Leland Stein III

Archive for December, 2011|Monthly archive page

Sports and Politics Are Married

In sports column on December 7, 2011 at 3:20 am

Muhammad-Ali-and-Sugar-Ray-Robinson-and-Joe-Louis

By Leland Stein, III

The worlds of sports and politics are invariably intertwined in a multifaceted, complex and convoluted mixed that is in the words of jazz legend Miles Davis, a “Witches Brew.”

On one hand, sports is entertainment, and an escape from the doldrums that permeate peoples’ everyday existence. Yet on the other hand, sports entertainment presents itself as a much too serious endeavor for too many. Politics, unquestionably, is the vehicle that generates laws and govern our everyday movements through humanity.

Sports are an unquestionable vehicle that galvanizes entire communities, towns and even countries into a collective discourse that move many into civic, regional and national pride.

Long before America admitted, recognized or documented that its segregation policies and laws, both unwritten and written, were racist… sports took center stage.

When Jack Johnson won the World Heavyweight boxing title in the very early 1900’s, most African Americans could not live, work, marry or compete in sports activities with their American brethren. It took another 40 years before Americans could embrace or acknowledge African American athletes.

In 1936 and 1938 two men changed many perceptions and some perceived prejudices – albeit not the educational, political or the economic plight of most African Americans. They were Jesse Owens and Joe Louis. Owens at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, Germany on eve of World War II debunked Hitler’s Aryan Supremacy rhetoric, making him a national icon and world figure.

Later in 1938, Louis knocked out Germany legend, Max Schmeling, moving him past just a boxer to a true American hero. Whether either of them wanted it, they became political figures that represented an entire race. Many of our white brethren in America embrace Louis and Owens – white and black, rich and poor.

After Louis’ and Owens’ break through, Jackie Robinson furt hered the cause of the African American in the United States as he broke Major League Baseball’s color barrier in 1947 – a significant moment in race relations that Louis helped forged.

Like bacon and eggs, socks and shoes, grits and butter… sports and politics, like it or not, have always walked hand in hand.

So, I think it is safe to postulate that Barack Obama becoming the country’s 44th and first African-American president was cleared in part by athletes whose courage, heart, determination and talent helped the country move through the slow, violent, tedious and painful process of desegre gation.

Hall of Fame slugger, Hank Aaron, who experienced first-hand the ugliness of racism as he chased Babe Ruth’s hollowed homerun record, told a reporter that he was just overwhelmed when Obama won. “Every time I see him on television I just smile because he represents me,” he said. “No matter how I look at it, he’s me. For the first time you can see this country becoming the kind of country that we all are very proud of.”

Aaron and other Black athletes broke barriers and changed the political climate before the Civil Rights Movement commenced. In fact, he was among the early influx of black players to follow Robinson, breaking in to the majors in 1954, a month before the Supreme Court’s Brown vs. Board of Education ruling that opened the way for school integration.

Then in the 1960’s, men like Bill Russell, Jim Brown, Muhammad Ali, Curt Flood and even Spencer Haywood, challenged America’s segregated policies and used their celebrity to force the political climate to become more inclusive.

In particular gold medalist sprinter, Tommie Smith, along with bronze medalist John Carlos, raised black-gloved fist at the 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico City to protest the treatment of Blacks in the United States.

The controversial salute during the national anthem by Smith and Carlos came six months after King’s assassination. Predictably both athletes were denigrated and disparaged by white America for their actions.

“People wanted to label me a militant,” Smith, 64, told me in an interview. “The fact of the matter is what we did was a Project for Human Rights. We needed to bring attention to the negative condition of too many in the States.”

The world’s biggest gathering of nations, the Olympics has and will always live with the politics of humanity. Sometimes it has been very good like China using the 2008 Beijing Games as a coming out party to the world showcasing its rich history, culture and creativity.

On the other hand it has also been used to further political agendas like the Palestinians taking the Israeli athletes in the 1972 Olympics in Munich, Germany. All the hostages were killed. Then the United State boycotted the Russian Games in 1980 and Russia did likewise, boycotting the 1984 Los Angeles Games.

Sports and politics go hand in hand, much to the chagrin of many; however, they will always be wedded.