Today is Martin Luther King Holiday. As I reflect upon the civil rights movement, for me some of the most vivid images of the discord and progress are pixel in, colored in, by athletics.
I am not a keen observer of politics, but my interest was piqued by the argument that writer Alisa Valdes-Rodriguez sets forth that the last presidential election was swayed by the Huxtable Effect. In her book she theorizes that Clair and Heathcliff Huxtable were the catalyst for a dawning of a Different World. She argues that America was forever changed by the break down of social barriers that occurred by coming into your den every Thursday evening for nearly a decade a generation ago. I don’t disagree with her conclusion of the power of the television; I do disagree on the genesis. Indulge me a moment.
Play. Yes play period was and still is far more important to break down of stereotypical beliefs. It helps when by decree that play was legitimized, like the Supreme Court did in the Brown v Board of Education decision. In 1954, you had a rule that now kids in the United States of America would play together, learn together, for 8 hours a day for 180 days of the year, which was a precursor for the civil rights movement and the ignition switch for the upheaval that occurred in the ‘60’s. As schools integrated one of the first avenues of commonality that was discovered, was on the playgrounds and in athletics. Remember the Titans?
When play is deemed important, it is called sports. Because of sports you had blacks coming into ‘white houses’ far sooner than the mid-‘80’s. Notwithstanding the controversial attention from the frozen fists salute when Tommie Smith and John Carlos stood on the medal podium while the national anthem played in Mexico City, much of the TV coverage was widely popular and positive.
It was not in the sitcoms where equality was depicted first thru the media. It was sports. A sport’s - made for TV- themed movie, Brian’s Song (1971), captured hearts as well as a relationship struggle and ultimately the bonding between Brian Piccolo and Gayle Sayers. In 1975 it was sports media where Irv Cross, the first African-American national sports analyst, came into my house every Sunday on the NFL Today show for nearly 15 years, immediately following the Vince Dooley show. It was sports executives who fired Jimmy “The Greek” Snyder, Howard Cosell, Al Campanis and Rush Limbaugh after each made insensitive remarks. (Ironically for Jimmy The Greek, Irv Cross, a co-host, still considered him a friend until Jimmy’s death; however, he was fired from the NFL Today show based on his comments that he made when a reporter asked his feelings on MLK Day in 1988.) It was sports media that birthed Bryant and Greg Gumble on the American landscape. Bryant, after years at NBC sports, became the first African-American to do national news, when he hosted the Today Show, for 15 years (started prior to The Cosby Show beginning). Greg Gumble was one of the first African-American anchors on SportsCenter on ESPN, before it was the world wide leader. From the thousands of celebratory, integrated, scenes broadcasted, from the clips of the 1936 Berlin Games and Jessie Owens, from Texas Western in 1966 beating Kentucky for the NCAA Men’s basketball championship, from the '70 USC v Alabama football game, it has been sports shots through TV that have warmed minds and chilled ignorance, first. Sports have taught the performance matters the most.
Play, not a prime time skit, set the stage for the promotion of progress. Play and sport teach us those valuable lessons, not learn elsewhere. I have ingrained my U-10 football coach barking out “Life is a field marked off in one yard segments!” Athletics have tenaciously, through television, struggle with and for civil rights from virtually the inception. What a Different World it would be without sports being the show piece for social justice to stand on!