Will athletes answer Obama's call?
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.
"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.
"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.
"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.