International Blog – Michael Dickens
James Blake left Harvard to become a professional tennis player in 1999, playing until he retired at the U.S. Open in 2013. He received the Comeback Player of the Year Award in 2005 following a horrific injury, and was named the Arthur Ashe Humanitarian of the Year in 2008.
In his newly published book, Ways of Grace: Stories of Activism, Adversity, and How Sports Can Bring Us Together, written with Carol Taylor, Blake reflects on his experiences as a professional and shows how athletes have long been at the forefront of social change throughout our history. He pays tribute to those who were willing to raise a fist, take a stand or take a knee.
From Olympians Muhammad Ali to John Carlos and Tommie Smith; from trailblazing female athletes Billie Jean King and Martina Navratilova to Brittney Griner; and from outspoken professional football players Chris Kluwe to Colin Kaepernick, many athletes have used their public roles not only to overcome adversity but also to effect social change and to advocate for a broader social justice. We learn through the stories Blake uncovers how athletes have used sports to unite rather than to divide – and how “simply being in the game,” these activists fought against the barriers of oppression, discrimination, inequality and bias, in whatever form they might take.
In praising Ways of Grace, Wimbledon champion Venus Williams wrote that Blake “reminds us all of the power of sports.” And Hall of Fame player-turned-tennis commentator John McEnroe said that in Ways of Grace, Blake “proves the vital role athletes have played in further discussion around society’s most pressing issues. It is an inspiring and important work.”
The 36-year-old Blake’s journey to becoming an activist athlete – and the impetus for writing Ways of Grace – came to him when in August 2015, he found himself standing outside his high-rise hotel on a busy Manhattan sidewalk preparing to head to the U.S. Open. Blake is the chairman of the United States Tennis Association Foundation and also serves as a Tennis Channel analyst on TV. So, he is highly recognized within the U.S. tennis community. However, on this particular day two years ago, Blake found himself tackled and handcuffed by a police officer in a case of “mistaken identity.”
Although the feeling of rage would have been totally justified, instead, Blake faced the incident with a sense of dignity. He used this experience as an opportunity to raise awareness about the dangers of racial profiling.
“It should not matter that I am a tennis star, or a public figure with access to the media, to be treated respectfully and not have my rights taken for granted by law enforcement,” wrote Blake.
“All people, regardless of race, gender, religion, sexual orientation, or perceived socioeconomic standing, should know that police officers will treat them respectfully and issue an accurate and timely report of any incident or altercation between them and law enforcement.
“That I have a platform and access to the media should not make what happened to me any more significant. No one should be manhandled without due process and definitely not because of a vague likeness to someone else.”
In this age of social media, where 140-character tweets can have an immediate and lasting impact, many well-known professional superstar athletes such as LeBron James have not been afraid to further dialogue about our most pressing issues, “despite the risks that have often accompanied that self-expression.” Rather, they are “leading the charge to preserve a diverse and tolerant world.”
Not only is winning on the court and playing field important, but so is standing up for their beliefs off of it – and Blake wanted to use his voice and his role as an athlete to make a difference, to turn a very unfortunate incident into a catalyst for change in the relationship between the police and the public that they serve, “in a way that would be helpful to both.”
In writing Ways of Grace, Blake was inspired by Arthur Ashe’s memoir, Days of Grace. “Illuminating and insightful, his life story is a testament to how moments of adversity can actually move you in a direction of grace, and how you can respond to life in a graceful way as opposed to a reactionary, divisive way,” wrote Blake. “Ashe showed us you can use adversity to heal and not hurt; we can use it to unite and not to divide.”
As a Wimbledon champion, Ashe also fought apartheid, fought for those who were less fortunate, fought for those who were in bad situations. He had the ability and resources to help. Towards the end of his life, when he had HIV, when he contracted AIDS, Ashe was helping others who did not have the means to the same treatment he had, who did not have the money he had. Even as he struggled physically, Ashe sought to help the cause of HIV/AIDS research.
“Ashe taught me that despite the situation you are in, no matter how grave, how embarrassing, or how devastating, you can try to find a positive way to affect the world. As I considered Ashe and his profound impact on not only sports but also the world, I considered other sports figures who have sparked change, on the field and off,” wrote Blake.
“I wanted to bring to light their stories of activism, advocacy, and courage even as they faced a harsh personal, societal, and financial backlash. As I researched, I was struck by how many athletes – past and present – have championed causes they are passionate about and have created change in positive and uplifting ways, publicly and privately. I want to tell their stories.”