Friday, May 02, 2014

Eags Finds A Teachable Moment (Late April 2014)

Today, Timothy Egan reflects upon the dialogue (or lack thereof) about race in the USA. If this is a (fair & balanced) call to look to the games we play, so be it.

[x NY Fishwrap]
Sports, The Most Progressive Force In America
By Timothy Egan

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In the capital of the old Confederacy, Richmond, VA, on a boulevard of elegantly aged homes and muscle-limbed trees, stands a string of large statues honoring a nation that enshrined human bondage in its founding document. Generals and politicians, these heroes of the Civil War South are well known.

At one end of Monument Avenue is a more recent addition — the statue of the tennis great Arthur Ashe. It is no small irony that Ashe would be property, with fewer rights than a horse, were he to live in his hometown under Article One of the Confederate Constitution. The South, its rebel founders made clear in 1861, would forever be a slaveholders’ republic. “No bill of attainder, ex post facto law, or law denying or impairing the right of property in Negro slaves shall be passed,” it states.

It’s a tribute to Richmond, in the face of much contention, that an African-American athlete is on the same street as Jefferson Davis and Robert E. Lee. But it’s also a tribute to sports, and shows — as the swift censure of a racist billionaire basketball owner does — that if you want to find racial progress in America, look to the games we play.

Baseball integrated its player ranks well before lunch counters in the South and many schools in the North ever did. And on Jackie Robinson Day, players throughout the country wear his number, prompting millions of kids to ask their parents what that is all about. Muhammad Ali, with a mouth as quick as his jab, forced a conversation about pride and prejudice that went far beyond the boxing ring. And football’s Richard Sherman, of the Seattle Seahawks, had his Ali moment last season, flushing out people who use “thug” as a code word for something more derisive, as the Stanford graduate noted.

In issuing the sports equivalent of the death penalty — lifetime ban, probable forced sale of his franchise — to the basketball owner Donald Sterling, the N.B.A. showed every other institution that courage is more commendable than dithering.

Imagine if NBC had shown similar backbone when one of its “talents,” the odious Donald Trump, continued to promote the lie that President Obama is not an American citizen — a fantasy that plays to an audience of racists trolling for affirmation of their darkest conspiracies.

Even more far-fetched, try to picture Fox News without a halo over Ted Nugent. A man who personifies the word “aging” in aging rocker, Nugent has been promoted by many of the channel’s biggest stars, including the onetime presidential candidate Mike Huckabee, who called Nugent “my good friend.” Nugent described President Obama as “a subhuman mongrel,” and as recently as 2012 said, “I’m beginning to wonder if it would have been best had the South won the Civil War.” He has made numerous appearances with the flag of that rogue nation.

Or consider how the Catholic Church might have mitigated some of the deep pain caused by its abusive priests had it acted with the kind of boldness shown by N.B.A. Commissioner Adam Silver. Instead, it chose cover-ups, denial and blame shifting — the usual default modes for institutions trying to protect themselves.

The question is not whether the free speech rights of Nugent, Trump or Sterling should ever be restricted. Those people can always find an audience for their crackpot ideas. The question is whether modern institutions — from the church to cable television networks — want to be associated, O.K., “branded,” with retrogrades.

It’s not all teachable moments among the balls and bats, of course. Gays in the locker room still face scorn and violent ridicule, from the high school ranks on up. Professional football continues to allow the owner Daniel Snyder to call his team “the Redskins,” and sell products with that denigration of the first Americans, despite the pleading of offended tribes. Without question, football’s foot dragging has to do with the diminished state of American Indians, powerless and marginalized as before.

Still, there is more progress on the hardwood courts, between the chalk lines and on the base paths of our games than in the halls of power. Was there a more thrilling four minutes of basketball than when a high school in Rochester let its manager, the irrepressible Jason McElwain, who was born with autism, into the game. He caught fire, scoring six three-pointers, and he caught the imagination of a nation that may never look the same way at those with mental disabilities.

Sadly, an African-American president, historic for his ascendency to that office, has been too timid — or too scarred by critics with big microphones — to advance any substantive discussion about our nation’s original sin.

Because of sports, many of us had our first prolonged exposure to other races, or hung a poster on a bedroom wall of someone who didn’t look like family. When I coached Little League baseball, I guided a team of blacks, Asians, Latinos and whites. On first base was a kid from the public housing projects; on second base, one from the gold coast along Lake Washington in Seattle. In the outfield were Orthodox Jews and Samoans. They may not remember the scores — lopsided, usually, and not in our favor — but they remember one another. Ω

[Timothy Egan writes "Outposts," a column at the NY Fishwrap online. Egan — winner of both a Pulitzer Prize in 2001 as a member of a team of reporters who wrote the series "How Race Is Lived in America" and a National Book Award (The Worst Hard Time in 2006) — graduated from the University of Washington with a degree in journalism, and was awarded an honorary doctorate of humane letters by Whitman College in 2000 for his environmental writings. Egan's most recent book is The Big Burn: Teddy Roosevelt and the Fire that Saved America (2009).]

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