life. You have to have developed to get that good of psychological complex. It's constantly obsessing on your own deficiencies in some ways because, otherwise, you're not going to put in the work to be Kevin Durant and LeBron James.

HOWARD BRYANT: That's right. You can't do it.


HOWARD BRYANT: You also have to look at the rest of the world as threat because, constantly, everyone is trying to take what you have. I say this all the time. Nobody works harder at their jobs than professional athletes. If I have a bad day at work, there's not somebody directly behind me... I'm not going to get released tomorrow. It's not over for me tomorrow. I can do better.

CHRIS HAYES: Also, they're not going to leave the evening news cast when you're f------ up.

HOWARD BRYANT: That's right, whether you failed. Absolutely right.

CHRIS HAYES: We all f--- up all the time. It's just like you don't do it in front of... Well, sometimes, I actually do it in front of millions of people.

HOWARD BRYANT: That's true. Same here. It's like, "You read the story," and you go, "That's wrong."

CHRIS HAYES: Most people don't. But I'd say sometimes I do.

HOWARD BRYANT: Yeah, it's true. I think that what that does is it puts them in a... We don't have a sufficient enough level of professional respect for what they do and for who they are.

CHRIS HAYES: That's what it is. Yes. That's right.

HOWARD BRYANT: How many times have you heard somebody say, "I could make that play?" No, you couldn't.


HOWARD BRYANT: No you couldn't. "I could have done that." No, actually you couldn't have.

CHRIS HAYES: I actually think that's another part of social media that I've actually found useful in that respect because if you follow a certain player on social media, which I do, you actually get a snapshot into it, where it's like, "Oh!." Again, LeBron's in another category, but he was filming this movie this summer. Do you follow him on Instagram? He was filming his movie this summer. Now, this is slightly performative. Granted. It's not like he knows what he's doing. But he was filming this movie this summer. So, he was going to the gym at 4:30 in the morning before they started filming in the off season. He's on his Instagram stories like, headed to the gym, and there's like, in the gym. It's 4:30. He's got his music going. He does his insane workouts. That guy's like just next level, but it's not just LeBron. If you follow these players on social media, you get a snapshot of the fact of just how hard they're working.

HOWARD BRYANT: Yeah, absolutely. That is the thing, being able to be a rounded person, being able to have this thing that you do, which is incredibly high profile, but also to not be limited by it because for all the things that we do when we talk about LeBron's IG or whether we're talking about what Kevin Durant or Steph Curry says, everything changes the minute they have an opinion, the minute they have an opinion about something, whether it's Hong Kong, which I didn't get into the book, obviously, because I missed the deadline because the book had already been in production, but I'm wishing that would have been a conversation to be in there as well.

It's a really interesting dynamic because it is that love hate relationship you see with them, where you want to be around them and you want to be close to them, and you marvel at what they do, and you structure your day around them when it's a championship game or whatever, if you want to see the game. But at the same time, there's a piece of the public that just resents the hell out of them. It really does resent them.

CHRIS HAYES: Yeah. So true. It’s sick.

HOWARD BRYANT: I find it interesting that the last section of the book is called Renters. That's the question is what happens when you don't believe there's anything you can do, whether it's winning championships or gold medals or putting on the uniform to belong. How can you say you don't belong when you've got $30 million in the bank, but yet at the same time you risk all of that by taking a position supporting African Americans? How can these two concepts exist?

CHRIS HAYES: I like what the Renters metaphor. So explain that.

HOWARD BRYANT: Well, what it meant was that we talk about owners. You are an owner of the American Dream. You belong as part of the American Dream. One of the things that we do through sports is we talk about you being a true American hero, if you're Joe Lewis or even Muhammad Ali in terms of what he turned into, or Joe Frazier and LeBron James. So you build the school to become an American. You've take your team to the Super Bowl as Colin Kaepernick did. Everyone cheers you. 80 million people are out there cheering for you. Then one day you say, "Gee, I don't like the fact that the criminal justice system does not do well by African Americans." Suddenly, it's time for you to leave the country. You're not an owner anymore. You're not part of the American Dream. This is the African American story.

The minute you ask for something, people feel, the mainstream white America feels like they can take everything from you. So, that's the tension of the entire story. I think that the athletes feel that more incisively than anybody because it's like, "Wait a minute, you loved me yesterday. You were cheering for me yesterday. Now, I did something you don't like, and you want to revoke my citizenship." How many times did we hear the President say, "Well, maybe you don't belong in this country" for the great offense of what?

So you build the school, you go to the Olympics, you put on the uniform. All we're doing as African Americans are doing exactly what they've told us to do. You get the college degree, you do all of the things. The minute you have any sort of request, then somehow you are the problem.

CHRIS HAYES: I'm just thinking of the LeBron tweeted the President, which is my favorite clap back to Donald Trump in the entire era where he just says “U Bum.”


CHRIS HAYES: Well, to your point, I claimed to just advise Steph Curry. He's like, he wasn't coming.

HOWARD BRYANT: Yeah. Well, you brought up an interesting point. What happens when the athlete becomes the leader. That's where this next wave of when you've got the guys who own their production companies and they've got media control now. What happens when the protester becomes the CEO? Is that the next wave of where all of this is going? What will they do with that power? Are they going to simply mimic? Or are they going to create a new path?

CHRIS HAYES: Howard Bryant is a senior writer for, author of nine books. His latest, a collection of essays called “Full Dissidence: Notes from an Uneven Playing Field” is out now. Howard, thanks so much.

HOWARD BRYANT: My pleasure.

CHRIS HAYES: Once again, great thanks to Howard Bryant. The book is called “Full Dissidence: Notes from an Uneven Playing Field.” You could tweet with the #WITHpod; email, for feedback. We'd love to hear it.

“Why Is This Happening?” is presented by MSNBC and NBC News produced by the “All In” team and features music by Eddie Cooper. You can see more of our work, including links to things we mentioned here by going to

Related Links

"Full Dissidence" by Howard Bryant

"Twilight of the Elites" by Chris Hayes