By Jorge D. H. Prosperi 2019
Athletics have always mirrored current culture. The time and space may differ, but the socio-cultural elements are ever at play – at times to fully stop and reflect beyond winning-losing scores, team affiliations and sport’s talk radio and cable shows. During such times we may find ourselves taking sides, as during other socio-cultural moments, defending, denying, deflecting, avoiding the discomfort of social -isms, phobias related to Diversity and its Threads.
It is no different with our sacred Athletics – Sports – meant to be a diversion – entertainment – our special private time to simply enjoy a game without any socio-cultural-political noise. Wish that socio-cultural constructs could take a time-out or be ejected from our national field of play – along with its history – but it has never been thus . . .
The year was 1936, Jesse Owens wins 4 Olympic gold medals at the Berlin Olympics. Adolf Hitler watches Jesse Owens win the 100, 200, long jump and 4×11 relay. Additionally, Matthew MacKenzie “Mack” Robinson, older brother of Jackie Robinson, medalled in the 200 – Ralph Metcalf came in second in the 100. In all, 18 African-Americans won 14 medals — eight of them gold. That was a quarter of the 56 medals won by the entire U.S. team . . . with Adolf Hitler fuming as the world looked on. His “Make Germany Great Again” would have to wait.
African Americans made a statement in 1936 to a host country that was proclaiming its Nazi Nationalsozialismus, Herrenrasse, Herrenmenschen claims on being the Master Race. The African American contingency was an embarrassment to Hitler’s claims, as well as those promoting the Eugenics White Supremacy movement in the USA – being taught in some American Schools as national gospel.
Ironically, Jesse Owens saluted the USA flag as the National Anthem resonated, and then humbly returned, with other African Americans, to the segregated Olympic housing – the same that he would experience upon returning to the USA.
None of these Olympians were invited to the White House nor received congratulations. There was fear that talented African American and Jewish athletes would compromise the relationship with Hitler. The same fear that some politicians experience in 2020 – not daring to oppose racism, sexism, homophobia, xenophobia, separátocide and obstruction to the rule of law.
Fear and cowardice don’t change – only the actors do.
Fast forward to 1960 and an 18 year old Olympian Gold Medal winner Cassius Clay (Muhammad Ali). Upon returning to the USA as a global hero, he confronts racist attitudes as upon being given the keys to a city, he is denied dinning or sleeping in “White only” establishments.
Fast forward to 1968, the medal ceremony in the Olympic Stadium in Mexico City – African- American athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos, who had won gold and bronze medals respectively in the 200-meter, turned to face the US flag, lower their heads and then raise their arms with fists clenched. In addition, Smith, Carlos, and Australian silver medalist Peter Norman all wore human-rights badges on their jackets. In his autobiography, Silent Gesture, Smith stated that the gesture was not a “Black Power” salute but rather a “human rights” salute.
The demonstration is regarded as one of the most overtly political statements in the history of the modern Olympics and created a racial firestorm of criticism in America. Another reminder of those yesteryears.
In a blink of an eye most of us are adults living through the 2016 controversy of yet another athlete. Colin Kaepernick, San Francisco 49s quarterback, refused to stand for the national anthem as a statement against “social and racial injustices.” His statement was supported and opposed by NFL players, coaches, owners, fans, politicians and sport pundits. He asked that each of us take a stand . . . and we did. The national divide was there to be seen in HD and surround sound on any given Sunday.
Again, athletes, on their athletic stages, reminding fans of socio-cultural-political norms and principles not yet actualized or authenticated leaving us with uncomfortable introspection to deal with our mutual legacy as citizens.
Athletics – Sports are inbred in American culture. From little leagues to the pros. They are ever present and therefore part of the American cultural quilt with all of the passions, -isms, phobias and flaws. Therefore, it is impossible to keep “Athletics” and its actors squeaky clean and separate from the modernity of the 21st Century. We experience Athletics and deal with them with all its warts.
From the use of steroid enhancement drugs, domestic violence accusations, child sex scandals, sex abuse misconduct, hazing, recruiting violations – use and abuse of athletes by “plantation schools”, admission violations, questionable academic grading, truncated graduation requirements, unethical coaching behavior, suppressed research on CTE – athletics has a history of aligning itself to socio-cultural diseases and their pathology.
Nevertheless, I would posit that it is nearly impossible to think about America without thinking of its mania with athletics. Imagine Wall Street and Las Vegas without the countless fantasy teams, the playoffs leading to the Super Bowl, World Series and Stanley Cup. Imagine without the Summer/Winter Olympics, Wimbledon & all other Opens, World Cups, Tiger Woods wearing yet another green jacket, College Bowl games, March Madness along with all of the paraphernalia worn with pride.
What about all that equipment required per sport. Even little leaguers needing specialized shoes, gloves and sun glasses. Imagine all the millions of tailgaters not toasting their favorite gladiators by wearing their names and numbers – not to mention bars with massive flat screens showing several contests simultaneously over burgers and pilsners. Sports are a monster business and in our blood.
There is also another tier of madness that lives in our backyard – in each school district and across districts. This madness goes under the names of AAU, Little Leagues, Olympic Development Programs, Select-Travel Teams in all sports feeding public, independent, private, faith based and single gender Middle and High Schools all competing for those State Finals . . . and the free ink it provides to each school. It is at these levels that we begin to hear the calling for the “Scholar-Athlete” along with “Sound Mind and Body and all of the benefits of participating in sports.
But, let’s not pretend that recruiting takes place only at the college level. It begins early with parent(s)- ‘coach-agents’ as accessories and institutions luring exceptional “vertical jumps and speed” with “financial aid” enticements. Parochial and Private/Independent Schools are at the head of the class promoting Mens Sana in Corpore Sano dogma – as long as the ACL, PCL, MCL, LCL stay sound and symptom-free of CTE.
It’s ironic that Physical Education never seems to get proper attention associated with health, nutrition, body fat, obesity, life style, daily exercise, flexibility and all of the quality of life benefits. It seems that Physical Fitness is somehow lost in the pursuit of “being numero 1.“
But don’t misunderstand, while I remain a benevolent skeptic about the benefits of competitive athletics at large, I do promote the advantages of being on team-oriented sports where ethical coaching standards are applied to the teaching and mentoring of young athletes. The benefits are as noble and honorable as those within the academic classroom. Unfortunately, athletics have been rationalized and politicized.
Penn State coach James Franklin could have remained silent – white washing the alum’s letter avoiding upsetting other alums, avoiding possible dissension and divisiveness among its own student body and players – avoiding perhaps a tweet or two by the Tribal Chief himself. Coach Franklin could have avoided being criticized by fellow coaches and even risking losing his job.
Lost in this Breaking News is that the student-athlete himself did not waver nor was bitter about the incident. Jon Meachum reminds that history has a history – a backdrop – context – it is multi layered – requiring pursuit of the truth – critical examination and scrutiny. History has its counterstories.
Sutherland spoke of his truth and that of his family. He shared where his hairstyle – the dreadlocks originated. “I’ve had my hair for like ten years now, going on ten years,” Sutherland said. “I feel like it’s become a part of my identity at this point. When I was a kid my mom just braided my hair one day and I just went with it.”
Braids woven by a mother’s loving and trusted hands – before the days at Penn State. Before an alum noticed the dreadlocks and was predisposed to judge with innocent well-intended comments – but with its hidden meaning to be discerned.
The world of Athletics reflects our socio-cultural legacy and principles; clearly stated in the Declaration of Independence and Constitution regarding the core values of Democracy, Justice, Equity, Meritocracy and Opportunities of Worth.
The worth of the opportunities that athletics provides go far beyond fans, school conferences and pro-sports. Athletics are intertwined in every aspect of our socio-cutlural-American ethos because we have made them so and must now begin to authenticate the worth of each athlete regardless of their color – regardless of their difference and otherness to white America.
Our Republic does not have time restraints, periods, quarters, halves and/or time-outs. There is only one team – one uniform and we wear it every day as citizens.
Together we step into that national field heralding . . . “That All Men/Women are Created Equal” acutely aware of the ever present “Black – White – Equal but Separate paradigms” that linger – along with all of the subtle “contrived well-intended nuances.”
We are not only fans but the actual athletes competing for democracy, equality, freedom and justice. This is the team that requires no recruiting. We joined Team America like all other citizens upon our birth. We fight together against fear, bigotry, ignorance and hate. Name the place and time and we show up.
The long struggle for justice and freedom continues but now with the hope and promise with more Americans no longer silent as they have begun to understand the layers of multigenerational pain, injustices and obstruction to America’s founding principles.
As coach Franklin inspired, “We embrace differences. We live, we learn, we grow, we support and we defend each other. We’re a family.”
Perhaps one day no longer even a consideration to take a knee.
End of Part II