Timothy Egan has an op-ed in The New York Times calling sports “the most progressive force in America.” He points to the ways that Jackie Robinson integrated baseball a decade before the civil rights movement and is honored today as “players throughout the country wear his number, prompting millions of kids to ask their parents what that is all about.” Egan also praises Muhammad Ali as someone “with a mouth as quick as his jab, [who] forced a conversation about pride and prejudice that went far beyond the boxing ring.” He lauds present-day figures like Seattle Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman for calling out racist codewords in the media, and delivers his most effusive praise to NBA Commissioner Adam Silver, writing, “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.”
Egan could certainly have also mentioned women like Billie Jean King, Donna de Varona and “Racey” Lacey O’Neil and their efforts to advance women’s rights and Title IX, as well as everyone from Tom Waddell to Martina Navratilova to Kye Allums to Jason Collins for using sports as a way to break open the closet and provide visibility to the very existence of LGBT athletes.
It’s understandable why someone could look at all of this history, as Tim Egan did, and conclude that sports as an institution is a mighty motor of progressive or even radical change in our society. It is also miles from the truth: a whitewash of history—highly reliant on white savior mythology—that benefits those in power in sports who routinely break their own arms patting themselves on the back, while operating a profoundly backward-looking enterprise.
How can we praise baseball for Jackie Robinson’s breaking of the color line without pointing out that Branch Rickey was the lone vote for integration among his peers, with quotas existing on black players for years thereafter? How can we even praise Branch Rickey, without pointing out how he consciously wrecked the Negro Leagues, the largest national black-owned business in the United States, ruthlessly harvesting its talent without compensation?
As for Muhammad Ali, how can we credit the institution of sports for his undeniable historical contribution when he was, in his prime, perhaps the most hounded, abused and vilified athlete in the history of the game? The man had his title stripped for years, which nearly bankrupted him. This forced Ali to box well into his 30s, absent of his youthful speed, aggravating the head injuries that robbed him of his speech. Women and LGBT athletes also stood up with great courage against an institution that told them to sit down, shut up and stay hidden. Ask Glenn Burke, Josephine D’Angelo and many others about the price of the athletic closet.
Let’s take this discussion out of history and bring it to the present. Yes, Bud Selig and Major League Baseball honor Jackie Robinson every year on their civil rights day. But Bud Selig bathes himself in the history of civil rights as brand enhancement, not as a legacy that needs to be upheld. He has not said a word about Arizona’s draconian anti-immigrant laws, even holding the 2011 All-Star Game in Arizona despite requests from civil rights organizations for him to pull out. He looked the other way despite Major League Baseball’s overwhelming reliance on Latin American talent and the fact that these players are at risk every time they step into the state.
Yes, Richard Sherman used his NFL platform to speak out against racism. But the NFL as a league has done more to normalize a racial slur and any major institution in the twenty-first-century United States, with Commissioner Roger Goodell’s continual defense of the Washington football team name. Yes, a new generation of athletes is coming out of the closet like Jason Collins and Michael Sam. But as Adam Silver himself said upon Collins’s announcement, it is difficult to celebrate when you consider how behind the sports world has been on this question.
And as for Adam Silver, we have been inundated with articles turning him into the hero and savior of the Sterling story. But once again this is like seeing a historical whitewash take place in real time right in front of our eyes, as the threat of a playoff players’ strike, and the push on corporations to boycott the team, becomes a footnote to the story instead of central to the banning of Donald Sterling.
The true story of sports, progressive politics and radical change is the story of people who are normally marginalized in US society, given a platform and a microphone and at great cost and sacrifice to themselves using that microphone to educate the dominant society about their position in the world. I would ask Timothy Egan to take a more critical look at sports history and to not let their self-congratulatory branding blind him to the truth. As Dr. Harry Edwards wrote in 1968 for the Olympic Project for Human Rights, “We must no longer allow the sports world to pat itself on the back as a citadel of racial justice when the racial injustices of the sports world are infamously legendary.” If anything, looking at sports is a reminder that the true “most progressive force in America” was, and is, the actions of people who put political principle ahead of personal benefit, and have refused to just shut up and play the game.