When, in 1947, Jackie Robinson became the first black player in baseball’s major leagues, he took a vicious verbal and emotional beating from the throng of white racists playing the game, some of them on his own Brooklyn Dodgers team. He, through remarkable restraint, survived it and played consistently at his Hall of Fame level. Yet, during the civil rights movement of the 1960s, Jackie was chided by many blacks for not being more militant and outspoken in black support, and even for not taking a leadership role that his unique history and celebrity would have granted him.
There is no similar passivity on the part of today’s black athletes, who are using their name-recognition and prominence to virtually lead the movement against a racist America. From whence the change, and why?
Professional sports today are disproportionately represented by people of color, not because they are innately better athletes, but because sports are “a way out” of the poverty, desperation, and physical victimization of the black community. An escape that most whites don’t need as badly. Many professional baseball players come from the miserably impoverished Dominican Republic, not Park Avenue.
In the past, the successful black athlete was propelled from his underclass to the higher one of his white counterparts. And except for a few, he never looked back. Almost as if he were disconnecting himself from his roots. This seemed to be true of the great heavyweight boxer, Jack Johnson, who sought nothing but “the high life,” and of heavyweight champion of the 1930s and 40s, Joe Louis, who died steeped in debt – in part from lost golf-course bets – and hardly uttered a word of protest in support of his race.
But today’s black athlete, no matter how much money he’s pulling in, and the amounts are vast, or how celebrated he is, has not forgotten where he comes from, or the terrible plight of his less fortunate brothers and sisters. He’s rightly angry at the nation that oppresses his people. So, in solidarity with them and most of his teammates, he doesn’t honor its anthem and flag waving that attempt to blur harsh reality with an eye-watering patriotism.
Is this break with the past because there are more successful black athletes than ever before, and their numbers and money give them the confidence and power to speak out, which they didn’t sense they had before? Have professional sports become so dependent upon them that they are now free to express themselves without fear of being jobless, though our jingoist president thinks they should be? Is it because conditions in,and oppression of, the black community seem to be worsening by the day? Or because back athletes are better educated than before? Perhaps all of the above?
Whatever the answer, don’t let anybody tell you sports are not, and shouldn’t be, politicized. Everything is, and must be, political, because politics, not sports, rule our lives.
The black athlete appears to understand this better than the vast white population who put a racist in the White House. Blacks didn’t vote for Trump. So who’s smarter, and better represents the future of our society, white conformists following an addled Pied Piper president to nowhere, or black-athlete heirs to The Boston Tea Party, who, when the anthem is played, kneel in protest to say “oppression stops here”?