Cover Image: Raise a Fist, Take a Knee

Raise a Fist, Take a Knee

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As an African-American & a huge sports fan, I truly appreciate John Feinstein for writing this book.  Feinstein put that work in on this one. While this book was so needed, Feinstein was the perfect person to write it. His research was immaculate. Sports have long colored many of the historical first in the country. Feinstein took readers on a historical journey through each sport individually.
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Thanks to NetGalley and the publisher for a free copy in exchange for my honest opinion.  The most interesting and powerful parts of this book were the individual stories of the coaches.  Unfortunately, Feinstein is too preachy and adds himself into the story unnecessarily.  There is obviously a story to tell here but I don't think he is the right person to do it.
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John Feinstein has a long list of books to his credit over the years, starting with "A Season on the Brink" - a look at Bobby Knight and Indiana basketball in the 1980s. He's written about basketball, football, baseball, tennis and golf, and it's fair to say that the books all have been of high quality.

"Raise a Fist, Take a Knee," as Feinstein is quick to point out, is different. Instead of taking one aspect of a particular sport, here Feinstein crosses the spectrum of sports to deal with one subject. And that subject is race, which probably could be called "the third rail" of journalism. 

You know where he's going with this just by reading the subtitle of the book: "Race and the Illusion of Progress in Modern Sports." Illusion? You mean, we haven't made progress in the intersection of race and sports over the years?

Yes, we have. But Feinstein's point is that we haven't gone far enough in this area to approach anyone's satisfaction. Consider stories told about a couple of African Americans, just as an example. Eric Bieniemy has been the offensive coordinator of the Kansas City Chiefs since 2018, and an architect of the NFL's most explosive offense during that time. You'd think that he'd be the hottest individual candidate for a head coaching job by now; he's not, and it's easy to wonder what's going on. Bieniemy certainly has. 

Then there's Lovie Smith, who spent nine years with the Chicago Bears - with four 10-win seasons and three playoff appearances. He was fired after a 10-6 season in 2012 - the only coach ever fired after that good of a record. Smith did take over a horrible Tampa Bay team in 2014, but was fired two years into a five-year contract after improving from 2-14 to 6-10. 

This discussion could get tied up pretty quickly, but Feinstein has a secret weapon to make points. He talks to people, at length. The list is impressive: John Thompson, Doug Williams, Tony Dungy, John Carlos, Warren Moon and Dave Stewart among others. He gives them the time and space to talk about their experiences at the intersection of race and sports. A common denominator for all of them is that race always lurks in the background whenever they walk out the front door of their home, no matter what their status in life has been. They all have been taught that in order to succeed in American society, they can't afford to be simply as good as the competition for success - they have to be a little better. They also have been stopped for Driving While Black, in some cases multiple times. 

For the most part, Feinstein gets out of the way of the interview subjects. That's not to say the reader doesn't know where the author stands on the issue, because Feinstein makes his viewpoints quite clear along the way. Subtlety isn't his strong point here, but that's fine. Yes, as a white man he doesn't know what it's like to have his skin color arrive on others before any other part of his being, thus causing some to jump to conclusions. Perhaps it's better that way, in that he can ask the "what is it like? questions without knowing the answers completely already. 

One of the key points along the way is that while the playing field has become relatively equal in many cases (if nothing else, discrimination by definition prevents a team from having the best possible roster on the field or court of play), opportunities in management are still limited to African Americans. It's frustrating to someone like Willie Randolph, who had a pretty good record as the manager of the Mets but who was fired in the middle of his fourth season. He's never had another shot at a managing job - in fact, he's supposedly only had one interview. 

"Raise a Fist, Take a Knee" no doubt will be ignored by those who want to ignore it. But it serves as a good wake-up call and a down-to-earn discussion for those who we've come along way without realizing that we've still got a long way to go. If you are interested in a rational discussion of a subject that often turns people irrational, this is a good place to start.
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Thanks to Little, Brown, and Company for a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

An amazingly interesting (and also shocking) look at how Black athletes have been unfairly treated not only in sports, but in everyday life. John Feinstein is one of my favorite active sportswriters, and he explains that he’s not “writing” about this issue, he’s “reporting” on it, as none of us who are white can ever understand what Black folks go through every day: having to not only do their jobs, but also overcome the inherent racism of also doing your job while being Black.

The list of interviewees is extensive, spanning the 4 major sports, and also including Black athletes in golf, tennis, and swimming. And the refrain was consistent throughout: yes, progress has been made, compared to what it looked like around the mid-20th century, but we are nowhere near close to eradicating systemic racism.  

Since around late 2016 or so, people have been more open with their racism, and it manifested itself during the summer of 2020. John’s interviewees, in some cases, all come back to that seminal moment in our history as a point when intelligent and progressive white people really came to their senses about racial differences in this country. Hearing these stories from famous athletes shows that it affects all.

Wonderfully done, and for me, eye-opening.

Cross-posted to Goodreads.
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John Feinstein has been a sportswriter for many years--long enough to know both the players and the coaches and the owners. Plus, he is a true sports fan and doesn’t seem to be a lunatic like many with strong opinions about sports. And I am old enough to remember the iconic raised fist salute at the Mexico City Olympics in (gasp) 1968 as well as being a long time fan of  many  of the players  and games referenced in this book, including Colin Kaepernick, probably the first that comes to mind for many when they see “take a knee.” So a book with the title Raise a Fist, Take a Knee really jumped out at me!

The act of taking a  knee definitely got a reaction from people, many of whom saw it as unpatriotic, although in the foreword by former NFL quarterback Doug Williams, it is correctly pointed out that  “...the protests had nothing to do with patriotism.” The rant by the former President elicited a strong response: “The week before his rant, a total of six players knelt for the anthem. On the Sunday afterward, more than two hundred players either knelt or stayed in the locker room…” One huge point raised by  Williams is that “...many people don’t want to accept that race is still a massive issue for all of us.”

TBH, I have long recognized the racism in sports, while at the same time marveling at the way sports can bring people together -- at least when they are fans of the same team or player. But if anyone has any doubt  about the systematic racism in sports, this book will be a real eye opener. There are separate sections for football, baseball, and basketball, each with jaw-dropping stories or honest quotes to emphasize the point. For example, African-American players in the NFL have been asked to change positions they played, because of the racism that favors qhite quarterbacks. Well-known figures including Tony Dungy and Mike Tomlin weigh in on their experiences, recounting how Black coaches are  often seen first as recruiters, better able to discuss challenges and reality with the players and their families. 

I am a big sports fan. I had a love-hate relationship with this book. I loved the depth of knowledge and honesty while simultaneously hating the situation that seems to be getting worse. Definitely, have an openly racist President brought a lot of closet racists out in the open, and recent events allowing people to actually see unarmed African-Americans gunned down have contributed to a greater awareness of the pervasive racism throughout society in general and sports in particular. It is an important book, an entertaining book, and an eye opener. Five stars, and thanks to Little, Brown and netGalley for a copy in exchange for an honest review.
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RAISE A FIST, TAKE A KNEE is a new work of non-fiction by John Feinstein in which he, a White man, interviews many players, coaches, and other sports figures about living the Black experience in sports. After a prologue which references the famous raised fist salute 53 (!) years ago at the Mexico City Olympics, Feinstein devotes sections of the book to football, basketball, and baseball.  He points out, for example, the ongoing discrimination where Black players in the NFL have been often asked to change positions prior to the draft. Comments from long standing NFL coaches Tony Dungy and Mike Tomlin (who describes how Black coaches are often thought of first as recruiters and find it difficult to move up) are interspersed. More examples, details, and commentary follow on the other sports, including both historic events and experiences of the younger generation.  Here is a recent PBS NewsHour interview in which Feinstein discusses his new book, including the push to write it from former Georgetown Hoya coach John Thompson, Jr.:  video embedded from: 

RAISE A FIST, TAKE A KNEE, subtitled "Race and the Illusion of Progress in Modern Sports," is clearly written by someone who knows and loves sports, yet who can also eloquently describe "how the protestors loved their country and wanted to make it better." Our students, particularly those who are big sports fans, will find this to be an accessible and thought-provoking work.
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