Commentary

Will athletes answer Obama's call?

Originally Published: February 2, 2009
By Howard Bryant | ESPN.com

Sports always have been an uncomplicated component of Black History Month for their stark choices and unambiguous triumphs. Even more so than the military, sports were the one place in America in which you could take an idea -- the concept of merit -- and put it in your hands, see it with your own eyes, make sense of it without qualifications or politics.

The notion is so beautiful in its simplicity, so American in its meritocracy: Roll out the ball and see who wins. Nazi Germany proffered the doctrine of white supremacy; Jesse Owens destroyed it in record time. Organized baseball, as it was called way back when, consistently said it had not signed black players because it could not find any good enough to play; but watch Willie Mays, Jackie Robinson and Hank Aaron play for the first time and try to argue they weren't. Integrated Texas Western played segregated Kentucky and won the national championship in 1966.

[+] EnlargeBarack Obama
AP Photo/Alex BrandonAre sports as socially relevant as they once were, now that Barack Obama is in the White House?
The scoreboard does not play favorites, but society does. The contrasts were so clear; the choices, in retrospect, obvious.

The games reinforced the American journey of equal partnership, directly challenged on March 24, 1861, by Alexander Stephens, the vice president of the Confederacy, in his famous Cornerstone Speech. "Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea; its foundations are laid, its cornerstone rests, upon the great truth that the Negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery -- subordination to the superior race -- is his natural and normal condition," he said.

The words might be dusty and discredited and, in the multicultural, Blu-Ray world of 2009, obscene. But in some way, every day, we've all been fighting them ever since.

Now, after an emotional inauguration when President Barack Obama chose to make service his central theme, sports find themselves in great peril of becoming socially irrelevant, the former leader struggling to keep up.

The industry has been drifting in this direction for decades with its tight corporate control and immense endorsement dollars that discourage courage in favor of marketable narcissism and self-absorption. That all combined to make sports less relevant, less necessary to the national conversation. The inaugural address served as a reminder that sports were in need of a recalibration. The president made an offer to the privileged who are too detached, too distant, too uninterested to get involved.

In sporting terms, the idea of African American History Month is at a most significant crossroads, in danger of becoming an annual celebration of triumph consisting only of grainy footage from a time when athletes mattered while today's players hide behind the tinted glass of their Cadillac Escalades.


"In reaffirming the greatness of our nation, we understand that greatness is never a given. It must be earned. Our journey has never been one of shortcuts or settling for less. It has not been the path for the faint-hearted -- for those who prefer leisure over work or seek only the pleasures of riches and fame."
-- From President Barack Obama's inaugural address, Jan. 20, 2009


If you allow yourself to feel, it never gets old -- going to Washington, D.C., absorbing the importance of the memorials and monuments, the Capitol and the White House, each symbolizing an ideal, each standing for a promise. Wipe away the cynicism and listen to the words, then see cynicism for what it is, a convenient cover for people who sometime decided to stop: to stop loving, to stop thinking, to stop caring, to stop expecting. Scrape it away and polish that which is of tremendous value lying beneath.

[+] EnlargeJesse Owens
AP PhotoJesse Owens' performance at the 1936 Summer Olympics was a clear social and political statement.
Ray Allen did. The Boston Celtics guard flew to Washington to be part of the millionhood, just as a citizen, just to see it, to stand at the National Mall, not separated with the millionaires but ordinary, standing in the freezing cold with everyone else.

During the inauguration, along the grass, people stared and cried at these symbols and the promises they carry -- the Vietnam Memorial, the Lincoln Memorial, the Supreme Court. The promises collided with the hardened notions that things never get better, that only the privileged prosper, that only the people with nothing are held accountable, that the same old arguments never get resolved.

But listen to the president, and you can't help but think he is asking for something more, and that includes something more from the guys with their names on their jerseys. Perhaps this is the natural order of things. The hardest battles have already been fought. In terms of salary, impact and opportunity, baseball players Ken Griffey Jr., Alex Rodriguez and Mark Teixeira are equal. Of the past six coaches to appear in a Super Bowl, three have been black and two have won.

"Those who prefer leisure over work, or seek only the pleasures of riches and fame. …" The president was talking specifically to Wall Street, but symbolically to all of us, even to our gilded athletes, asking whether they stand for more than leading the league in yards after the catch. Maybe they don't.

[+] EnlargeDerek Jeter
Al Bello/Getty ImagesDerek Jeter displayed a passive public face and deflected questions about his feelings after Sept. 11, 2001.
It was the first, closest time I'd ever come to quitting the business, or at least this side of it. Sept. 11, 2001. We'd lived in Hell's Kitchen, New York City; and from my window, as the morning turned to afternoon, you could see them, Americans, walking dazed up Manhattan Island, their suits, blouses and overcoats covered in powdery, cancerous filth. The view from the northwest corner of 49th Street in front of the Skyline Motel was a shimmering horizon interrupted by a smoldering, charcoal streak. In a few days, little white flakes no bigger than dandruff drifted through the air. Usually, around three in the afternoon, when the wind shifted up the island, the remnants of the towers speckled your nose. This lasted about a month.

At some point, it was time to go back to work. The baseball season would soon resume. That meant heading to Yankee Stadium to ask the gilded about the catastrophe. In the players' parking lot came the captain, Derek Jeter, heading for his luxury car du jour -- Benz, BMV, Escalade. His face was blank, offering no hints that today was any different than the week before. He fielded questions about the towers, the world, his state of mind.

"Man, I don't know. I was asleep."

This is a true story.

To so many of them, service meant signing an autograph at a firehouse. To so many of us, it was sticking a yellow magnet on our cars, or turning a baseball cap that read "FDNY" into a fashion symbol. It meant nothing. Jerry Laveroni, the Yankees' security chief, handed me a lapel pin in the shape of an American flag. I took it. Then I asked one of the Yankees players if he was OK, if his family was all right.

"I'm good," he said. "I'm not even from New York."

"Too rich to care," I said to myself and went home.


"Rather, it has been the risk takers, the doers, the makers of things -- some celebrated but more often men and women obscure in their labor, who have carried us up the long, rugged path toward prosperity and freedom."


Six years ago, in a conversation with the late David Halberstam, I wondered aloud whether the time of the athlete as social vehicle was over, replaced forever by the vapid agent-managed, carefully image-controlled photo op. Jackie Robinson's children went to public schools. So did Hank Aaron's. They were part of the society, and their issues were clear. The times were different. And it struck me that the issue might be a question of focus, of believing that people of substance exist -- Ray Allen of the Celtics and golfer Notah Begay, for example -- and finding them.

[+] EnlargeRay Allen
AP Photo/Bob ChildRay Allen, left, meeting three-year-old Lauren Sonski and her father, Jason, of Naugatuck, Conn., last September, made sure he was in Washington for the inauguration.
And it is true: The time for racial pioneers in America is just about complete, and this is a good thing. The fewer the firsts, the greater the progress.

The question is now the future. Basic equality has been achieved, so what will come next? Total equality under the law -- in legislation if not always in practice -- has been achieved, so what will come next?

That is the question the president posed to the people of privilege -- not just to Plaxico Burress and Adam Jones, but also to Kobe Bryant, Michael Jordan and Tom Brady. Now that you have your success and the benefits that come with it, he seemed to be asking, will you deliver it to others? Or will you take what you have earned and keep it for yourself, merely indulge yourself further? It was a direct challenge for today and tomorrow. The answer will decide, at least from a sports perspective, what Black History Month means as the lifetimes pile up.

"At the same time, there's a responsibility for all of us, too. It's not just about him making changes. He's one person," Allen said after the inauguration. "We all can make that change. What has happened is that he's given everyone the opportunity and the ability to make that change. It's not just about big business or government. It's about the people, and we all have that responsibility."


"Our challenges may be new. The instruments with which we meet them may be new. But those values upon which our success depends -- honesty and hard work, courage and fair play, tolerance and curiosity, loyalty and patriotism -- these things are old. These things are true. They have been the quiet force of progress throughout our history. What is demanded then is a return to these truths. This is the price and the promise of citizenship."


Maybe it's not they. Maybe it's we who did this when we elevated them beyond all appropriate levels, beyond all appropriate scale, without demanding more, and all they're doing is taking the land we've given. Or maybe it is merely the cycle of life, the natural byproduct of progress. Jackie Robinson grayed and died prematurely so that Terrell Owens could dance in the end zone, unencumbered, without the responsibility of adding to the story. A depressing thought, perhaps, but not an entirely inaccurate one, either.

[+] EnlargeTerrell Owens
AP Photo/Matt SlocumWould Terrell Owens be able to dance in the end zone if Jackie Robinson hadn't been so courageous?
People make a big deal out of the president because he, and his moment in time, is certainly a big deal. The biggest deal in the world. Maybe athletes will come along, heed his call of service and reintroduce themselves to the world that lives on the other side of the tinted glass of the Escalade. If not -- if the money has taken on and defeated all comers -- they can play at the cost of their historical significance, and we can watch. Maybe, the time has come when sports are just that, the social battles having been fought and won. There also is value in dropping the illusion once and for all.

And yet, even that is OK because the opportunity to engage is alive, even if the gilded millionaires have decided to remain behind the velvet rope. Two days after the inauguration, my 4-year-old son said to me, "Papa, I had a dream I was president." I laughed because I did not believe he'd said that. And I laughed because he has said many things. He wants to be a firefighter or a doctor and live in Hawaii. (Nice gig.)

But he has never said he wants to be a ballplayer.

And then I laughed because maybe we're reaching the end of the pathology in which being a ballplayer seemed more realistic than being president. Wanting to be the president doesn't have to be a dream anymore. It can be a goal. For him, it is a starting point, because he's 4 and this is all he knows. He gets to begin at a point that so many people never got to see, a point so many others never thought they'd live to see.

Howard Bryant is a senior writer for ESPN.com and ESPN the Magazine. He is the author of "Juicing the Game: Drugs, Power and the Fight for the Soul of Major League Baseball," and "Shut Out: A Story of Race and Baseball in Boston." He can be reached at Howard.Bryant@espn3.com.