Friday, July 30, 2010

Baseball, Hot Dogs, Apple Pie and... other American Pastimes

It's not a book review, it's a life review.

They say sports and politics don't mix, but reading progressive writer Dave Zirin's book "What's My Name, Fool?" one sees that there is a rich legacy in America of athletes being at the forefront of demanding social change. These athletes transcended sports to become real champions. The book specifically covers athletes who have either spoken out on social justice issues or acted upon their principles symbolically or actionably, particularly in line with the sports they played. Many athletes courageously risked not only being ostracized and marginalized, but they also lost or stood to lose their livelihoods.

This book is also about good 'ol fashioned muckraking of the best kind. It casts a critical eye on the school athletic programs, owners fight against unions and the enormous profits and perks that the public subsidizes for corporate magnates who build the stadiums and groom the superstars that people follow, watch and obsess over. These are the controversies the mainstream media and the folks at ESPN won't cover.

While Zirin focuses on some celebrated non-comformist athletes like Muhammad Ali, Jackie Robinson, Billy Jean King, Kareem Abdul Jabbar, Carlos Delgado, Reggie White, but also covers lesser known courageous athletes like Tommy Smith, John Carlos, or former Notre Dame basketball player Danielle D-Smooth Green, who lost her left hand in Iraq and has spoken out against the "war" in Iraq. He also covers the unsavory side of sports like steroid use, collegiate sports abuses, homophobia, and the misogynist and discriminatory practices that plague women in sports years after Title IX became law.

Zirin gives some attention to often vilified sports figures like Kobe Bryant, Barry Bonds, Rasheed Wallace, and grill man George Foreman. These are not the usual people associated with social justice and resistance, but Zirin includes them in the lineup to make a point. In Kobe Bryant's case, if convicted of raping a Colorado woman, he faced a shockingly invasive procedure, which is a part of a supposed "rehabilitation" system. Zirin describes the process in an article entitled "Kobe Bryant and the Price of Freedom" posted at Counterpunch.

There are also a couple of passages on teams as opposed to individuals. Teams featured are the Iraq soccer team: "Iraq as a team does not want Mr. Bush to use us for the presidential campaign, he can find another way to advertise himself." There's a passage about the University of "Alabama's Crimson Past:" Yeah, the words "Segregation forever!" were used and perfectly incapsulates Alabama's torrid history of racism. The story of Sylvester Groom who was passed over as coach of the Tide, although he was far more qualified than the less qualified Mike Shula, who had half of Groom's experience. As Zirin puts it, "Groom was set to resume his role as an invisible man, returning to the shadows where all African-American assistant coaches are told to sit and wait." An incensed Reverend Jesse Jackson said of the decision, "The SEC maintains a culture of excluding Blacks beyond the playing field." Jackson continued, "White players, beyond the field, can expect to become coaches, athletic directors, and college presidents. Blacks have no life beyond the playing field." Jackson was predictably skewered by the media for pointing out these facts. Zirin concludes that the "tradition" that Alabama was trying to preserve consists of a pattern of racially motivated persecutions and "the ordinary people bleeding rivers in the streets as a result of asking for the most basic of human rights." Zirin also points out that it's time for the Redskins football team to retire that tired and offensive name, which alludes to a historically racist perception of Native Americans.

Zirin invites controversy in a passage called "USA Basketball in Black and White!" To make his point he describes America as lording it over other countries in sports and politics as the world's only superpower. This he says, has led to people in other countries seeking "dents in the armor." What is a new phenomenon, writes Zirin, is that people inside the U.S. are cheering against one U.S. team in particular. The "U.S. basketball squad became the team fans in the U.S. love to hate," says Zirin. "And for all the wrong reasons," Implying there are good reasons. You gotta like this guy! He describes the animosity of these "fans" as "more racist than a Bob Jones University course syllabus." Zirin goes on to describe how talk radio has fanned the flames because of its tolerance of people making statements like "a caller who identified himself as a former member of the American military." The man "said he hates Team USA because they don't "represent the America he fell in love with." This is the same kind of rhetoric that is rampant in the tea party. So it's not surprising to see racism reflected by people who purport to be all-American patriots. The rule of thumb being to always preface your demagoguery with patriotic lingo or your service to your country.

Muhammad Ali never sought to be a political hero or resistance fighter, he was thrust into that realm because he took a stand. Ali is considered a hero, not only for his prowess in the ring, but also because he refused to serve in Vietnam. For that, he was stripped of his boxing title and threatened with jail.

Ali famously stated, "Man, I ain't got no quarrel with them Vietcong." Is there a more colorful character in the American sports pantheon? Only boxer Jack Johnson (he's in the book) could possibly rival Ali for brashness and flash. Says peace activist, Daniel Berrigan, "It was a major boost for an anti-war movement that was very white." Ali, "couldn't be dismissed as cowardly." Ali was pilloried in the press and lost his livelihood and prestige for a time. Redemption came when the U.S. Supreme Court struck down his sentence.

It makes one wonder whether a crucified Ali might have been a more effective leader in the struggle for civil rights in America. He probably would have been a dead Black hero. But what would motivate the "Supreme Court" of white men to acquit this big baddass Black man? The answer lies in the fact that Ali symbolized the type of hero that so many men admire. Many men of all stripes must have identified with Ali's braggadocio, swagger and the physical violence evidenced in his domineering presence in the ring. For a country whose unofficial motto is "might makes right," this must be a consideration.

Muhammad Ali got the seal of official approval for his dissent, so did it make it easier for him to abandon his mentor and friend Malcolm X? Ali got unprecedented support from the public for his stance on Vietnam. Those who continue to view him as anti-establishment these days are no longer mainstream. The change in Ali and in America was not overnight, but these days Ali is an establishment hero. Also, sadly, Ali's infirmity due to Parkinson's has drastically blunted his radicalism. In recent times, politicians and promoters have counted on Ali to show up and promote diverse spectacles, from the Olympics to fund raisers.

That politics is a taboo topic for many of today's athletes is a stark reality. Undoubtedly, athletes avoid the topic in order to keep or get endorsement deals. It's ironic then, that what's unacceptably bad behavior for most of society, such as cross-dressing, drug abuse, sex scandals, fathering multiple children out of wedlock and even criminality are too often just temporary bumps on the road for famous athletes.

It must be noted that there are always exceptions to the rule, and so the athletes who endorsed Barack Obama's run for office were bucking the trend, but nonetheless, few athletes came out and declared themselves to be supporters of Candidate Obama. It was interesting, to hear that Kareem Abdul Jabbar – who was featured in Zirin's book under the heading "Why can't Kareem coach?"– rebutted statements made by Magic Johnson, a Hillary supporter. Johnson suggested that Obama was an overreaching rookie. Kareem's comeback was "Obama's no rookie."

Black athletes today are able to avoid political land mines, but this was not so easily done back in the fifties and sixties during the civil rights and the politically charged "Cold War" era. Jackie Robinson and "[m]any African-American witnesses [were] subpoenaed to testify at the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC) hearings in the 1950s [and] were asked to denounce Paul Robeson (1888–1976) in order to obtain future employment.

An interesting passage in "What's My Name" describes Jackie Robinson's true personality as "angry, combative and confrontational." Since this is a stark contrast to the public image of Robinson "as a quiet, subservient, soft-spoken gentleman," it may be difficult for some to take too seriously the author Dave Zirin's attempt to rebut an often one-dimensional narrative on Robinson's legacy. The perspective of many blacks during the "Black power" period was that Robinson was as a "white man's negro." Evidently, Robinson was a Republican, who voted for Nixon. Zirin is right that no one remains static, but the perception is there because there is plenty of basis for it in reality.

The task becomes more difficult for Zirin in light of Jackie Robinson's betrayal of Paul Robeson at the McCarthy hearings. The book explains that although the NAACP offered to defend Robinson, if he chose not to speak, Robinson refused the offer and went in front of the committee with a prepared statement.

After the preliminaries, Robinson proceeded to volunteer a condemnation of Robeson. Robinson: "I haven't any comment to make, except that the statement [about blacks refusing to fight the USSR]--if Mr. Robeson actually made it--sounds very silly to me. Negroes have too much invested in America to trow it away for a siren song sung in bass."

The book describes Robinson's betrayal of Robeson as "the blow that took down a seemingly indomitable Robeson."

The "blow" lead to even more sustained attacks on Robeson, who was an All-American football player, valedictorian and recipient of a Phi Beta Kappa key at Rutgers University. Robeson went on to receive a law degree at Columbia and became an internationally acclaimed concert performer and actor as well as an influential worldwide political activist.

Paul Robeson was a man of enormous athletic and artistic talents, there is no doubt, but his courage, poise and principles where what he displayed in his statement to the HUAC. Robeson: “You are the un-Americans, and you ought to be ashamed of yourselves.” Robeson's historical legacy as an activist and renaissance man is intact. In 1961, Robeson was found with slashed wrists following a "wild party" in a Moscow hotel room. His son Paul Robeson, Jr. has tried to get the release of withheld government documents that he believes could shed light on the circumstances surrounding what he believes was an "induced suicide attempt."

In stark contrast to Robeson, Mr. Robinson was able to find gainful employement after his retirement from baseball. He won many awards and recognition. He was as a spokesperson for Chock Full O' Nuts and was named their "Director of Personnel." While there are many exceptions to the rule, in America, traditionally the personnel department is chock full of African-Americans. Coincidentally, executives in the personnel department are very often not in the boardroom with the decision makers of a corporation.

Robinson brought a home in a white upper class neighborhood of Stamford, CT. Robinson's family was probably that town's first Blacks. In the neighboring town of Greenwich, CT, usually ranked as one of the richest in America (top three), evidently such a thing was not possible at the time, the sign at the Cracker Barrel restaurant on the Post Road up until 1968 read, "Whites Only." '68 was not a good year for Blacks in America. On April 4, 1968, MLK was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee while in town to support a garbage man strike.

Jackie Robinson as a resistance fighter may have emerged from being the first black in baseball to suffer the outrageous abuses of being spat at, baited, ridiculed and threatened, but the radicalizing of Robinson was probably solidified when he experience the "blow" of being ignored by his "friend" Richard Milhous Nixon when Robinson sent "Tricky Dick" a letter requesting his intervention on behalf of MLK, who had been sentenced to four months on a Georgia work gang.

In 1955 many historically explosive civil rights events occurred, including the Montgomery Bus Boycotts, Emmett Till's murder and the swelling of the ranks of the White Citizens Council to 300,000 members. Also significant was the signing of a petition by one hundred Congressmen pledged to uphold segregation. It was also an incredibly taxing year for Jackie Robinson according to Zirin. Robinson was "never silent" on the issue of civil rights and for that and his race, he was "viciously booed and threatened" on and off the baseball diamond.

It must have been a great release to be able to express himself freely after his retirement from baseball in 1956. Robinson jumped right in, becoming a spokesperson for the NAACP. He also voiced criticism of discrimination in baseball after he retired and was writing a column for The New York Post (then a liberal paper).

The highest praise for Robinson as a "resistance" fighter comes from MLK who supported his right to speak out on politics: "He has the right because back in the days when integration wasn't fashionable, he underwent the trauma and the humiliation and the loneliness which comes with being a pilgrim that walks in the lonesome byways toward the high road of Freedom. He was a sit-inner before sit-ins, a freedom rider before freedom rides."

Reading the book gives one hope, because these men and women embodied the best instincts we have as human beings. These athletes tackled the difficult issues that make others uncomfortable; matters of war and peace, race and social justice and economics and class warfare.

Of course, most heroes are the extraordinary people who make a difference by the actions they take to help their fellow human beings. A hero is not necessarily honed by their physical prowess on the field of play, but is made strong by the adversities they face in life and the positive changes they make in people's lives. In that sense there are many unsung heroes waiting to be discovered.

Shirley Sherrod is just such a hero. Sorry Alvin Greene, the NAACP will probably not be honoring you this year, but they most likely will be taking a second look at Ms. Shirley Sherrod.

Update 6/26/2014: Edits to clarify the legibility of the passage on Jackie Robinson and his legacy .


thezenhaitian said...

I'm reading Martin Duberman's biography of Paul Robeson... it will take a while since the book is over 800 pages, including notes, index and acknowledgements. You could probably kill a small rodent with it; it's so heavy.

It's sad that Jackie Robinson suffered from poor health and died relatively young. Robinson had diabetes and heart disease and died at 58 in 1972.

Robeson lived to be 78, but his ill health began in 1961 under mysterious circumstances. He returned to the U.S. n 1963 because of poor health. He died in 1976. His biographer, Martin Duberman, put in a FOIA request, but had to withdraw it for lack of funds after three years of litigation. He was suspicious of the fact that the FBI had what he determined was a unique "Status of Health" file on Robeson.

Anonymous said...

Keep on writing, great job!

my blog post ... good hair

Related Posts with Thumbnails