The former pro athlete and author discusses his new book highlighting athletes who have spoken out about social issues called Ways of Grace.
Former Professional Tennis Player and Author James Blake
Tavis Smiley: Good evening from Los Angeles. I’m Tavis Smiley.
The recent headlines about NFL players taking a knee or locking arms during the national anthem is not the first time we’ve seen politics play a role in sports in this country. So tonight, first a conversation with James Blake. The former professional tennis player joins us to discuss his new book highlighting athletes who’ve spoken out about social issues. It’s called “Ways of Grace”.
Then a special encore performance from The Rance Allen Group, two songs tonight, “Like A Good Neighbor” and “A Lil’ Louder (Clap Your Hands)”. We’ve heard so much about their appearance here a week or so ago, we’re playing it for you more time.
We’re glad you’ve joined us. All of that coming up in just a moment.
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Tavis: So honored to have James Blake on this program. The retired professional tennis player who was once ranked fourth in the world has written a new text about activist athletes. It’s called “Ways of Grace: Stories of Activism, Adversity, and How Sports Can Bring Us Together”. Good to have you on this program, James Blake.
James Blake: Thanks for having me.
Tavis: I guess the question is can sports still bring us together these days [laugh]?
Blake. I hope so. I do hope so, and I really do believe that. Maybe it’s my optimistic nature, but I really feel like it’s something that does religions together, brings the LGBT community together. It brings different races together and it can unite.
And I think we saw that in response to some of Donald Trump’s comments. It united people. I am afraid sometimes that loses the message that this whole protest started with Colin Kaepernick taking a knee.
Tavis: Before we go to Trump and Kaepernick, when I saw the book come across my desk, I obviously thought of the obvious. When I saw “Ways of Grace”, I thought of…
Blake: Arthur Ashe.
Tavis: Yeah, “Days of Grace”.
Blake: Yes, and that was the pressure I put on my self because I came up with the title before I wrote the book and I said, “Okay, if I’m gonna name it this, I better do something good” because I want to make him proud. I would want to make Jeanne proud and his family proud of something I’m doing as an homage to him.
Tavis: For those who’ve not read Arthur Ashe’s memoir, it’s called “Days of Grace”, a wonderful, powerful text. So James is paying homage to his hero, Arthur Ashe. He wrote for many of us, I might add. So let me start with this.
Over the weekend, Mike Pence, Vice President — I’m from Indiana, so I know this guy fairly well — goes to a Colts game. They’re playing, interestingly, the 49ers who Kaepernick played for. They’re retiring Peyton Manning’s jersey that day and it was just too much for me to swallow, too much to bear, because you know this whole thing was set up.
So Trump eventually comes out and says, “I told Pence to go to the game and I told Pence if anybody took a knee, leave the game.” So you’re gonna overshadow all that Peyton Manning has done and all that he stood for and you’re gonna turn this into a platform for a publicity stunt because you knew somebody was gonna take a knee.
So he walks out, all the cameras are following him. Like what did you make of that? I just thought that was so bush league, but what’d you make of that?
Blake: I completely agree with you. I think it’s something where you’re saying this isn’t the time and the place to make this statement. The anthem isn’t the time and place. When you’re doing what you’re supposed to be doing, which is playing football, you’re not supposed to take a stand. You’re not supposed to make any political statements.
Well, you just came into a sports event that’s about Peyton Manning and made a political statement. So the same can be made about you, that you’re turning this into a politicized situation when it should be about Peyton Manning and then it should be about the players on the field.
He’s taking exactly what he’s saying not to do and doing it. Like you said, it seemed so staged, so unreasonable. You know the 49ers have done this in weeks past. They’re gonna continue to do it because they’re trying to stick with the message that Colin Kaepernick began.
Tavis: Yeah. And then, speaking of Kaepernick, he makes news over the weekend, if I read this correctly. So after starting this whole process, he now says that if he gets picked up by a team — he’s in New York working out hoping to still get picked up at some point — he now says if he is picked up, he would no longer take a knee.
I guess his message is, “I’ve made my point” or, I don’t know if its that or he wants to get a job. What did you make of his comment?
Blake: Well, I think he’s adjusting as the situation is going, and I think he’s making the point and making the case that he is not a distraction, which has been lobbied at him so often, that he’s a distraction, he wouldn’t be great in the locker room.
He’s saying he hasn’t made a statement in eight months. Now he’s saying I will stand. I will do what the owners want me to do. I’ll do what is expected of me, and he’s still not given a job.
He’s still considered a distraction when he hasn’t done anything but put his own money into communities, done what he can to help his Know Your Rights campaign, spoken in high schools, given suits to parolees. He’s doing thing that are so positive, everyone says, “Well, why doesn’t he put his money where his mouth is? Why isn’t he helping, you know, real change?”
Well, I feel like he’s done that for the last eight months and he’s still considered a distraction. In my opinion, he’s showing “I’m doing everything I can to not be a distraction and I’m still not getting a job, being given an opportunity, so what else do you really expect for me to do?”
Tavis: It’d be strange for me that to watch an NFL game to see Kaepernick on a team playing and he’s standing and other guys are kneeling. Wouldn’t that be like — that’d be hard to process.
Blake: That would be interesting, and I think part of it is he has started this conversation. I think it’s so important, you know, just the same as Curt Flood started free agency. He didn’t get paid. Everyone else got to bear the fruit that he labored for.
And that’s what I feel like Colin Kaepernick is doing. He’s a bit falling on the sword for all the others that, hopefully, will get a positive reaction from this call for social justice and for racial equality in this country.
Tavis: Yeah. I’m glad you wrote the text, but tell me why you decided to write this one?
Blake: Well, I wrote this because I’d been thinking of possible ways to talk about the positive impact of sports and then what happened to me in 2015 where I was thrown down and attacked by a police officer in New York. I just felt like, okay, this is a story that can be told from my perspective and also let people know that there are other ways that sports can unite us.
Tavis: Yeah. I think most people know the story of what happened to you in 2015. It’s been written about everywhere and talked about everywhere. What’s made it news again of late is that the officer, James Francisco — is that…
Tavis: Frascatore — I can’t pronounce Frascatore. I got the James part right [laugh]. How ironic is that? You get tackled by another James, yeah. So Frascatore tackles you. We know the story of what happened.
I guess a couple of days ago, he announced that he’s gonna sue you for defamation because you, to his mind , went in on him and have defamed his character. I suspect you can’t talk about an ongoing case in detail, but can you say anything about this?
Blake: Yeah. The only thing I can say right now is I have hired a lawyer and we plan on getting it all out in the open and letting people see and make the judgment for what they see and how absurd, in my opinion, it is to have a case for defamation when everyone’s seen the video and knows what happened.
In my book, I didn’t know any more detail than what people saw in the video and my feelings on it, which I don’t understand how that could be defamatory to talk about my experience and what I went through. We’ll see. We’ll go this legal process. It is just frustrating to be two years later and still working on any sort of justice and any sort of discipline.
Tavis: Speaking of two years later — let me move away from the case — but two years later, he still has not been fired yet. What do you make of that?
Blake: Well, that’s a bigger issue. That’s not just about him. That’s the system. You saw Jason Stockley, you know. It seems unfortunate that police officers are able to do — some of them. I don’t want to categorize them all because most police officers are heroes. We saw heroes in Las Vegas, what they did and how appreciative we should be of the good cops.
I am appreciative of the good cops, but there’s a few bad apples there, and those need to be held accountable. And the ones that aren’t held accountable, they feel like they can operate above the law. That’s unfortunate and that erodes the trust in all the police officers and that’s really unfair to the ones that are doing their job well.
So I would call for the police officers that are doing their job the right way to speak up even more so, even more vocally, to say, “Hey, we don’t want to deal with someone that’s very nervous, that’s frantic because they don’t trust the police officers when I’m the one that is doing my job the right way, and now I’m in a situation that’s dangerous because of what another officer has done because they’ve done their job the wrong way.”
You know, this officer, in my opinion, did his job the wrong way. Unfortunately, if he doesn’t get more than a slap on the wrist, he’s going to continue to do that.
And most cases that have ended in fatalities at the hands of a police officer, they have patterns of behavior. They have other excessive force complaints. They have, you know, people that have said that they’ve obstructed. They have these patterns…
Tavis: Same here?
Blake: In this case, has a pattern. So when do we stop the pattern? We don’t want to wait until there’s a grieving family to stop the pattern. We want to stop it before that.
Tavis: You said something now, James, that I find fascinating. You’ve said it actually twice. Let me pick up on this. We talked earlier about the protesters taking a knee or locking arms and how convoluted, how inside out the forces of evil have turned that story. These people are not taking the knee in protest of the flag, of the country.
They’re talking about specifically the way police maltreat people, other acts of unrest and disorderly conduct on behalf of cops, etc., etc. But it’s not about the flag. They made it about that. It almost feels willful for them to kind of flip the script in that way. And the same is true now of a conversation where, if you critique any one officer, they try to flip it and act like you’re maligning all officers.
What do you make of this — I’m just trying to figure out how we have an authentic conversation in a space? How do we create a democratic space for conversation if people are gonna flip the script to suit their own needs and issues?
Blake: Yeah, and I just don’t think it’s fair what’s happened. It’s been now just talked about unity. And even the president has said, “Well, this isn’t about race.” Well, no, this started about race. Let’s not pussyfoot around that. Let’s not step around the issue. This started about race. This is talking about racial inequality, talking about police brutality specifically against people of color.
If that’s not the issue, if that’s not what we’re talking about, then the protest isn’t having the effect it’s supposed to have. And I think that’s what Colin Kaepernick started and it’s now the waters are being muddied by this general concern for unity.
And while I appreciate that because that’s a general concern in my book is talking about uniting players, uniting players of other religions, of other cultures, of other sexual orientations, that’s all a great positive general message, but that’s not what this specific protest started about. And to sort of hijack the method of this protest, which I think is what initially started, everyone had an issue with the method.
This is, you know, taking a knee during the anthem, it’s disrespectful to the flag, it’s disrespectful to the country, that’s not what it’s about. It’s making people a little uncomfortable so that they will think about this and so that they will have this conversation just the same as Tommie Smith and what John Carlos did in 1968.
They’re on the podium wearing USA on their chest and on their back and they’re still saying that we’re not treated equally when we go home to our country. So I think it’s okay to make people feel a little uncomfortable if it starts a great conversation.
I think that’s where we’re at, but the conversation right now is much more difficult to have, I think, because of the divide on this country, because it’s so hard to agree with anyone. If you don’t have a common ground to stand on and you don’t see eye to eye with someone, it’s like you just have to immediately run to your corner. I don’t know what the solution is for that in this country right now.
Tavis: Which raises the question, if everything else about our existence is divisive, why would we expect that sports at this point wouldn’t be used to divide us?
Blake: Well, I think it’s such a great diversion. You know, after 9/11, you saw the coming together. I’m a Mets fan, so when Mike Piazza hit a homerun in one of the first games back after 9/11, no matter who you were, you were hugging the person next to you. You were happy. There’s a tear coming to your eye. You saw the joy that it gave New Yorkers.
And I think those kind of inspirational moments can have such an impact. They can make people think about where they were at that point in their lives. They can be positive memories for so many people that I think that can be a great influence on society.
And then I also think about the ways that certain athletes have taken it upon themselves to be more than athletes. Billy Jean King, Martina Navratilova, some of the ones I wrote about in the book. And I think that’s so impressive that they take this platform and, instead of using it just for their own personal gain, they’re gonna do something to change the world in a positive manner.
Tavis: Is that just an opportunity for athletes, or duty or obligation for athletes?
Blake: I think it’s an opportunity because I wouldn’t put it on anyone else to say what you have to do, especially if you may not be informed. Just the same as, I think, if you’re out there committed 100% to your sport and you don’t have time to think about social justice, activism or anything like that.
I’m not faulting you for that, but then I just wouldn’t expect you to speak up or to have your opinion on it until you become educated on that topic. So I don’t fault them for that because they’re out there doing their jobs. Just the same as I wouldn’t fault an accountant or a plumber for not having an opinion or not voicing their opinion on whatever activist issue is the one at hand right now.
Tavis: As a Dodgers fan, my condolences to the Mets [laugh].
Blake: I appreciate that.
Tavis: There’s always next season [laugh].
Blake: I hope so. May they get healthy [laugh].
Tavis: The book is called “Ways of Grace: Stories of Activism, Adversity, and How Sports Can Bring Us Together”, written by the former number four ranked tennis player in the world, James Blake. James, good to have you on the program.
Blake: Thank you so much.
Tavis: We had such a tremendous response last week to an appearance on this program by The Rance Allen Group now celebrating 50 years together. Tonight, an encore performance of their performance. The first song is called “Like a Good Neighbor”, the second song, “A Lil’ Bit Louder (Clap Your Hands)”. Here comes The Rance Allen Group in just a moment.
Announcer: For more information on today’s show, visit Tavis Smiley at pbs.org.
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