Touchdowns and Lockdowns: Transcending Racial Politics in Prison Through Sports

(Ed.  This article first appeared in AlterNet, and is being re-posted upon request, inspired by the NFL playoffs.)

Jesse Owens and Joe Louis dared to disprove the Master Race theory. Jackie Robinson took the spikes at second base because he knew they were looking for one excuse to be rid of this defiant “Ni**er.” Tommie Smith and John Carlos reminded the world of the struggle at home, while Cassius Clay became a Muslim and pointed out, “I ain’t got no quarrel with them Vietcongs… no Vietcong never called me Ni**er.” Doug Williams discovered the differing perceptions of a quarterback, whether he’s at an African-American University or Super Bowl MVP.

The world of sports has always contained the racial issue. One could argue, in the 21st century, that we have few (if any) more famous firsts, but one cannot contend that sports have become color blind. American culture is consistently noticing whether a player is in a sport or position we have become comfortable with, though some credit should be given to baseball and soccer for their diversification throughout all positions. Fan favorites are still judged by intangibles like haircuts and smiles, but if you can play, you can play.

As an athlete myself, I’ve grown aware of the contrast between the players and the spectators. Sports have always developed camaraderie, responsibility, and leadership; certainly one of the few life rafts available to boys in America struggling against violence and oppression in our communities. I grew up helping to organize our neighborhood games because we didn’t have the money to join the leagues and buy all the equipment- and we loved football. All year round, tackle with no pads, and as the youngest I had to fight that much harder.

So that’s where I found myself for a decade: organizing leagues amongst those who failed in their struggle against violence and oppression. In prison. Only during my five years in Maximum Security were we allowed to play football, and this league was not for the faint of heart. Granted, we played tackle every day, all year round mostly amongst friends — whether 2-on-2 or 8-on-8. But the League on weekends during the NFL season was where everyone came out … even that guy you want to punch in the face because of something he said to your homeboy three years ago. Officially, it was “flag” football … but if you physically knock the man to the ground, he is down.

In my first week of prison, I heard a gracious insight on the basketball court by the man guarding me. He said, in not so friendly terms, “You may run things out there, but we run it in here.” Let me point out the fact that I’m White. I took it in stride. What I suspected then I became an expert on later: the American prison industrial complex is a racially discriminatory basin for the racially discriminatory judicial process, which is in turn the arbitrator of a racially discriminatory law enforcement system. The prisons, and the Drug War that overfeeds them, are a socially destructive force far beyond the Klan’s wildest dreams.

One can hardly imagine the sense of burden and obligation when living in the front lines of a racial war zone. When roughly 98% of the guards, marshals, cops, judges, and lawyers are White, it is not easy to share that characteristic in prison. As a student of history, politics, and liberation movements, there is a feeling of responsibility to meet ignorance with the truth. Whenever someone says something divisive over the “P.A.” (throughout the cellblock, with everyone listening), it’s the guy in the middle who needs to speak up in a constructive manner or the unspoken discontent will brew overnight.

On the football field, like the other sports, I always played on the hodgepodge ragtag Bad News Bears sort of squads. We had the Black, White, Latino, and Asian all coming together, similar to the multicultural French World Cup soccer team (1998) that rose above domestic ethnic strife to become champions on their own soil. We constantly had guys in The Hole, whether for gambling, drug use, or standing up to the guards. One year I got sent to the Hole after the Super Bowl, because I had made a football jersey with a T-Shirt and black marker. I took it in stride, knowing the brass was watching our game on the cameras. We only had eleven or twelve guys each weekend, but it was all we needed.

Characters like Black Rhino, Mac, Ant, Kev, and Kim showcased strength and heart to make a coach drool. An incredible 6’5″ athlete like Bobo reminds you how much professional talent never made it to college. And our wily quarterback Byron came with the wiggle of Barry Sanders and the arm of Joe Montana. I called him “Kordell.” He called me “Hines.” In prison, there’s no anomaly of being a Black Quarterback but there is the anomaly of being a White Wide Receiver or White Cornerback. That’s me, the anomaly.

I would line up on their best receiver and put him on lockdown. I would come over the middle and catch the underneath ball and subsequently be blown up by a linebacker. And I would bust a move to catch the bomb for a touchdown. Some guys wouldn’t want to cover me because they wouldn’t want to catch heat all week, how “the Whiteboy beat you for the TD.” For a variety of reasons, I was the only White guy amongst all the receivers, corners, running backs, or QB’s.

Our crew consisted of the guys who generally saw beyond race. For some, this came through their experience in organized sports in the past. Or come from a “neutral” ethnicity like Kim, a Cambodian. All are strong enough to stand up for what they believe, like the Rhino- a Black man who loves “White” music too. Mac, the musician, has a respect for diversity as broad as his gods in the evolution of rhythm and rhyme. Perhaps the whole of us are just wired a little differently, as leaders, with independent thoughts, and a genetic disposition to think all people are generally cool. Or perhaps we are the “real” convicts, who see one color: Khaki. We treat a man with the respect he earns, as someone with no guns, cars, or bling-bling to hide behind. In prison, a man is reduced to his mind, his mouth, and his hands.

One day an old school Italian guy comes up to me. Everyone knew me to some degree, as I also served as a jailhouse lawyer and portrait artist for my community. This guy was pretty well known in and out of the prison, but we weren’t close at all. He says to me, “Y’know, I go out there every weekend to watch you beat on them Ni**ers.” A line like that, in a place like prison, doesn’t leave much room for a thoughtful response.

“I appreciate the support,” I told him bluntly. “Especially as an underdog whose gotta fight for so much respect out there.” Then I couldn’t help but change the tone. “But those guys you call Ni**ers, those are my friends, and I’d appreciate it if you showed some respect.” The world of sports brings “race” to the fore, but the world of sports in prison its something that most could never imagine.

People often ask how I bring folks together. It starts by holding tightly to a courageous compassion and one fundamental principle: People are People. We all want the same things, like “Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.” As a constant outsider, it becomes easier to relate with everyone. I’m just me, whether its breakdancing or speaking Spanish, and never felt the need to act tougher than anyone.

I continue my organizing of prisoners, former prisoners, and families on the outside, working towards criminal justice reform. Most of my squad is still Inside, but I ran into Byron the other day in front of Burger King. Told him I’m looking to find a league we can enter with all the formerly incarcerated. To him, it’s primarily a way to have our fun again. For me, it’s a way to unite us, raise our self-esteem, and send a message back Inside that we’re out here working together towards seemingly impossible goals: Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.

Bruce Reilly is an organizer for Direct Action for Rights and Equality, in Providence, RI. After nearly 12 years in prison, Bruce formed 1000 lbs Guerilla as an outlet for his creativity in theatre and film. His book, “Newjack’s Guide to the Big House” is available HERE.


About Bruce Reilly

Bruce Reilly is the Deputy Director of Voice of the Ex-Offender in New Orleans, LA. He is a graduate of Tulane Law School and author of NewJack's Guide to the Big House. Much of his writing can be found on
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2 Responses to Touchdowns and Lockdowns: Transcending Racial Politics in Prison Through Sports

  1. Pingback: Unprison 2011-2013 Index | unprison

  2. Pingback: A Former Prisoner’s View: “Orange is the New Black” | unprison

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