The true significance of sports for Black Americans

I am not a sports fan. I’ve written that so many times it seems
redundant to write it again. No, this is not another
sports-bashing column. Been there, done that. This is a column
about the context of sports, about the reasons why sports has
been so important for African American people.

From a historical perspective, sports for African
Americans was never just about winners, losers, and statistics.
It was also about breaking down barriers, clearing hurdles, and
making a point about African American excellence and dignity
in the face of doubt and persistent racism
I’m not referring to the sports world of in-your-face Barry
Bonds and Charles Barkley, of “show me the money” Michael
Jordan and Juwan Howard, of multi-media moguls Like
Shaquille O’Neal, or of poster children like Magic Johnson.

Neither am I alluding to the Amos ‘n Andy throwbacks
(consummate racial entertainers) like Dennis Rodman. Instead,
I am reflecting on the fact that the baseball season that began
on April 1 is the fiftieth since Jackie Robinson broke the
game’s color barrier in 1947.

They don’t make athletes like Jackie Robinson anymore,
athletes who held their heads high even when rabid racists
took clear aim at them. And they don’t make athletes like Paul
Robeson anymore, a man who truly exemplified the term
scholar-athlete, whose physical prowess was, perhaps,
dwarfed by his artistic and intellectual acumen.

To be sure, Robeson and Robinson were very different
kinds of activists. Robeson was a spokesperson for an array
of progressive causes, all focused on the dignity of working
people. When people asked why he, a celebrated artist who
earned $150,000 per year at the peak of his career, would be a
spokesperson for the poor, he replied that, “It has seemed
strange to some that, having attained some stature and acclaim
as an artist, I should devote so much time and energy to the
problems and struggles to working men and women. To me, of
course, it is not strange at all. I have simply tried never to
forget the soil from which I spring.”

In contrast, Robinson was embraced by some of the same
civil rights organizations that eschewed Robeson’s
progressive vision. But Jackie Robinson was clear
that his athletic victories were partly community
victories, that they belonged to the NAACP and the
Urban League as much as they belonged to him.
Although Robeson was an advocate for the
desegregation of baseball, and could be counted as
one of many responsible for Robinson’s presence on
the Brooklyn Dodgers, Robinson and Robenson
publicly collided on the issue or Robeson’s
patriotism.

The House Un-American Activities Committee,
alarmed by Robeson’s Paris Peace Conference statement–“It
is inconceivable that American Negroes would fight with those
who have oppressed them for generations against the Soviet
Union which, in a generation, has raised them to a position of
equality”–sought out a range of African Americans to
refute that sentiment.

In July, 1949, dozens of Black voices were trotted our to
speak on the issue of Black loyalty to the United States
despite protests from the NAACP, which indicated there had
never been a question of Black loyalty to our country. The star
witness in these hearings was Robinson, who said that if
Robeson actually made the remarks attributed to him “it
sounds very silly to me”. He went on to say, “He has a right
to hits personal views and if he wants to sound silly when he
expresses them in public, that is hits business and not mine.
He’s still a famous ex-athlete and a great singer and actor.”

In hindsight, Robinson’s statement was relatively benign.
But at the time, it was considered a public repudiation of
Robeson. Still, Robeson refused to be drawn into a public
battle with Robinson, saying, “We could take our liberties
tomorrow if we didn’t fight among ourselves
Years later, Robinson said that he had ‘no regrets” over the
comments that he made. Then he added, `I do have increased
respect for Paul Robeson who, over a span of twenty years,
sacrificed himself, hits career, and the wealth and comfort he
once enjoyed because, I believe, he was sincerely trying to help
his people.”

Robeson and Robinson were troth great athletes, troth
complicated men, both civil rights icons. If their approach to
African American liberation was different and conflicting, at
least it was an approach. Today, athletes with much more
power have been silent on issues they might hope to influence,
preferring to live in the gilded cages they can buy with seven
figure salaries. They’d rather mouth off about their genitalia,
their right to wear white (dresses) at their wedding, their fast
cars and fast lives, than to talk about some of the issues that
affect them–such as the paucity of African American owners
and managers in baseball, basketball, and other sports.

Student athletes can Learn much by studying
lives like Robeson’s and Robinson’s. They can learn
integrity, courage, and conviction of believe They
might also learn that they can score a three pointer or
hit a home run not only by playing with a ball, hut
by lifting their voices in the face of injustice–both
on campus and in the larger world.

COPYRIGHT 1997 Cox, Matthews & Associates



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