University of Maryland, College Park students in Dr. Damion Thomas’ “Black Masculinity and Basketball” class are usually talkative. A rare exception is when Thomas steers them to the subject of the late Len Bias, a UMD basketball star whose talents captivated sports fans nationally.
Bias died from a cocaine overdose in June 1986, when Thomas’ students were either too young to remember or before they were born. Their less-than-chatty demeanor also results from the other circumstances surrounding Bias’ death: At age 22, he suffered a seizure while partying with friends in his dorm room less than a week aft er the Boston Celtics selected him second overall in the NBA Draft. Bias had one of the brightest futures any young man could dream of.
Thomas, an assistant professor of kinesiology, uses Bias as an entry point to show how sports connects people, particularly Blacks, to society at large.
For countless African-Americans, he explains, Bias’ passing lives on as a seminal moment. “People ask each other, ‘Where were you when that happened?’” Thomas doesn’t linger on game highlights and statistics. He wants students to consider issues of power and power relations in society, based on how Black players are treated on and off the court.
Going beyond Bias’ overdose and unrealized potential, he explains how the tragedy shined a harsh spotlight on UMD athletics. In the aft ermath, Maryland athletic director Dick Dull resigned and the longtime men’s basketball coach Left y Driesell was ousted. Maryland tightened its athletic department’s policies to include random drug testing, a stricter admissions process and expanded academic support.
As soon as discussion shift s to broader ramifications on UMD athletics, the students resume their talkative ways, Th omas says. “Th ey share opinions about the university’s value system, the priorities of the current (basketball) team.
They connect the past to contemporary topics,” he says. Some students debate how much — or little — things have improved since Bias’ death, Thomas says. They quote reports showing UMD had the second-lowest graduation rate — 10 percent — among the 65 teams that qualifi ed for this year’s NCAA men’s basketball tournament.
“We wind up talking about the education system as a whole,” he says. “I want them thinking about how sports can sometimes be the great exception to racial inequality. And, sometimes it’s not. Hopefully, students become better citizens because of it.” Dr. Jane Clark, UMD kinesiology chairwoman, describes Thomas as a valuable voice because many of his students aspire to careers as athletic trainers and physical therapists.
“His perspective on sport, power and race brings a critical aspect to the study of kinesiology (because) exercise and sport take place in a social and cultural context,” she says. “He challenges students to think critically about sport and culture in ways that are new to them.”
While considering dissertation topics, Thomas, who earned his doctorate in American history from the University of California, Los Angeles, began using sports as a lens to examine African-American life. He worked as an intern in the Los Angeles Lakers’ marketing division. And while growing up in urban Los A n g e l e s , he noticed B l a c k p a r e n t s showing up more o f t e n at their children’s basketball games than to parentteacher conferences. “These parents saw sports as the way out of the neighborhood,” he says.
Thomas titled his dissertation “‘The Good Negroes: African-American Athletes and the Cultural Cold War, 1945-1968.” He is writing a book manuscript based on it.
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