I would like to offer acknowledgment and thanks to the muse of this piece, San Antonio Spurs guard, Lonnie Walker IV. Your ability to share your story, to place yourself in the light of vulnerability, as you shed the pain of your past is why I write this. I write to humanise the athletes like yourself and to educate fans, like myself, that athletes are more than what their job dictates. Beneath the jersey stands a body full of emotions that no amount of earned money should be able to invalidate.
Walker, an NBA player that sports a distinctive style of dreadlocks that do not dangle, swaying across the surface of one’s back. Instead, it remains still and erect, as proud trees huddled together in a densely populated forest. It’s a signature look that entered its way into meme folklore when he was selected by the San Antonio Spurs with the 18th pick of the 2018 NBA Draft. On that night, he would stand abreast of the commissioner, Adam Silver, donning the San Antonio cap that sat comically atop the foliage of his hair.
Recently, Walker cut off the very same hair that we would become accustomed to him having, revealing in a poignant Instagram post the genesis of his hair journey. He tells the story of his adolescent self growing his hair in an attempt to create ‘a cloaking device‘ to shield him from the pain of suffering sexual trauma as a child. The hair would grow to great lengths, hoping to become a bulwark against the blame, pain, and guilt that he felt. His hair would go through many iterations—from mohawks to flat-tops and then to twists—until it became its own being that served as a blockade from his past.
Me cutting my hair was more than a cut. My hair was a mask of me hiding the insecurity’s that I felt the world wasn’t ready for. But now better then ever. Out with old. In with the new. I have shed my skin mentally, emotionally, physically, and spiritually. Life will always be hard.(via his Instagram account)
As fans of sports, we choose the path of tribalism, where we parcel off a portion of our being and place it at the feet of the athletes, the club, the organisation. We reach deep into our chests and pull out our pulsing hearts, offering it up as fealty. We say to those, “Here is my heart, a token of my commitment to thee”, and what we expect from this sadistic ritual of blind faith is some kind of exchange for eternal happiness. Although, this life-time contract doesn’t always bear fruit. Some fortunate beings have been rewarded with championships and trophies—their sacrifices validated. Though, for the less fortunate others, they lay waiting, pleading, and hoping to fill that one day their team will fill that gaping void with ephemeral happiness.
For those that can, you flock to the stadiums, arenas, fields—or whatever form of building that houses your preferable sport—to check on how your investment is performing. You’ll hurl thunderous screams of jubilation when you’re are pleased, yet show disdain through the bellowing of synchronised boos when you have been. These monuments that house our sports are no less different from the archaic colosseums that served as Roman’s favourite past-time. No, not much has changed these days. We still amble towards being entertained over anything else, with the actual performers [athletes] serving merely as the means to our end.
With these cathedrals built for voyeuristic pleasures, it is not necessary an establishment suited for humanising athletes. We sit close enough to feel part of the mise-en-scene, yet far enough that we cannot touch—our individual words filling the gaps that our hands cannot. We stretch our voice, hoping that it’ll carry in projectile-form towards some type of impact. At times, we feel both empowered and entitled enough to verbally cross that line that separates us from the athletes, often failing to register that they are just like us, humans. When we feel like our voices do not carry, we double down, amplifying our words through the power of social media. Trolling, cursing and irrational threats flood the comment sections of athlete social media accounts. Because if you didn’t hear me calling you a racial slur from inside the stadium, you’ll definitely hear it when it is typed in ALL CAPS, under a photo of you and your family.
Lonnie Walker’s story is not one that is unprecedented, but it is rare, and it also serves as another reminder of our ardent myopia. It is now, more than ever, that our athletes are most vulnerable. Yet, during times of a global pandemic, where fear ravages us all, we still feel this sense of entitlement—that these athletes must not forgo their obligation to bend at the knee— that they still have to fulfil our insatiable demands to entertain us.
The confinement of lockdown has served as a handbrake on the perpetuity of life. It slows, almost to a standstill with our corresponding thoughts crashing to a halting stop. Suddenly, these thoughts that usually have the lifespan of a pitstop—before the next distraction would come to carry it away like shuttle service—become immortal. These thoughts are now able to be fine-combed, studied meticulously, and it is within these moments of quiet that we grapple with who we truly are. With racial tensions rife in the streets, with the effects of lockdown weighing heavy on us, athletes do not have the gruelling schedule of a sports season to find escapism. So, some march in the streets, carrying hurt in their hearts—coronavirus playing second fiddle—and for some, like Walker, they cut their hair, finding the strength to unshackle themselves from the trauma that plagued them.
It is in Walker’s story that we find this stunning vulnerability that catches us off guard. An athlete courageously speaking out about their traumatic past is rare to us, but within these same rare moments, it is often received by us with incredulity. Instead of embracing it with arms of empathy, we instead lob their million-dollar salaries back at them to invalidate them. We create this hypothetical tradeoff, whereby we feel that we can endure their trauma if it meant being paid with million-dollar subsequences. These are our athletes that we have placed secondary to our primitive need to be entertained.