007 - Be Unstoppable with Cecil Harris | Sport Coats Podcast

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007 - Be Unstoppable with Cecil Harris

Meet Cecil Harris

Cecil is the author of four books on sports and sociology: Different Strokes: Serena, Venus, and the Unfinished Black Tennis Revolution, Charging the Net: A History of Blacks in Tennis from Althea Gibson and Arthur Ashe to the Williams Sisters, Call the Yankees My Daddy and Breaking the Ice: The Black Experience in Professional Hockey. Harris has also covered sports for The New York Times, The New York Daily News, Newsday, The New York Post, The Indianapolis Star, The News and Observer, Sporting News, The Hockey News, USA Today and the Associated Press. 

So behind the obvious answer of the Stanley Cup Playoffs, what has been your favorite playoffs or championship that you’ve covered?

I really did enjoy the Stanley Cup Playoffs during the finals in 2001 - The New Jersey Devils beat the Dallas Stars. I’m in New York, and New Jersey is just across the Hudson River, so it was like a local team had won. But, in reality my favorite was the 1996 Yankees when they won the world series. I had to suppress my rooting interest and wear that journalism hat for all six games and it was so great when they clinched game six here in New York and then had a huge parade along the Canyon of Heroes, which goes from Battery Park to City Hall.

What kind of impact did the Yankees have on New York back in 2001 right after 9/11?

It’s interesting, at the time, I was in Indianapolis covering the Indianapolis Pacers for the Indianapolis Star, but I was rooting passionately for the Yankees. They ended up playing the Arizona Diamondbacks in the 2001 playoffs and lost the first two games of the series in Arizona badly. Then they won the three games in New York and that was such an uplifting event. I’m watching on TV from Indiana, but I was in touch with all my New York friends and family members - and for the Yankees to come back and win the three middle games and then go back out to Arizona, and unfortunately they lose, what those games did for New York just a few weeks after the 9/11 tragedy, it really galvanized the city. That’s the great thing about sports, it can really bring people together in a way that few other things can and allow a lot of people to forget about things. For example those three games allowed people to forget about losing loved ones, the World Trade Center and being targeted by terrorists - at least for a while.

We look at where we are today, and there aren’t sports to galvanize cities and populations. As an author and journalist who has been covering sports for the last 20-or-so years, do you think your job as a journalist who covers black athletes is more important now than maybe ever before?

I think it is now because the athletes have found their voices. For example that video that the NFL players put out with Odell Beckham Jr., Patrick Mahomes, Saquon Barkley where they mention the names of some of the blacks who have been killed through violent interactions with the police. It was such a powerful statement that the NFL went to Commissioner Goodell and told him that he had to put out another statement because the one he had before was widely mocked. But this new video he made, where he actually said the words “black lives matter” you could not envision that four years ago when Colin Kaepernick was taking a knee for the San Francisco 49ers and was vilified for it. But now he might get a tryout for a team because the mood of the nation has changed. I think a lot of it has to do with the jarring reality that we have seen video of what happened to George Floyd for many of those other victims of violence. For other protests we didn’t see video, but the whole world has seen video of George Floyd with a police officer’s knee on his neck for eight minutes and 46 seconds. The only reason people have seen that is because a 17-year-old girl from the community was filming it with her smartphone, basically doing citizen journalism and now the whole world has seen it.

What has it been like in New York and New York City?

There are daily marches and rallies in New York City. The Mayor of New York City. imposed a curfew but eventually lifted the curfew because they were peaceful marches and demonstrations. There has been some looting and that’s really the terrible part because some people are destroying businesses, and sometimes it’s outsiders causing the problems with the looting, but for the most part it is peaceful. What I find really intriguing is that all of this is going on during a global pandemic. And people are risking their lives to be out there marching and protesting with like-minded people about something they believe in. I see it especially in healthcare workers who are already putting in really long days - and everyone has been asking for police reform. 

What do you consider to be the responsible message for sports leagues, franchises and even players to be putting out on social media?

I think the parse “Black Lives Matter” was considered controversial a few years ago, but now everyone understands that when you say that you’re not saying that other people’s lives don't matter. People say it because there are so many instances of unarmed black people who are killed, so Black Lives Matter should matter. So I think it’s responsible for athletes to recognize that they need to use their videos in a responsible way and amplify these issues like the murder of George Floyd or the black bird watcher in Central Park who was just asking that a woman’s dog was on a leash - which is the law. They should be saying that these acts of disrespect need to stop and the solution should not always be, “I’m going to call the police.” People weren’t saying Black Lives Matter a few years ago, but now I think we have to look a bit deeper to see how diverse and inclusive these sports organizations are. 

You certainly bring it up in your book, Different Strokes: Serena, Venus, and the Unfinished Black Tennis Revolution, but do you think people who have kept their mouths maybe a little bit tighter and kept their thoughts to themselves a little bit more have an easier time speaking out?

In Serena and Venus Williams’ cases I think it is easier for them now that they have been known to speak up. Their parents really instilled that in them. As they were coming up they learned about early tennis history. They learned about Althea Gibson, who was the first black major tennis champion in the 1950s. Some of what she did helped pave the way for the Williams sisters - I mean, no one has told Serena that she can’t change into her tennis clothes in the locker room. And these two have taken full advantage of their opportunities.

What were some of those Venus-Serena match-ups like?

It’s amazing because they’re the most successful sibling act in the history of sports really. They’ve combined for 30 major titles - 23 by Serena. They both basically came of age in professional tennis in the 1990s. When Venus was 17 she reached the final of the US Open, and in 1999 when Serena was 17 and won the US Open. Within two years, the Williams sisters were number one and two in the world. They are the reason that the women’s final in the US Open became a prime-time event. CBS had the rights at the time and their story was so great, and transcended sports and tennis in such a way that they put it against a Notre Dame-Nebraska football game when both of those schools were powerhouses and their ratings were higher.

And so much more...