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Dr. Onaje X.O. Woodbine Discusses the Peril and Power of Sports


Powerful storyteller and philosopher Onaje X.O. Woodbine, Ph.D., visited campus on November 13, presenting Who’s Got Next? A Black Hoops Liberating Spirituality to students at an all school assembly and parents during an evening Parent Education event.


Beginning with a personal account of the ways in which the motivations and humanity of black student-athletes have been misunderstood, Woodbine, an assistant professor of philosophy and religion at American University, brought his expertise in black religious thought and the study of sport and society to a rich experiential analysis of street basketball as a lens through which to view a journey of memory, grief, hope and healing.


A group of O’Dowd Drama students participated in the presentation, dramatizing Woodbine’s story in spoken word. The students worked with him and with Drama Teacher Ms. Trina Oliver via Skype for more than a month in preparation for the event.


“It was really an amazing experience for all of us, and my main takeaway was how you can find spirituality in everything that you do,” Liana Willis ’19 said. “Basketball – even though lots of people think of it as just a sport or as entertainment – is a lot more than that. Like Onaje said it’s a way to mourn loved ones so it’s really a spiritual experience.


“It is an honor and a privilege to be able to share some of these stories and experiences with you,” Woodbine said. “I want to talk today about the peril and the power of sports in our society and on campus.”


Woodbine attended Yale University on a basketball scholarship. “I remember it like it was yesterday. I was the leading scorer at Yale, I was all Ivy League, and many people thought I had a chance to make it to the NBA,” he said. “But there was this small voice within me that said I wasn’t going to be able to help the most people by putting the ball in the basket. I felt I needed to study philosophy and religion because I had questions about the contradictions that I had experienced growing up in the inner city and making it to the Ivy League.”


In a letter he wrote to the Yale Daily News about why he would be leaving the basketball team, Woodbine pondered what would have happened if Bob Marley had chosen a job at Goldman Sachs instead of music because it paid more money, or if Martin Luther King Jr. had thought it better to work on Wall Street than be a political prisoner in a Birmingham jail.


While Woodbine got an outpouring of support from students, his coach sent him back an unsettling letter – one that blatantly told Woodbine that Yale admitted black students because of sports. “To him I was physical labor, naturally gifted in body but equally defective in intellect,” Woodbine said. “Slowly I began to realize that this was indicative of college athletics in general. I realized that independent schools and the NCAA rely largely on poor black and male athletic bodies for entertainment and physical labor, and the goal of educating these students becomes secondary.”


In his subsequent research, Woodbine came to understand how the basketball court provided a safe space for young black men to ask big questions like “Am I worthy of love? What is my purpose? What happens to a person when they die? And they were using the court to attempt to realize a higher sense of self that was not fixed to their physical bodies on the court,” he said.


His most recent book, Black Gods of the Asphalt, Religion, Hip Hop, And Street Basketball, has garnered national praise as a profound narrative of survival and self-determination. An NPR review of the book notes it “invites readers to look at basketball differently, not just as a distraction from racism or path out of poverty, but as a sacred space where young black boys and men go to ‘reclaim their humanity’.”


Woodbine encouraged the students to look inward to discover the person they are meant to be, and invited students on this journey with a quote from theologian Rev. Dr. Howard Thurman’s baccalaureate address at Spelman College, May 4, 1980: “There is something in every one of you that waits and listens for the sound of the genuine in yourself. It is the only true guide you will ever have. And if you cannot hear it, you will all of your life spend your days on the ends of strings that somebody else pulls.”

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