James Harris sat on the pulpit at Sixth Avenue Baptist Church and recalled advice he received as he was about to become the first black player to start a season at quarterback in the National Football League.
“Make sure the reason you didn’t make it isn’t that you are black,” he was told.
The cameras and crew of ESPN’s The Undefeated were in Birmingham on Wednesday to tape a Black History Month special. “Dear Black Athlete” commemorates the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. and features one-on-one conversations with sports figures discussing the role athletes can play in promoting a more civil dialogue about social justice, leadership and women’s rights.
Guests included Harris, longtime NFL wide receiver Anquan Boldin, who played six of his 14 seasons with the Arizona Cardinals, Baltimore Ravens tight end Benjamin Watson, Tampa Bay Rays pitcher Chris Archer and David Williams, the vice chancellor and athletics director at Vanderbilt University. There is also a prerecorded conversation with retired Los Angeles Laker Kobe Bryant.
The show, which was hosted by Cari Champion, airs at 7 p.m. Central Time on Sunday, Feb. 11 on ESPN.
Kevin Merida, editor of ESPN’s The Undefeated, told several hundred people during the live taping that the show is a continuation of ESPN’s look at black athletes and the importance of their role in the community and ability to influence and inspire children.
“To bring this all together in this place is really important for us,” Merida said. “This is part of a larger initiative we have at ESPN. Black History Month is not the only month that we commemorate our achievements … but give it some special attention.”
Archer’s biological mother is white and his father is black. He recounted an incident the reminded that he is black when a white boy he had defeated in dodgeball called him “blackie,” he shared.
Boldin recalled teaching lessons to his son, who is now 8 years old.
“We have to tell our kids they can not only be great athletes,” he said. “They can also run the show.”
Speaking after the taping, Vanderbilt’s Williams said a black college athlete can aspire to be more than just a basketball or football player. An athlete can involve himself in the rest of his university.
“I think back to the day when the starting quarterback was also the president of the class,” he said. “You don’t have that anymore.”
“The negative change is when I was an athlete, you didn’t stay an athlete if you didn’t do your education piece,” added Williams, who was on the track team at Northern Michigan University. “Now that has really changed. Now a lot of our kids are able to be athletes and never get the degree.”
The Buffalo Bills of the American Football League made Harris the first black to start a season at quarterback in the NFL. He went on to become a senior personnel executive for the Detroit Lions of the National Football League.
Harris said progress is visible in that the black athlete as emerged as the type of personality that can bring businesses and people together. Some athletes today – including former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick – use their sports platform to make a social stand.
But, Williams added, that is not new.
“We had some great spokesmen early on in Bill Russell, Arthur Ashe, Jim Brown – guys who wasn’t afraid to speak out,” he said. “I just think the platform is bigger today than it ever was. And the message is reaching more and more people.”