(I worked as a Sports Editor from late 2004 until the summer of 2006. This is one of the many columns I was able to save that were originally published in The Sun-Times of Heber Springs, Arkansas.)
Monday was Martin Luther King Day, and the Memphis Grizzlies celebrated their annual stint on national TV with a butt-whipping courtesy of the world champion San Antonio Spurs.
The NBA graciously gave the Grizzlies a home game every MLK day in large part because of the National Museum of Civil Rights that is housed at the old Loraine Motel; the very same motel where King lost his life after a fatal gunshot from an assassin’s rifle.
Every year the NBA and the Grizzlies honor trailblazers in the Civil Rights movement during halftime of the game. Visionaries from the world of sports, politics and arts are honored for their achievements.
While watching last night, I started thinking about the struggles that Dr. King went through for the betterment of all people and began wondering just how far the world of sports has come since that fateful day in Memphis 37 years ago.
The recently released movie Glory Road details just how controversial it was for five African Americans to be on the floor at the same time for the same team below the Mason Dixon line.
If you think about that now it seems ridiculous, but it was a sad realization of the times that didn’t change until Adolph Rupp and his Kentucky Wildcats were run off the floor in the National Championship game.
Less than a decade before King’s death it was uncommon to see more than one or two African American athletes on professional or college teams. His courage gave voice to many athletes, artists and regular people who helped change the world because he said it was alright to dream of equality.
We take for granted the fact that we can turn on the television and watch LeBron James dunk on men 20 years his senior, or be awed by the feats of Barry Bonds, Jermain Taylor, Tiger Woods, Michael Vick, the Williams’ sisters, and scores of other athletes that just three decades ago wouldn’t have been allowed to drink from the same water fountain as white people.
So, in that respect the sporting world has come a long way. But in others, it’s still painfully behind the times.
The ratio of African American owners, GM’s, managers and coaches are miniscule compared to their Caucasian counterparts. No matter what is said publicly, behind closed doors there still seems to be a perception that African Americans can’t lead.
After all, it was only 18 years ago that a big deal was made about Doug Williams becoming the first black quarterback to win a Super Bowl. After that 1988 Super Bowl win, fans knew that it was just a matter of time before more black quarterbacks revolutionized that position the way they had every other spot on the field.
But since that landmark win by Williams and the Redskins, exactly two African American quarterbacks have played in the Super Bowl – Steve McNair and Donovan McNabb. It’s not because black quarterbacks can’t get it done, it’s because until recently they weren’t given a shot under center.
Black coaches are finally getting their due also. And a quick look at this year’s playoff teams reveals that a good deal of the elite coaches in today’s game are African Americans. Lovie Smith, Tony Dungy, and Marvin Lewis all qualified for the postseason, and Romeo Crennell, Dennis Green and Herm Edwards are all considered quality coaches.
The sporting world has often been called a microcosm of our society, so if some aspects of sports is still chasing old prejudices out the door, it’s just a reflection of the world we live in.
But sports have done as much to further Dr. King’s dream as anyone or anything else has. Where else can people of different color come together and put their energy and focus into one goal?
It’s funny that teammates rarely see color. It’s in these environments that racism is becoming archaic. It’s just too bad that that doesn’t catch on in the world outside the arenas.
Fans can even forget the race of the guy next to him when they’re packed together in stands rooting for the same team to be victorious. Memphis is and has been one of the most racially divided cities in the entire country but attend a Tigers or Grizzlies game and you would think it was utopia. Everyone gets along, and everyone loves one another under the umbrella of coming together for the same cause.
Once the game is over it might be different, but for those few hours it’s a glimpse of what the world could be. Of what Dr. King meant when he said, “The sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at a table of brotherhood”.