Diversity and Athletics as Fans and Citizens

The essay by Jorge Prosperi deals with Athletics as a social-cultural-political construct and its connections with History, Diversity, Equity, Inclusivity, Citizenship and Democracy.

Diversity and athletics . . . I can hear the groans as we enter this disquisition. “Oh no, please leave athletics alone – it’s one of the few diversions and distractions in my life that should remain free from all that political correctness, and all those social -isms, phobias. Can we please just leave athletics alone?”  

Wish we could – but to do so would be to deny the guiding principles of our website and podcasts – and also deny that athletics is one of our social-cultural constructs that is part and parcel of our cultural identity – with all of its passions and warts. 

Let’s agree on the fact that – we do not have to stop loving our athletics in order to continue to evolve in the areas of Diversity, Inclusivity, Equity, Justice, Democracy and our Citizenship.  As emotionally intelligent human beings, we can do both. Now, what we prioritize is a different matter. 

Whether we know it or not, believe it or not – the wide world of athletics has always been linked to our culture – just like other constructs that all of us live with on a daily basis as human beings. 

I fully understand wanting to exist in our own personal caves of entertainment – away from the pathology of all those words that create discomfort upon hearing them – like nails screeching across a chalkboard.   We know the words all too well – racism, prejudice, bigotry, sexism, xenophobia, homophobia, white supremacy, domestic terrorism, insurrection, political extremism.  Each word – each concept has a history and has infected our national identity. 

There are reasons why we want our Athletics to be left alone. Athletics  is a coveted social-cultural phenomenon in every society. Name the country and there will be fans willing to share their fanaticism. Americans love – simply go gaga over their sports. It’s in our national DNA. But let’s also agree that there is more than one gene in our inherited DNA.

It was on April 29, 1961 – Saturday 5:00 pm that America heard the voice of Jim McKay introduce the Wide World of Sports –  the first American sports anthology of its kind on national television.  That opening volley should be chiseled on the entrance door to every sports hall of fame – remember? 

“Spanning the world to bring you the constant variety of sports . . . the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat . . . the human drama of athletic competition . . .
This is ABCs Wide World of Sports.” 

The show provided new lenses to see the depth and breadth of international sports.  It affirmed the fact that Americans were ready to compete globally.  So for two hours, we traveled around the world to new landscapes outside our borders discovering new sports witnessing incredible feats of athleticism.

Increasingly, because of such programs, our fanaticism grew exponentially. Technology placed us inside locker rooms.  We got to know coaches and competitors up close and personal. 

We loved taking sides, especially during the Olympics.  It was all good and right to be homers, enthusiasts – fanatics.  This was one time when divisionism was not only acceptable but strongly encouraged. 

For years athletics remained separated from our social-cultural-political realities.  Athletics seemed to have their own sacrosanct space. But as with other cultural phenomenons, athletics became part of a wider unforgiving world –  that world when existence unexpectanly reveals itself in some stark unprecedented way — shocking mind, heart and spirit.  

America in the 1950s and 60s began to lose its innocence incrementally.  The U-2 spy plane debacle in 1960 with Russia, the Vietnam war, demonstrations for civil rights and freedoms – the right to vote, fair trial, government services, public education and the use of public facilities. We grieved at the assassinations of John F. Kennedy in 1963 – Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy in 1968.

Countries were telling us to get our own house in order before preaching from that self-righteous “Shinning City on the Hill.”

Inside and outside the USA we were trying to deal with stark realities that were difficult, if not impossible to deny and justify. We began to ask ourselves if this was who we were and wanted to be. Questions we continue to ask to this day.  

We desperately needed an off ramp from somber realities and sports was our panacea.  Athletics served as a kind of therapy. Meant to be a diversion – entertainment – our sacred time to simply enjoy a game with some corn chips, a cold Modelo, without any social-cultural-political noise.

We could always rely on the Olympics right? A venerated space where all women and men came together under the flag of 5 sacred olympic rings representing five continents – the Olympics when every four years diversity and inclusivity was realized – matching the best against the best — heralded as “peace through sport.”  

But all that came to a sudden stop in 1972 during the anti-semitic Munich Massacre resulting in the death of 11 Israeli athletes.  The Wide World of Sports was there to capture the terror with all of its cameras, horrific sounds and visuals.  Suddenly, our attention was redirected from “peace through sport” to man’s inhumanity. 

Unexpectedly we were wrenched from our cocoon of  sports-talk radio, reviews of daily scores and highlights, the pure enjoyment of vetting and betting and thrust into reality. However athletics still remained a kind of sanctuary – we were able to find a retreat as a week-end-warrior or simply as a fan. 

I so wish that our malignant -isms and phobias could be ejected from our society, culture and sports.  But it has never been thus . . . and we need to remember the reasons why . . . 

Jesse Owens – Salutes the American flag at 1936 Berlin Olympics

The year was 1936, Jesse Owens wins 4 Olympic gold medals at the Berlin Olympics. Adolf Hitler watches as Jesse Owens wins the 100meter, 200meter, long jump and 4×100 relay. Hitler with teeth grit in anger witnesses Owens finish first again, again, again, and again.  Additionally, Matthew MacKenzie “Mack” Robinson, older brother of Jackie Robinson, medalled in the 200 meter – Ralph Metcalf came in second in the 100 meter. 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.

The Nazi slogan of “Make Germany Great Again” through the master Aryan white race had been exposed as a hoax to the entire world. 

African Americans made a statement in 1936 to a host country that was proclaiming its autocratic extremist Nazi Hitlerism. The African American and Jewish contingency was an embarrassment to Hitler’s claims, as well as those promoting the Eugenics White Supremacy movement in the USA.  Eugenics being taught in some American Schools as gospel to middle school and high school students.  Eugenics – Race science promoted at the University level by academics.  Eugenics – Americas inherited shame of delusional white supremacy. Eugenics – an ideology that Hitler would condone and follow. 

Ironically, Jesse Owens, the grandson of a slave, saluted the USA flag as the National Anthem resonated in Berlin and then he returned, with other African Americans, to the segregated Olympic housing – the same that they would experience upon returning to the US. 

Owens returned as an international celebrated Olympian. But at a banquet in his honor, he and his wife had to enter the building through the service door. He was prohibited from making appearances at sporting events. He was not allowed to use his status for endorsements and during his life time took on menial jobs as a gas station attendant and playground janitor – at times this Olympian hero raced against amateurs and horses for cash. 

Jesse Owens, an international hero, upon his return to America was not invited to the White House nor received congratulations from the president. Why?  There was fear that talented African Americans and Jewish athletes would compromise the relationship between Hitler, Washington legislators, US banks and major industrialists who supported Hitler and his ideology.  

Fast forward to 1960 to an 18 year old Olympian Gold Medal winner Cassius Clay (Muhammad Ali). Upon returning to the USA as a global hero, he receives the keys to the city where he was born, raised and now buried –  Louisville Kentucky. But young Cassius discovered that his gold medal did not provide entrance to “white only diners and white only hotels” even in his home town.

Increasingly, athletics of color realized that they were valued for their vertical jump, speed and entertainment. Athletes of color dealt with the reality of going from heroes to tokens within 100 meters or game clock-minutes – creating bandwagons for fans to jump on waiving American flags and chanting USA – USA – USA. Even while being paid well, they heard the silent cold realities behind the cheers – “Stay in your own lane where you belong!”

Fast forward to 1968, the medal ceremony in the Olympic Stadium in Mexico City – African- American athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos, win gold and bronze medals respectively in the 200-meter, they turned to face the US flag on the awards platform, as the music begins, they lower their heads and raise their arms with clenched fists to the sky. 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. 

That salute 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.  As a matter of fact, that conversation regarding that moment continues to be debated. 

Again fast forward and – in a blink of an eye it’s 2016 and yet another athlete brings America to its knees.  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 by some and vehemently opposed by others.  Even the president politicized and radicalized the event. It was red meat for that segment of old school America that was holding on in desperation to the past – using that archaic slogan “Make America Great Again” – sound familiar?  

Like Carlos, Smith and Ali – Kaepernick asked for Americans to reflect on social and racial injustices . . .  yes . . .  while the anthem played.  But the ask was again too great – and we responded by going to our – not so neutral corners.  The national divide was there to be seen in HD and surround sound on any given Sunday and on Monday nights.  

Again, athletes, on their athletic stages, reminding fans that our founding principles had not been actualized or authenticated. Athletes asking us to lean into the discomfort of America’s inherited prejudices and predispositions about each other – asking us to do some serious soul searching in order to deal with our legacy and our communal citizenship.

Our view of our super heroes seemed to be restricted to – in and out of bounds demarcations. Athletes of color and their families knew the dimensions of the legacy of those social-cultural playing fields. They knew that Michael, LeBron, or any of the Fab Five, could be profiled just for walking or driving in spaces regarded exclusively for privileged patrons. Even today, mothers and fathers of color feel the need to have “The Talk” with their children warning them that for some fans, their lives don’t matter.

Athletics, just like our society and culture, has always had a dark side. Through the years we heard the breaking news regarding the use of steroids, enhancement drugs, blood doping, accusations of domestic violence, sex abuse by coaches, trainers and doctors, victimizers and their accomplices enabling – turning a blind eye to victimization, hazing, recruiting violations, betting scandals, use and abuse of athletes by “plantation schools”,  game-fixing, corrupt racist franchise owners, college admission violations, questionable academic grading, truncated graduation requirements, unethical coaches willing to win at all cost and recently the suppressed research on Chronic traumatic encephalopathy – otherwise known as CTE.

Athletics also has a long history with sexism and discrimination against women.  In 1994, some 22 years after title 9 – Mariah Burton Nelson wrote a book titled: “The Stronger Women Get – the More Men Love Football.” The book served as an introduction to what Robert Lipsyte, a New York Times sports columnist described as “a book on the collision of sports, sexuality and gender relationships. – A book that takes us to the hoop.”

Athletic fanaticism tends to blind us. We reimage athletes and coaches as god- like super heroes and worship them – even when we discover that they are flawed human beings unworthy of our trust.  The same that citizens do with corrupt, pathological liars, charlatans and wannabe patriots.

We witness institutions lawyering up to defend the indefensible – college athletic directors and alums looking the other way justifying the unjustifiable. It seems that our sense of justice and fairness as fans and citizens is clouded when it comes to our alma mater or political party.  

It’s impossible to think of America without thinking of the mania for athletics. It is not only entertainment but big business beyond our awareness. 

Imagine Las Vegas without its sport books, imagine sports without fantasy leagues, betting on the thousands of games played weekly, the playoffs – Super Bowl, World Series and Stanley Cup. Imagine without the Summer and Winter  Olympics, Wimbledon, the elusive Triple Crown, World Cups, Tiger Woods wearing yet another green jacket, College Bowl games and March Madness. It is a massive, colossal conglomerate and juggernaut. 

Athletics is a monster business. From the millions of tailgaters toasting their favorite gladiators wearing their names and numbers – to bars with massive flat screens showing several contests simultaneously over burgers and brews.

There are reasons why corporations will pay in 2023 — 7 million dollars, a new high, for 30 second units during the super bowl. So as to the significance of sports – “tell me what you are willing to spend your money on and I’ll tell you what is important to you.” 

But, it’s time that we as fans see ourselves foremost as human beings who happen to also be citizens.  Our citizenship is not seasonal – it does not deal with quarters, innings, halves or time-outs. There is only one team – one uniform and we wear it every day as citizens.

Our democracy will endure only if we as citizens make time to focus on, what Richard Haass writes in his book the “Bill of Obligations – 10 Habits of Good Citizens.” That is, our responsibilities and obligations to – Be informed, Get Involved, Stay Open to Compromise, Remain Civil, Reject Violence, Value Norms, Promote the Common Good, Respect Government Service, and put Country First. 

These obligations seem to be familiar and simple to follow – and yet – so damn hard to live by.  Were those obligations ever presented to us during those 12 years of formal education? But, I digress . . . or do I?

But we live in a Democracy that provides choices and change and so – together – we can step into that national field of play heralding . . .  That all men and women are Created Equal – with inalienable rights as human beings — and at the same time, not deny but acknowledge the legacy of the paradox of equal but separate. A paradox that requires daily attention in order to make our founding principles just and true. 

Let me be clear – there is no denying that there have been significant improvements in Athletics.  The same is true for our country regarding social justice – we have made significant, remarkable enhancements – but we continue to struggle with antiquated capricious pathological -isms and phobias connected to our past. We have a hard time letting go of those ingrained preconceptions and attitudes about each other.   

As Americans, aren’t we just damn tired of holding on to delusional predispositions about others?  Aren’t we just damn tired of that old playbook of fear mongering, hate, bitterness, divisionism causing needless anxiety and stress?

It’s insanity to live professing grievances rather than solving problems together. It’s insanity to live with chaos as a society by choice.  We are better than this – we must be.

So . . . is there hope?  Yes! You can bet on it. The lenses by which to view the world of Athletics and diversity have changed dramatically – we now have instant replay in the majority of sports so that we can overturn what we used to put up with — and live with. 

Fans were frustrated witnessing glaring injustices that could have been avoided.  Fans demanded transparency and fairness. Yes, it took time and technology – but we are better for it. 

We also have instant replay on cultural, social and political playing fields. We rely on our declaration of independence, constitution, bill of rights, our revered right to vote, the peaceful transfer of leadership, rule of law, and investigative journalism in order to probe and expose untruths, debunk misinformation, unmask and hold accountable fraudulent extremist actors. These are the tenets and principles of our democracy.

We have become more astute and demanding as fans and citizens wanting credibility and verifiable truth.  There is hope as more Americans want to understand the complex layers and intricate connections between history, diversity, equity and inclusivity rather than deny the past and its connections to the present. 

Yes – there is hope.  Imagine one day arenas and stadiums with standing room only – fans as citizens standing as one before each contest – before the national anthem begins – taking just 30 seconds – in silence – just 30 seconds to look around and see each other – really see each other – our diversity – calling for inclusivity as the anthem begins to resonate validating and affirming its meaning. 

Imagine fans, citizens fanatically believing that the future will be what we make of it – imagine a day to no longer consider reasons for lifting a clenched fist to the sky or for taking a knee.