When we were tossing around possible names for our first born son, I half jokingly suggested a couple of athletes. It makes sense. I love sports and sports has provided us many heroes.
But when we whittled are choices down to the final three, an athlete remained: Jack Roosevelt Robinson.
If you don’t know the story of Robinson, I feel bad for you. Born in the Deep South, Robinson ended up being raised in California and starring on the football team at UCLA. An African American, he learned at a young age that sports and politics often intertwined.
His older brother ran behind Jesse Owens in the Berlin Olympics. Like Owens, he sprinted past white Germans in front of Hitler. Robinson himself stood up for what he believed in. He joined the army and was court martialed for not giving up his seat on a bus. That was 1944, 11 years before Rosa Parks made national headlines for doing the same thing.
Robinson began playing pro baseball shorty thereafter. It had been more than 60 years since an African American had played Major League Baseball, so Robinson played in the Negro Leagues.
Because of his character, Robinson was chosen by firebrand Branch Rickey to break baseball’s color barrier.
He was spit on, showered in racial epithets, spiked, beaned. And yet, he played brilliantly. He was daring and dashing, fierce and glorious, unyielding and tireless. He would beat the competition with his brains, legs, glove and bat.
He was a hero to many, including a young seminarian from Georgia. Martin Luther King wrote him letters of admiration. Men who’d never seriously saw race as an issue suddenly saw the injustice of the hundreds of players who had been kept out. Young boys, white and black, around the country wanted to be Jackie Robinson.
Then, Robinson fought back. When he was spiked, he’d punch back. He wanted to know why more wasn’t done for equality. Many people told him to stick to sports.
But he knew.
Sports are political. Always have been. They were when nations competed for pride on the field. They were when Jack Johnson was prosecuted for violating the Mann Act. They were when baseball owners worked to keep minorities out of the game.
Robinson didn’t stick to sports. Mohamed Ali didn’t stick to sports. Curt Flood didnt stay in his lane. Neither did Roberto Clemente.
And America is better because of them. Let’s be honest, if America were to become human form, it would probably choose a ballplayer who upsets the apple cart.
Sports hold a unique place in our culture. They influence us in ways that cannot be measured. It cannot be forgotten that Robinson, and Larry Doby, caught the attention of the white voter before King and Parks and Brown and Little Rock.
In the past 24 hours, many of the country’s brightest athletic stars were unified by the vulgar troll who sits in the Oval Office.
Maybe the athletes will once again lead us in a discussion about race and what it means to be an American.
Lord knows they could do it better than the President.