Rethinking Your Heroes
Just finished What's My Name, Fool? by Dave Zirin. Took me just over 9 hours to read its 293 pages and I was utterly engrossed. Not bad Mr. Zirin, considering my usual anti-organized sports stance. But then, if I am to be honest, some of that stance was born out of my disgust for pastors who are unable to preach without bringing it all back to sports and people whose calender revolves around a game schedule. Even I have my sports heroes. I have learned quite a bit from What's My Name, Fool? and some of it is quite new to me, so I beg pardon that some of what I am writing (with the exception of Muhammad Ali) here is a bit of sum up.
One of my childhood heroes was Muhammad Ali. Why? Not too sure why this came to be, after all I was four in 1974 when "The Rumble in the Jungle" was fought. My Dad let me watch some it and told me a bit about the trials and tribulations of Muhammad Ali. I guess I've always admired the underdog. Hard to think of Ali as an underdog if you ever had the chance see one of his fights while he was in his prime, but he was by virtue of being Black and radical at a time of immense social upheaval.
As a kid, after the "Rumble in the Jungle" I only ever saw Ali in his declining years. Not that it mattered, he had a cartoon where he went around the world solving mysteries. Ali did the voice and me and a couple of other Ali juvenile fans would watch it faithfully for the one year of its run. But that was just a fringe benefit of my childhood hero worship, the weight of his legacy was more than enough to shore him up against his slow, painful decline in my childhood eyes. I have always felt like an underdog and was bullied quite a lot throughout school. When I finally stood up for myself and fought back it was partly from what I saw in Ali. Ali had stood for something good, something different and I wanted to be like that as well.
But then the 80's rolled around and Ali started to schill for Jimmy Dean sausages; later on, his image was used to sell Apple computers. Zirin points out that Ali has been embraced by the establishment that once reviled him. President Bush Mk.II awarded Ali the Presidential Medal of Freedom. It isn't the hallmark of a sellout, after all the likes of John Steinbeck, Antonia Pantojas, Jonas Salk, Albert Sabin, Edward R. Murrow, Jackie Robinson, César Chávez, Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks number among its recipients. But it is hard to see a younger Ali accepting an award from a corrupt president whose policies are completely unconcerned with the plight of the average American, let alone the average African-American. This is a President whose administration has been doing a hell of a lot to try and turn back the civil rights clock - a man completely at odds with very things that Ali had stood for, that had made him a man to be admired.
In an America where anything less than blind obedience is deemed by the establishment as unpatriotic, it would be impossible for the old Ali to even be considered for such an award. It is hard to associate the young Ali who tore up his draft card, was stripped of his title, kicked out of boxing and threatened with imprisonment if he didn't serve in Vietnam with the Ali who agreed to be in an advertising campaign aimed at explaining the "War on Terror" to the Arab world. Ali refused to serve in Vietnam because no Vietcong had ever called him "nigger": one has to wonder then what the peoples of Afghanistan and Iraq called him? Discussing this with friends, it is tempting to make excuses for him since he has Pugilistic Parkinsons Syndrome and he has had a hole in the membrane of his brain. But still... I am not sure I buy it. Maybe it is best to let the Ali of the present to slip away from memory - to keep in mind what Ali had been, everything that had made him, in fact, The Greatest.
But looking at admirable people, it seems to me that Jackie Robinson is a much ignored figure in some ways. We hear about Jackie but what do we really know about him? Why is Jackie Robinson worth knowing about? Robinson, in my opinion, has certainly been glossed over in this day. Some people choose to ignore him because he was seen as "white man's negro". Robinson didn't storm onto the scene as angrily and as vocally as Ali did. Robinson was also a supporter of the Republican Party (keep in mind that for many blacks of particular generations they were the party of Lincoln and the Emancipation Proclamation, while the Democrats were the pro-slavery and segregation party) and had testified at the US Congresses House Un-American Activities Committee, (HUAC) which led to the persecution of athlete/actor/singer/activist Paul Robeson. But Robinson deserves our respect and admiration, more so because he compromised who was because it was the easier, softer option.
I knew it was hard for Robinson in those early days as the lone black man in an all white and openly hostile league, but it wasn't until reading Zirin's book that I came to understand just what kind of hell Robinson was put through: the horrific name calling, black cats thrown onto the field, bad calls made deliberately against him, the intentional spiking, (done when someone drives the spikes of their cleats into a player's leg) the death threats against both him and his family. His own teammates didn't want him, even started a petition to get rid of him. The only one who believed in him was the GM and part-owner of the Brooklyn Dodgers, Branch Rickey. When he went to play on Brooklyn's farm team, the Montreal Royals, (one of the most redundant names ever) the manager there was upset asking Rickey, "... do you really think this nigger's a human being?"
Which one of us could put up with the amount of pressure, hatred and abuse? How many of us would have been willing to fight off our natural instincts of fight or flight? Robinson was a fighter and he stuck it out. He won the respect and admiration of White America. At the point he started to assert who he was and there was a backlash. Robinson spoke out about the injustices and glaring inequalities in his society before there was an actual Civil Rights Movement in the US. After baseball as a columnist in the New York Post and speaker for the NAACP he regularly challenged the system. He marched with MLK and allowed his opinions and politics to be changed as the events of his time unfolded. If anything, Robinson's beliefs became more fervent and adamant. Robinson deserves to be remembered and his true legacy ought to be known,
Tommie Smith and John Carlos are two people that you have probably seen, but never heard of. Their actions at the 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico City made one of the most enduring images of the Olympics and the Black Power movement. Perhaps if I were a sports fanatic I would have come across their names, but I have only recently learned about them. Smith and Carlos had been part of OPHR (Olympic Project for Human Rights) which had been founded to confront US hypocrisy on the subject of race relations. At first the group had tried to organize an all Black athlete boycott of the Olympics, but that option did not prove popular. Eventually the group decided that each athlete should find their own way to protest.
In the 200m race, Smith won Gold, Australia's Peter Norman took the silver and John Carlos took the bronze. Carlos and Smith wore their OPHR and went to the podium shoeless (to protest immense poverty in the world's wealthiest nation) and wearing beads, (to commemorate those who had been lynched, tarred and feathered or tossed of the boats in the Middle Passage) But what was most provocative about their actions was that they wore black gloves on one hand which they raised high with their heads bowed while the "Star-Spangled Banner" was played. (yes, exactly was the picture shown) Peter Norman joined them in a show of solidarity by wearing and OPHR badge as well.
All three of those athletes were punished for this demonstration. Carlos and Smith were stripped of their medals and sent home.
Hard times ensued for all three men. Carlos was maybe hit the hardest had a short-lived career in both NFL and CFL football and struggled in menial jobs for years. His isolation grew so desperate that his wife eventually committed suicide as a result. Smith had more success playing in the NFL and became of sociology professor. Both men ultimately ended up as track coaches. Peter Norman was shunned and ostracized by the Australian Olympic authorities and the Press for his participation. He was shut out of the 1972 Aussie Olympic team and ignored by his country until his death this fall from a heart attack. Despite the hard times and the pain that their actions brought about, none of the men have ever shown regrets for their protest.
Zirin's book opened my eyes quite a bit. We can't allow ourselves to forget or remain ignorant to the potential power sports has an agent of social change. All these people made personal sacrifices to make their world a better place. I'm not Black, so their actions were never really directed at me - but the Civil Rights Movement and even the Black Power movement had reprocussions for all of us. They acheived much and we have reaped the benfits of their actions. We cannot allow thing to slip backwards. Loses for one segment of society will mean a loss for us all, regardless of colour or creed.