by Kent Sterling
Sports is a meritocracy. Good is good. Great is great. And bad is bad. The belief systems of those watching has no bearing upon the analysis of productivity. So sports was always ahead of the curve in race relations.
Long before Dr. King’s milestone prayer that one day his children would be judged by the content of their character, not the color of their skin, sports was integrated – minus several outposts of ignorance like the University of Kentucky basketball team and other southern athletic programs.
For a long time, progress in race relations seemed to move at a glacial pace. Regardless of right and wrong, belief systems tend to die rather than consciously evolve, and it’s taken the death of the most virulent racists to move the needle forward. The easily led continue to see people as colors rather than human beings, but with every decade the schism narrows between the enlightened and the ignorant.
There are still small and strange examples of benign racism in sports, like the difficult to otherwise explain robust and vocal love for NBA players like Chris Anderson and Tyler Hansbrough.
Racism lives or dies one moment at a time, and the “I have a dream” was a big moment. The words were delivered with passion, but without anger. There was great opposition to King’s words that seems today to be ridiculous. It was ridiculous then too, but because there was more of it, people who voiced it didn’t sound quite as dumb to one other.
My Dad always explained his lack of racism by saying, “There are plenty of reasons to dislike people before I get to their color or religion.” Like many, he occasionally indulged in jokes that were based in race or religion, but he judged people without any genuine rancor because of surface issues like skin color.
My education about race was rooted in sports. There were no blacks in the town 35 miles north of Chicago where I grew up. Of 5,000 people, there were no blacks. Zero. My exposure to blacks was limited entirely to the Cubs, White Sox, Bears, and Bulls. Ernie Banks and Gale Sayers were heroes. They were the best at what they did, and I wanted to grow up to be just like them. It never occurred to me that all black people weren’t just like Banks and Sayers, or that they were different from my neighbors.
I have never heard my son mention race. It has never been discussed in our house, and thinking about it, that’s kind of odd. He went to a preschool in Chicago that served the children of employees at Illinois Masonic Hospital, and it was a Noah’s Ark of nationalities. There were kids from countries I’ve never heard of in his class. If the UN needed a group of children to discuss global policies, this place would have been perfect.
That’s how racism has been conquered – mostly – through generational attrition and evolutionary enlightenment. It wasn’t that people listened to King and decided, “Well, I can’t argue with that!” But the words stand as a testament to the bravery of a man who spoke an unpopular truth at a time when it needed to be heard. The speech has stood for 50 years as a guidepost for our society as it has emerged from ignorance to wisdom.
Generations have passed, and the idea of prejudice in 2013 seems insane. It seems the product of an evil mind that belongs in a work of fiction. That’s a long road from where the collective mind of America was 50 years ago today, but racism isn’t quite consigned to the dustbin of our history yet. There are still places where color matters, and there are religions that proudly claim that only their members will be allowed in Heaven.
Maybe my son’s kids will have a better handle on that idiocy. Until then, we can celebrate a man who put together words in a magical and divine order that continue to echo in our consciousness and drive our wisdom 50 years later.
Sports teams – particularly baseball and basketball – feature a panoply of nationalities, colors, and religions that represent the diversity of humanity. They are judged by their on-field and on-court work, just as they should be.
That’s the enlightened land where the rest of us are headed, and hopefully it won’t take another 50 years to get there.