The interplay of sports and culture in Oakland was the topic of conversation at our most recent Culture Makers event on Sept. 22 at the New Parkway Theater. We had the perfect group of Oaklanders to help us explore the theme: former WNBA player and current Oakland Tech athletic director Alexis Gray-Lawson, sports columnist Marcus Thompson, and Oakland Roots co-founder Edreece Arghandiwal. 

Not surprisingly, the conversation that ensued was filled with insightful, heartfelt, and inspiring takes on why sports matter in The Town. As always, we had way too many excellent questions from the audience than we had time to answer—some posed to the entire panel and others directed at one person. Our guests were gracious enough to answer all of them in the days since, and we’re presenting their answers below. 

Enjoy, and we hope to see you at our next Culture Makers on December 15, when we’ll be taking a dive into the topic of local filmmaking. More on that soon.

Oaklandside Culture Makers, September 22_ Past, present and future of sports in Oakland
From left to right: Oakland Tech Athletic director Alexis Gray-Lawson, The Athletic columnist Marcus Thompson II, and Oakland Roots co-founder Edreece Arghandiwal. Credit: Ximena Natera for the Oaklandside/ CatchLight

Questions for all three panelists:

The NBA has a long and proud history of activism and fighting for racial justice—starting with the great Bill Russell—How do we spark the same activism in the NFL?

Marcus: Some of the same activism is happening in the NFL. Those players just aren’t as popular. One of the issues with the NFL is their players aren’t as visible. Also, the biggest stars of the sport, quarterbacks, are mostly white. They generally aren’t as pressed into activism as their non-white counterparts. Also, their activism looks different—whether fighting cancer, honoring troops, or championing support for autistic children. 

One big hurdle for NFL players is the length of their career, which is drastically shorter than their NBA and MLB counterparts. Injuries and the grueling nature of the sport make for shorter careers and the lack of guaranteed contracts makes them easier to get rid of. Both combine to give most football players less time in the public eye and less opportunity to build the platforms of their basketball and baseball counterparts.

Alexis: I would agree with Marcus. I think that most of the best players in the league are not people of color. Those athletes must speak up in order to change and spark the conversation around race and culture. The WNBA has been the leading activist when it comes to politics, race, transphobia, etc. I think representation matters. 

Edreece: Lead with HUMANITY. It’s not just with the NFL, but in any sport and in life. I think we all gotta start looking at the simplicity of everything—just do the right things. Furthermore, we need organizations to be receptive of the ideas too. We collectively as organizations, athletes, and fans need to demand and appreciate the same things. If there is a disconnect, there will be a disconnect. Get the right people in the right places to make the right decisions.

What role do sports play (or can sports play) in battling the effect of gentrification?

Alexis: I think we have always thought about gentrification as a negative thing and quite honestly it has been in Oakland. The culture we once knew as kids is no longer the thread that keeps things together. I would say the effects of gentrification have hurt a lot of opportunities for our student athletes of color. I will say though, we have grown a lot through athletics in high school because of gentrification as well. Sports that weren’t a part of our culture, like girls’ lacrosse, water polo, hockey, etc., have now given our student athletes an opportunity to try something completely different. 

Marcus: The role [professional sports] have played, traditionally, is underwhelming. The jobs they provide don’t pay enough to keep people in areas being gentrified. Their business model prices people out the experience, giving people one less reason to stay in their neighborhoods. And they can attract gentrifiers.

What they can do? I’m not quite sure. One way is, in the event of a new stadium, which is almost standard to come with a new development these days, they can be serious about affordable housing in their development. Another way, and I’m just winging it here, is paying workers a livable wage or, even easier, make sure some of the jobs paying livable wages go to people who live in the neighborhood. 

Edreece: Sports organizations should preserve and amplify culture, not change it or try to tell people what they should be fans of. PEOPLE and COMMUNITY dictate the identity of the sports teams. Not the other way around. Sports organizations are tied to the cities they operate in, and the name that is in their crests/logos. Oakland Roots ain’t Oakland without Oakland. So I think it starts with making decisions that positively impact the places organizations represent and operate in. Furthermore, it’s about preserving the stories and culture that make the place special. Accessibility, equity, accountability. Knowing where you come from helps you get to know where you are going. 

Questions for Alexis Gray-Lawson:

Oaklandside Culture Makers, September 22_ Past, present and future of sports in Oakland
Credit: Ximena Natera for the Oaklandside/ CatchLight

High schools in Oakland now have academies—performing arts at Skyline, fine arts at Oakland High, and science at Tech. How do you feel about careers in sports not being represented?

Alexis: Yeah, I would say they are not represented at all. We have so many young people that want to be sports analysts, broadcasters, athletic directors, marketing, etc. My hope is that we can continue to develop our academies to make them more well-rounded. I will say that I think Oakland continues to develop new initiatives and ways to challenge our students. But growth needs to involve athletics just as well as construction, carpentry, etc. 

What do you think the chances are of Oakland getting a WNBA team, and what can we do to increase those chances?

Alexis: I think the chances are actually really high. I am excited about the way in which Oakland has always embraced their teams and the opportunity for young girls, especially young girls of color, to get to see their heroes in person. AASEG (African American Sports and Entertainment Group) led by Ray Bobbitt, with the combination of Alana Beard, is a winner. They truly care about our community and I am excited to help in any way possible to ensure a team is here in the bay. 

Questions for Marcus Thompson:

Oaklandside Culture Makers, September 22_ Past, present and future of sports in Oakland
Credit: Ximena Natera for the Oaklandside/ CatchLight

Did you know you wanted to write about sports from the start?

Marcus: It was always sports. From my sophomore year at Tech. No other subject was even considered, and, in my younger days, I scoffed at advice to diversify.

Can your next book be “Oakland Tech’s Women’s Basketball Dynasty?”

I think that honor should actually go to coach Leroy Hurt or even one of the players. They should tell their story. Coach Dwight Nathaniel wrote a book on the 33-0 state champion McClymonds squad.

As one of the high school girls soccer players you used to write about (and now being a coach), it has been inspiring to see your career and talent develop. How important has your passion for what you do been to reaching “the top”—to the success you’ve had? What advice would you give to the next generation who expect immediate results?

The passion, and you will understand this as a player and now coach, is about mastering the craft. It’s loving that thing you do so much that it becomes a constant pursuit to master. The difficult part is trusting the mastery of the craft will take you to the top. But you don’t know that. There may even be other ways to get to the top without mastering the craft. But for me, I fell in love early with the craft and was always focused on being nice at it. Even when I was covering you in high school, I cared just the same. I wanted you to prefer me to cover your games and the people who loved you to marvel at the stories I wrote. I sucked back then, but it didn’t feel like it!

How did you develop your relationship with Steph Curry?

Steph is just such a good dude. If you spend time around him, you will have some form of relationship. I had the advantage of covering him in the early years and spending that time with him as his career moved up. I’d like to think he respected my abilities and how I did my job, and it created a mutual respect. Then he blew up and, him being who he is, he valued what we had before. His story, his basketball journey, his perspective, is to put a little extra value on those who were there at the beginning of the journey—before anyone knew who he would become. It’s part of why he loves Davidson [College], why he loved Oracle [Arena], and those who were there for those early days.

Questions for Edreece:

Oaklandside Culture Makers, September 22_ Past, present and future of sports in Oakland
Credit: Ximena Natera for the Oaklandside/ CatchLight

What can you say about the Roots stadium plan?

We are seeking to find a site for an ‘interim stadium’ where Oakland Roots, Oakland Soul, and Project 51O—the club’s development program for local talent—can play for the next several years until a permanent home can be constructed. The club is exploring multiple sites that could accommodate a privately financed, modular stadium capable of holding up to 10,000 fans.

Laney College has been our home since the club’s debut in 2019. The support of the faculty, staff, Athletics Department at Laney College, and the entire Peralta Community College District has helped Roots develop a passionate supporter culture and unique gameday experience that is truly representative of Oakland. While the club explores possibilities for an interim and permanent home, Oakland Roots will continue to play at Laney College.

How did it feel to see [NBA star and Oakland native] Damian Lillard wearing Roots gear? Did it feel like validation of your choice to ground the team in the community in Oakland?

Seeing Dame wear Roots gear is super validating. A big principle of the club is “Know Your Roots.” That means you pay respect to people that have come before you. It means showing love and appreciation for those that paved the path. In many ways, Dame has meant a lot to Oakland, as has [former NFL running back and Oakland native] Marshawn [Lynch], [rapper and Roots co-owner] G-Eazy, and many countless others. So, yes, it’s humbling. But I actually feel the most inspired when I see people rockin’ Roots and Soul gear every day as a part of their daily lives. They rock it to work, to the gym, to dinner. Seeing how the brand has expanded is amazing. Many people to thank for this, including Oaklandish. 

I really believe that branding is not about a logo or a crest on a shirt. It’s the work that gives the crest or the logo meaning and life. The work always does the work, and that’s what Roots and Soul is all about…harnessing the magic of Oakland.

How do I get season tickets for the Oakland Soul?

Membership deposits for Oakland Soul are available now. Place a deposit, and join the family. We can’t wait to see you all for Soul’s inaugural season.

Azucena Rasilla is a bilingual journalist from East Oakland reporting in Spanish and in English, and a longtime reporter on Oakland arts, culture and community. As an independent local journalist, she has reported for KQED Arts, The Bold Italic, Zora and The San Francisco Chronicle. She was a writer and social media editor for the East Bay Express, helping readers navigate Oakland’s rich artistic and creative landscapes through a wide range of innovative digital approaches.