Famous Athletes Have Always Led the Way

You don’t get to be a sports fan — to enjoy the spectacle of black excellence — and look away from what these athletes demand. The issue that primarily moved Kaepernick to take a knee, the killing of unarmed black people by the police, remains a huge problem. The football players who will continue to take a knee this season are part of a noble tradition of sports figures acting from their conscience.

“You’ll never know how easy you and Jackie and Doby and Campy made it for me to do my job by what you did on the baseball field,” the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said to the baseball superstar Don Newcombe — speaking of Jackie Robinson, Larry Doby and Roy Campanella — a few weeks before King was assassinated in Memphis in 1968.

Newcombe was humbled, he told a reporter. “Imagine, here is Martin getting beaten with billy clubs, bitten by dogs and thrown in jail, and he says we made his job easier.”

Americans who are angry with Kaepernick often forget how black entertainers and athletes have used their fame to break down barriers of discrimination. Ray Charles helped to desegregate concert halls; Jackie Robinson integrated an entire sports league. Entertainers and athletes also helped to combat fear of black culture.

The billy club and the baseball bat were competing weapons in the war for the mind of white America. But increasingly, in the physics of race, it became more difficult for two objects to occupy the same space at the same time. The preservation of a society that prevented more black people from thriving ran headlong into an appreciation for the athletic gifts — and, by extension, the humanity — of black people. Robinson, Doby, Campanella and Newcombe were the easiest translation of what the civil rights movement aimed for: Give black folk a chance, treat us fairly, make one set of rules for us all to abide by, and we will do well.

It seemed a reasonable proposition: If you like me, and you like what I am, then like the culture that produced me.

These athletes saw the contradiction between American ideals of fairness and justice and their arbitrary application to people of color. A black person had to be a superstar athlete and beloved icon to enjoy only some of the perks that many white people could take for granted at birth.

All of this seems foreign to people who didn’t — and don’t — depend on their sports stars or their entertainers to double as part-time spokesmen and spokeswomen for their race. Taylor Swift carries no such burden; Bryce Harper curries no such expectation. Sure, Joe DiMaggio made the Italians proud, and Jews exulted in the play of Hank Greenberg and Sandy Koufax. But despite the undeniable prejudice some of them confronted, none truly faced the feisty assortment of bigotries that dogged the black athlete’s path.

Muhammad Ali spoke against the war in Vietnam, often linking it to domestic racial terror, and he paid for his dissent, cast as a villain, a racial pariah, a traitor, a coward, a clueless and unpatriotic dupe. Ali died a hero decades later, but by then his transformation was aided by a disease that diminished his speech.

Colin Kaepernick’s singular act of social conscience has galvanized many in the black community. Scores of my students and other young people around the country regard Kaepernick as a hero for his willingness to speak out for justice, inspiring them in turn to attend local rallies or to join protests against police brutality. These young people find themselves thrust into the swirl of a history that to this point only stared at them from a textbook.

The thing that rich, talented and famous athletes can do is get others to follow them. In this case, with Kaepernick and the many other players who have taken a knee since his initial protest in 2016, it is the coaches and owners who are now coming along, too.

It is also important that privileged white people use their platforms to challenge inequality — and speak out against white fragility and indifference. In the sports world, three white men with power and influence make this plain. The Detroit Pistons coach and president, Stan Van Gundy, spoke bluntly about Donald Trump after he was elected, saying that he didn’t think “anybody can deny this guy is openly and brazenly racist and misogynistic.” More recently, he lamented that the president has made the national anthem a divisive issue. But he saw the positive: “People are now talking about some very important problems.”

Gregg Popovich, the coach of the San Antonio Spurs, has emerged as a brilliant advocate of white people’s facing up to the legacy of white privilege. “We still have no clue of what being born white means,” he has said. And the Atlanta Falcons owner Arthur Blank told me that he was quite sympathetic to the social issues that black people face and that black players express.

These men, united by a sports world that is fueled in many ways by black excellence, are patriots, true lovers of democracy, who want to see substantive social change. That cannot happen without agitation and resistance, without protest and uncomfortable moments of reckoning. Kaepernick’s legacy resides far beyond the gridiron he deserves to play on; it lives in the spiral of social awareness and public conscience that his protest has unleashed.

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