Had Jackie Robinson been born in the 1970s or 1980s, he’d likely have more in common with Michael Jordan than Muhammad Ali.
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That is not written to denigrate Robinson or his legacy as a central figure in African-Americans’ fight for equality. It’s written to defend the modern-day athlete, the sportsman chastised for protecting corporate interests and ignoring social ills.
There will be much written about Robinson and his legacy over the next few days and weeks as America goes to movie theaters to take in his story, “42.” The movie opened nationwide Friday. Major League Baseball, as is its custom, will celebrate Robinson on Monday, April 15, the day he broke the color barrier in 1947. Every major-leaguer will wear Robinson’s No. 42.
Inevitably, sports writers and broadcasters will spend much of next week wondering what happened to the activist-athletes. Robinson, Ali, Jim Brown, John Carlos, Tommie Smith, Bill Russell and the athletes of the 1950s and 1960s made sports writing and broadcasting important. There is no Howard Cosell without Muhammad Ali.
We journalists miss the good-old days, and we blame modern athletes for denying us a place of importance.
I don’t blame athletes — not even Air Jordan, the corporate shill of all shills.
The blame, if you want to characterize it negatively, falls primarily on integration, the very act Robinson is deified for initiating with grace, dignity and immense courage. The plight of America’s best, brightest and luckiest African-Americans was separated from the plight of the everyday African-American.
Humans are largely self-absorbed and self-interested. Jackie Robinson was fighting for Jackie Robinson. He couldn’t earn a major league paycheck before Branch Rickey offered him a job. Robinson was denied service at the same restaurants, the same department stores, the same water fountains and bathrooms. He couldn’t enroll in school anywhere he wanted. Robinson was treated like a second-class citizen in his home country.
Michael Jordan, ever since the day he revealed his basketball skill, has been treated like royalty. His plight is not connected to the average man’s, regardless of color. The best schools in the South begged Jordan to attend and likely offered up their finest women and wine to get him.
Times change, people don’t. Since the beginning of time, it’s been proven that people are prone to act in their own self-interest. Life is too good for Jordan, Tiger, LeBron, Peyton or Jeter to rock any boats.
Integration upset the environment, creating winners and losers. I’m reminded of a scene in season three of "The Wire." Sgt. Herc is overlooking the chaos of “Hamsterdam,” the police-created drug-free-for-all zone, and the displaced lookout boys and runners. The Young Hoppers no longer have jobs or anything to do. Sgt. Herc astutely and crudely observes:
“It’s like one of those nature shows. You mess with the environment, some species get f—ed out of their habitat.”
Integration left poor minorities without credible, effective and willing voices. We journalists long for a day that is never coming back. It’s hypocritical for us to even ask. We’ve been bought, paid for and given access, too.
Recognizing the danger (riots, protests and lack of respect abroad) and unsustainability of denying so many people access to the American Dream based on color, you could somewhat reasonably argue the power establishment launched three counter-initiatives: 1. Integration; 2. Incarceration; 3. Assassination.
Again, the best, brightest and luckiest were allowed into the privileged club. Mid-level radical leaders were incarcerated, and President Nixon ushered in the drug war to sweep up any potential replacements. John Kennedy, Bobby Kennedy, Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X were killed, giving rise to conspiracy theories and anti-government cynicism.
High-profile members of the mainstream media were given 30 pieces of silver to ignore tying any of this together as it was happening.
We want LeBron or Tiger or anyone to step up like Robinson, Ali and Brown? Ha. Why should they? Who would support them? Why should they be willing to do more than we ask of modern politicians, religious leaders and journalists allegedly pledged to be the voice of the people?
It’s all a hustle now. Jesse Jackson’s son is going to jail because he was more interested in buying Michael Jackson memorabilia than honoring the legacy of Dr. King. The most influential “journalists” earn millions of dollars playing partisan gotcha games on TV.
And we want athletes to be leaders. LOL.
The last athlete to really step up was an athlete-turned coach. John Thompson stood for something in the 1980s and 1990s. His menacing, all-black Georgetown teams made a bold statement about granting at-risk kids an opportunity in college at a time when Reagan conservatism swept the country and preached against affirmative action. Thompson protested Proposition 48 and other NCAA-initiated measures that would curtail opportunities for poor and undereducated black kids.
No one is making any movies about John Thompson. He’s not remembered fondly. When we think about that era of college basketball, we think of the no-substance, baggy-shorts-wearing Fab Five. I like those guys and covered the team for the Ann Arbor News. But their elevated place in college basketball lore and Hoya Paranoia’s undervalued and misunderstood place in the same lore speaks to how far we have fallen.
We don’t want another Jackie Robinson. We prefer history, movies and pretending we’d all support the next Jackie Robinson, Jim Brown and Muhammad Ali.