Ta-Nehisi Coates, author of the new book We Were Eight Years in Power and writer for The Atlantic, joined The Bill Simmons Podcast this week for a wide-ranging conversation on politics and popularity in the NBA, the NFL’s concussion crisis, and Colin Kaepernick.
Listen to the full podcast here. This transcript has been edited and condensed.
The NBA’s Rise in Popularity
Bill Simmons: I want to talk about athletes and specifically a sport like the NBA, where in the ’70s everybody was writing, “The league’s too black. All the fans are white. This can’t work. How do we solve this problem?” And then in the ’80s, Bird and Magic show up. Then the ’90s, it swings back again, and all of a sudden, “These guys make too much money. They all think they’re gangster rappers. How do we relate to these guys?” I’m saying, these are all the media narratives.
Now, these guys are gods again and they have the most marketable guys. I would argue that they’re more popular than pretty much anyone in any other job. What changed? What do you think happened?
Ta-Nehisi Coates: So, here it is: I’m going to say something hopeful. I have to believe that the country changed. Because they’re not any less — when I think about that ’70s era, the league is pretty black right now! It’s not like they whitewashed the league and that’s how it was accomplished.
Simmons: There’s more foreign [players], but that’s about it.
Coates: Yeah, there are more foreigners, right, right. So what changed? Like LeBron’s pretty black, and a lot of [players] are politically aware! It’s weird! Like they’re politically active in a way that — I think about, in the ’90s, how scared NBA athletes and athletes in general—how allergic they were to politics. To this point now where these guys, they are open with it. They’ll wear their “Can’t Breathe” T-shirt. I don’t know if the audience got mature or habituated in a way where they decided it was OK. I don’t know. And actually, I would pose this to you: Does this have anything to do with a stronger union? I mean, what is it that makes it so that you have a population of people that are actually very similar to the population of people in the ’70s, but they have much, much more freedom and aren’t regarded in the same way.
Simmons: So, I thought about this a lot. I think they’ve learned from the previous generation, for better or worse. So, this generation learned from kind of the LeBron and Kobe [guys] — all these dudes that had figured out how to handle their business. That generation dreamed of being the next Magic. Magic was like, “I don’t want to just be a basketball player; I want to be a businessman.” There’s a generation that skipped there where, in the ’90s, you had those guys [that] came in right out of high school or one year out of college and they didn’t have the rookie scale yet. They just got crazy amounts of money, and they didn’t know what to do.
Coates: Right, the [Kevin] Garnetts.
Simmons: Yeah! “I’m 20 years old. I’m making $20 million a year.” And that generation kind of lost its way, and the league started to crack down on it — set these guys up to succeed, not fail. That started and now we have this generation that has learned from the LeBron generation. They’re coming into the league — I look at a guy like Jayson Tatum on the Celtics. He’s 19, spent eight months at Duke, and the guy carries himself like he’s 35 years old. I don’t think there were guys like that in the ’70s.
So, I think maybe it starts in AAU and just pushes through, maybe they learn from stuff, maybe the guys they idolize are different. You know, the guys in the ’90s … their idols weren’t basketball players. … Now I think the guys they want to be are LeBron and Magic. And they make all their decisions accordingly, or I’m overthinking it …
Coates: I think you were probably onto something with the whole AAU piece, which is now maybe their institutions are beginning at a young age. For better or for worse … they’re more professionalized.
Concussions, the NFL, and Colin Kaepernick
Simmons: Have you followed the CTE, concussion stuff [in the NFL]?
Coates: Wow, yeah, yeah. This is bad. Everything’s bad. ... When Junior Seau died, I stopped watching [the NFL], actually.
Simmons: That was it?
Coates: Because the Junior Seau thing hit me hard. I came back — which, I’m about to tell you how I came back — but the Junior Seau piece hit me so hard because Junior Seau came into the league when I was in high school. I had watched him. He played in such a way that the neighborhoods I came from valorized, that kind of toughness, and that this dude ...
It wasn’t even that he had CTE, it wasn’t even the way he killed himself — that was depressing enough. But I can remember, and I don’t know who this was on ESPN, … [but] the person said, “We will never know what caused Junior Seau to do ...” And I said, “That’s bullshit.” C’mon, man. Don’t lie. We know what this is. I understand, actually, the athlete impulse that says, “Listen, I love this so much that if you told me it was gonna take 20 years off my life, if you told me it was gonna make the last X, Y, and Z years of my life not livable in a quality [way], I still would do it.” There’s something to be said for saying that when you’re 21, making that decision, but I get it. I get it. … I believe how you decide to live your life actually has some value, and so something being that important to you, I get it. But I think in a fair world, the deal that those folks — like, we would recognize that. And people that give themselves in that sort of way — the NFL would say, people that give themselves in that sort of way deserve to never have to worry about anything for the rest of their lives.
Simmons: Here’s the difference between then and now: Back then, I don’t think the guys even knew they were in danger, and they’re getting thrown back out [onto the field]. I read this Tony Dorsett story this week where he had this famous 99-yard touchdown run ...
Coates: Yeah, I remember that run, against the Vikings.
Simmons: Yeah. So, he said in the first half he got knocked out cold and they put him back in, and then he had the run. And nowadays he’d be out for three weeks. But they would just throw the guy in, “Hey, you ready? The cobwebs clear yet?”
Coates: He got dinged up, he got his bell rung. Got his bell rung.
Simmons: Nowadays, we know. My question is, if somebody still wants to play football, how is that different from somebody who wants to be a boxer or an MMA person or a coal miner or anything that’s dangerous?
Coates: It’s not, it’s not. But I believe, as I would believe in any other form of work, that employers should provide for the safety of people.
Simmons: I agree.
Coates: And I believe that there are people who are not millionaires but who are billionaires making tons of money off of these folks, you know, literally bashing their brains in.
Simmons: See, I’m more worried about youth football. Because now here are kids that have no idea and all the studies are saying that it’s so much worse to have a concussion before you turn 15.
Coates: But parents are pulling them. Like Pop Warner is already declining in terms of ...
Simmons: It is and isn’t.
Coates: It is and it isn’t, huh.
Simmons: In certain states, you can guess the states … it’s still gonna be the same, and they’ll be like, “No, we made it safer.” But the bottom line is, if you have two 9 year olds colliding at full speed head-to-head, it’s probably not great. But I think about — my daughter plays soccer five times a week and does headers. Is that good? Is there a header that seems like it’s fine and then two weeks later she sees a dark patch out of her right eye? What sports are safe?
Coates: You know, my son played football when he was a kid. When he was really young, actually — he played from the time he was 6 until he was 9. This was just as, say, like the Andre Waters stuff was coming out. So, I didn’t really understand at that point . ... And I had played when I was like, 9 and 10. “So … you want to play football, OK, this is great. I love football. We’ll go do this together.”
And I think about it now, man — he actually wanted to play in high school. I said, “C’mon, you can’t. You’ve gotta think.” I actually would not have banned him, if he had really, really, really, really wanted to play, I would’ve said OK, but we would’ve had a serious, serious conversation about. I get it man, because listen, as somebody whose kid played, it’s a beautiful thing. Not just with your kid, but with the other families that are there, you’re kind of united in a certain way. And I think in a bigger sense, football functions like that in general for the country.
The years I didn’t watch — I just felt like there was a social fabric that I had had with, say, a guy who I had never met, from any background in America. You understand? Any, any background. And you could talk sports. You could talk football. … I lived abroad for a year, and I came back here and I was on tour, and I was living out of hotels. And the only thing that was familiar to me, which I had done since I was 5 years old, was, I could count on a football game. And that was what brought me back — that was actually it. It was like home. It was familiarity. It was something to talk about with people who I had nothing else in common with. And so what scares me now is, I’m getting this feeling day after day where I just feel, when I don’t watch I didn’t miss anything.
Simmons: I watched everything this weekend, on Sunday. Whole day. All I did was watch football. And at the end, I was like, I could’ve missed all of that. Would’ve been fine. ...
There’s just not that many can’t-miss guys in the league anymore.
Coates: Yeah, and this Kaepernick thing is just killing it for me.
Simmons: And I was one of the last holdouts, because I was like, “No, I get it, people don’t like when the backup quarterback causes a big commotion.” And then guys started getting hurt and they still weren’t even bringing him in, and I was like, “Wow, he’s getting blackballed. Everybody was right.”
Coates: So what was the point where you thought, “Oh, wow, no, there’s clearly something going on?”
Simmons: It was in August when it seemed like ... Baltimore was gonna sign him? And they kinda needed him. I don’t know if you’ve seen Joe Flacco lately, but it made sense. And I think [it was] the type of franchise [where] he would’ve succeeded as a backup. … And you’re gonna get hit for two weeks, he’s gonna get a lot of media requests, and then it’s gonna go away, and most franchises just aren’t stable enough to even deal with that. But some are, and Baltimore and Seattle were the two that it seemed like it made sense. And neither of them wanted him. … It’s not like he was that good. He was somewhere between a below-average starter and a way above-average backup, but then you watch these dudes now and it’s like, “Oh my god, how is he not …”
Coates: So the person that you just mentioned, the person that’s in that category — that person should be working in the NFL.
Simmons: A hundred percent. Especially, you see Houston. They’re running Deshaun Watson, basically the same offense Kaepernick’s good at ...
Coates: And you see [Tom] Savage, and it’s like, I can’t in good conscience watch this. Like, come on. ...
But you know what? I think he won. I think people are underestimating how much he actually won. Think about it: This is a guy who doesn’t say anything at this point. He doesn’t talk. … Nobody knows how to reach him. He’s not on the field. … He’s not doing anything, but his shadow is everywhere. He’s haunting the league.