Sports column: The triumphs of black athletes assist society

rj.walters and rj.walters

Sunday marked the 60th anniversary of Jackie Robinson becoming the first ever African-American in the Major Leagues, yet the celebration was about so much more. It was a realization that sports and society wouldn’t be the same today without a group of classy black athletes that cashed in on a few small chances during the first half of the twentieth century. It was recognition, that if those few individuals had given up or made slight blunders while in the public eye, the course of history would be different.

Sure I’m a cracker, a member of the Caucasian Nation to be blunt. I can’t jump and certainly can’t move to a beat in a fashion that even remotely reminds you of dancing. I’m white, yet posters of Kevin Garnett, trading cards of Michael Jordan and famous quotes from Jackie Robinson and Muhammad Ali litter my world. I’m white, yet I look up to athletes of color who helped pave the way for their predecessors that make sports what they are today-a collection of the best athletes from around the globe, indifferent of race and ethnicity.

We can’t forget that pro sports were actually integrated eight years before public schools and have been more of a stepping-stone for societal integration than most people realize. Jackie Robinson and black athlete pioneers pre-dated even Dr. Martin Luther King and their impact can never be forgotten, because their stories can serve as inspiration to people of all backgrounds.

Before Robinson challenged the color barrier, when African-Americans like sprinter Jesse Owens were breaking Olympic records and boxer Joe Louis was a heavyweight-boxing champion, the predominantly white media didn’t know what to attribute their success to.

It is indicative of the times that a nationally syndicated newspaper columnist, Hugh S. Johnson wrote, in 1938, “The average of white intelligence is above the average of Black intelligence, probably because the white race, is several thousand years farther away from jungle savagery. But, for the same reason, the average of white physical equipment, is lower.”

Right, and Dominicans are probably better at baseball than Canadians because they often have to escape the government and set sail across the ocean on makeshift rafts to cross the border.

Sixty years ago, African-American athletes had to perform at a high enough level in their sports to be recognized, while wondering if the death threats and hate letters they received on a daily basis would ever come to fruition.

The idea that Jackie Robinson was a Hall of Fame player during a time where pitchers threw at his head and legs purposely and he had to bite his tongue to show that “Negroes” could be class acts and positive additions to Major League Baseball is remarkable.

It wasn’t until 1948 that the military became desegregated and the mid 1950s before African-Americans could vote in our country, so the achievements of black athletes before that time have to be understood within a context of scrutiny and hate that we can’t imagine. Robinson, fellow MLB stars such as Larry Doby, a handful of black NFL players, and the accomplishments of Joe Louis and other great black boxers such as Jack Johnson are the reason Wilt Chamberlin, Jim Brown, Michael Jordan and Tiger Woods among others, have been able to worry about athletics more often than politics and race relations.

Wilma Rudolph is also a name often forgotten in the mainstream recollection of blacks in sports. She was one of 22 children and unable to use her left leg at age six, when she was fitted with metal leg braces. She suffered from double pneumonia, scarlet fever, polio, whooping cough, measles and chicken pox before she was nine, when her braces were finally removed. All she did 11 years later was become the first American woman to win three gold medals at the Olympics in 1960 at the Rome games. This was just years into the Civil Rights Movement, before the March on Washington and the “I Have A Dream” speech. Just like many of her peers who made strides for racial equality in sports she was soft-spoken, appreciative of her opportunity and firm proof, that character and determination, not the color of one’s skin matters.

Fast forwarding to our lifetime, Jordan was the first athlete to turn sports marketing upside down when he signed a ground-breaking deal with Nike in the late 80s, and 35 athletes on ESPN’s Sportscentury list of the Top 100 North American Athletes of the 20th-Century are African-American. Black quarterbacks have helped redefine the QB position with players such as Warren Moon, Donovan McNabb and Michael Vick stretching the field with their feet as well as their arms and Tiger Woods is the highest paid athlete in the world according to Forbe’s magazine.

This years NCAA basketball tournament was great to watch, with the likes of Greg Oden, Al Horford, Aaron Aflallo and Jeff Green starring in the Final Four. They are all black. I also loved seeing a white quarterback like Peyton Manning go up against a defense anchored by a white linebacker, Brian Urlacher, in the Super Bowl, but who knows if those teams would’ve achieved such success without their African-American head coaches, Tony Dungy and Lovie Smith.

We go to school on a campus where it’s rare to have a class with more than a handful of African-Americans, but they still make their mark on Wildcat sports and in the community. I’ve enjoyed watching Ricky Volcy dominate opponents on the hardwood these past few years and NMU receivers such as Vinny Mayfield and Fred Wells have provided me with a number of fond memories, but nobody really knows if they’d be there without the selfless pursuit of equality by so many black athletes so many years ago.

Thanks to the stories of Robinson, Louis, Rudolph and countless others we all can appreciate a level playing field that discriminates based on skill, not appearance. It shouldn’t take a special day or celebration for us to remember that however; it should be in the back of our minds every time we witness great sports spectacles that include people of all colors.