Jesse Owens, Jack Johnson, Joe Louis, Hank Greenberg and Billie Jean King are a few of the sports stars that inspired hope for a better America. But it took a courageous baseball player whose career overlapped that of Hank Greenberg to provide the impetus to make that hope a reality.
During the 1936 Berlin Olympic games, Jesse Owens shattered the myth of Aryan superiority. Owens’ obituary in the New York Times tells the story: "The Nazis derided the Americans for relying on what the Nazis called an inferior race, but of the 11 gold medals in track won by the American men, six were won by blacks. The hero was Mr. Owens. He won the 100-meter dash in 10.3 seconds, the 200-meter dash in 20.7 seconds and the broad jump at 26 feet 5 ½ inches, and he led off the United States team that won the 400-meter relay in 39.8 seconds. Hitler did not congratulate any of the American black winners, a subject to which Mr. Owens addressed himself for the rest of his life. ‘It was all right with me,’ he said years later, ‘I didn’t go to Berlin to shake hands with him anyway. All I know is that I’m here now, and Hitler isn’t. When I came back, after all those stories about Hitler and his snub, I came back to my native country, and I couldn’t ride in the front of the bus. I had to go to the back door. I couldn’t live where I wanted. Now what’s the difference?’
"Having returned from Berlin, he received no telephone call from President Franklin D. Roosevelt, was not asked to visit the White House. Official recognition from his own country did not come until 1976 when President Gerald R. Ford presented him the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Three years later President Carter gave him the Living Legends Award."
It has been reported that President Roosevelt didn’t recognize Owens because he was afraid it would anger southern voters in the 1936 election.
Jack Johnson and Joe Louis were two of the greatest heavyweight boxers of all time. These men were heroes to an oppressed people who were treated as inferior by their country.
Likewise, tennis star Billie Jean King advanced the cause of equality for women. After she defeated Bobby Riggs in the "Battle of the Sexes," Frank Deford wrote in Sports Illustrated: "She has prominently affected the way 50 percent of society thinks and feels about itself in the vast area of physical exercise. Moreover, like (Arnold) Palmer, she has made a whole sports boom because of the singular force of her presence."
Hank Greenberg was the first Jewish baseball superstar. He overcame the anti-Semitic slurs that were hurled at him by opposing players. Later in life, Greenberg said: "When I was playing, I used to resent being singled out as a Jewish ballplayer. I wanted to be known as a great ballplayer, period. I’m not sure why or when I changed, because I’m still not a particularly religious person. Lately, though, I find myself wanting to be remembered not only as a great ballplayer, but as a great Jewish ballplayer." He was one of the few opposing players who publicly welcomed Jackie Robinson to the Major Leagues in 1947, and became one of his closest friends.
Jackie Robinson may have contributed more to the success of the Civil Rights movement than anyone inside or outside of sports. As the first black player in the Major Leagues, he had both the character to endure the hatred and prejudice of a segregated society and the talent to win the rookie of the year award in 1947 and the most valuable player award in 1949. He was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1962. His uniform number, 42, is the only number retired from Major League Baseball. April 15 of every season is now "Jackie Robinson Day" in which every player on every team wears No. 42.
Michael Sam is the defensive player of the year in the Southeastern Conference. He has announced publicly that he is gay and is likely to become the first openly gay player in the NFL.
If we listen to Dallas sportscaster Dale Hansen, Michael Sam will not suffer the abuse that Jackie Robinson and Hank Greenberg did:
"… on Sunday, Missouri’s All-American defensive end Michael Sam – the SEC’s defensive player of the year and expected to be a third to fifth-round pick in the NFL draft – tells the world he’s gay. The best defensive player in college football’s best conference only a third to fifth round NFL pick? Really? That is shocking, and I guess that other thing is, too.
Michael Sam would be the first openly gay player in the NFL; says he knows there will be problems … and they’ve already started.
Several NFL officials are telling Sports Illustrated it will hurt him on draft day because a gay player wouldn’t be welcome in an NFL locker room. It would be uncomfortable, because that’s a man’s world.
You beat a woman and drag her down a flight of stairs, pulling her hair out by the roots? You’re the fourth guy taken in the NFL draft.
You kill people while driving drunk? That guy’s welcome.
Players caught in hotel rooms with illegal drugs and prostitutes? We know they’re welcome.
Players accused of rape and pay the woman to go away?
You lie to police trying to cover up a murder?
We’re comfortable with that.
You love another man? Well, now you’ve gone too far!
It wasn’t that long ago when we were being told that black players couldn’t play in "our" games because it would be "uncomfortable." And even when they finally could, it took several more years before a black man played quarterback.
Because we weren’t "comfortable" with that, either.
So many of the same people who used to make that argument (and the many who still do) are the same people who say government should stay out of our lives.
But then want government in our bedrooms.
I’ve never understood how they feel "comfortable" laying claim to both sides of that argument.
I’m not always comfortable when a man tells me he’s gay; I don’t understand his world.
But I do understand that he’s part of mine.
Civil rights activist Audre Lord said: "It is not our differences that divide us. It’s our inability to recognize, accept, and celebrate those differences."
We’ve always been able to recognize ‘em. Some of us accept ‘em.
And I want to believe that there will be a day we do celebrate ‘em.
I don’t know if that day’s here yet. I guess we’re about to find out.
But when I listen to Michael Sam, I do think it’s time to celebrate him now.