March 23, 2012
In reflecting on his tumultuous life and storied career, boxing great Sugar Ray Leonard recently told Guardian reporter Donald McRae, “I went through real darkness but the ring was my light. That was the one place I felt safe. I could control what happened in the ring. My heart turned icy.” (my emphasis added) In his new autobiography, The Big Fight: My Story, Leonard reveals a painful past hidden behind the headlines of his historic ring victories – one of sexual abuse, a sense of rejection, and struggles with substance abuse.
What does it mean that Sugar Ray had to find safety in the violent confines of the boxing ring? What does it mean that he could only really feel empowered and free when fighting other men? McRae notes that back in the 1980s British boxing writer Hugh McIlvanney “spoke vividly of the hard chip of ice that Leonard stored in his fighting heart.” It seemed as if “Sugar Ray must have endured terrible darkness to fight with such chilling brilliance.” The turmoil of Leonard’s life outside the ring made his career in the ring a matter of financial and spiritual survival.
Yet Sugar Ray’s autobiography is much more than just a personal, singular story. His haunting revelations expose much about the racist society he lived in, and how little that society valued young black men like him in any other setting than the squared circle.
Why is it that so many young black men still search for safety, solace, and a sense of control in the sporting realm, whether in the ring, on the court, or on the field? The execution of Troy Davis in Georgia despite questionable evidence against him and the shooting of Florida teenager Trayvon Martin by George Zimmerman just for looking “suspicious” both shine a harsh spotlight on the continued precariousness of black life in the twenty-first century. A cursory look at recent movies from Streetballers (2009) to The Blind Side (2009) shows that society actively encourages young black men to escape their troubles and drown their sorrows in sports. And yet, that same society often castigates black youth for becoming “sports obsessed.”
Where else but in the sporting arena can young black men benefit from their reputation for being “dangerous”? Where else are they glorified for that “hard chip of ice” that many store in their fighting hearts? Where else can they have a good chance of receiving adulation and respect? And, where else is the violence they face at least controlled by rules and referees?
Even in the wake of his gold-medal victory at the 1976 Olympics, Sugar Ray felt an overwhelming sense of rejection that almost pushed him down the path to heroin addiction. He almost quit boxing altogether. As Sugar Ray confessed to McRae, “just weeks after the Games I felt like a nigger again.” Many black athletes in the United States still contend with this janus-faced treatment: you can be an American hero one week and a nigger the next.
What larger lessons can we learn from the fact that Sugar Ray eventually succumbed to substance abuse after boxing was no longer there to give him a sense of purpose and self-respect? Even after dominating boxing in the 1980s, winning world titles in five weight divisions, and earning more than $100 million in purses, he felt lost. He used cocaine and alcohol to self-medicate. Only after confronting his demons and sharing his story was Sugar Ray able to truly recover: “If I had kept suppressing it, it would’ve finally killed me. I don’t mind that, talking about it, I sometimes cry. I feel such lightness now it’s out.”
Rather than demonizing black youth, we need to have a serious conversation about how the dangerous and insecure conditions they face are driving many to seek solace in sports, violence, and drugs. Hyper-vigilant policing and mass incarceration alongside the ongoing divestment from social services and public education and the decline of jobs that provide both dignity and a living wage are all wreaking havoc on black youth across the United States.
As Sugar Ray’s story (and Troy Davis’s and Trayvon Martin’s) suggests, we need to talk about recovery and reconstruction, rather than just punishment and retribution. We also need to work harder to dismantle the enduring stereotype of the criminal, dangerous, and “suspicious” black male that not only fosters but validates the actions of men like George Zimmerman. As the recent protest of Miami high school students in honor of Martin and the Million Hoodie March in New York City show, the youth are already taking it upon themselves to start this conversation.