by Brad Herzog, author of the Count On Me: Sports series
April 15 is Jackie Robinson Day. You’ll find every uniformed player, coach, and umpire in Major League Baseball wearing #42, the number worn by the man who ended nearly eight decades of baseball segregation by becoming the first black major league player of the modern era on April 15, 1947.
One of my first books, published nearly two decades ago, ranked and profiled the 100 most important people in American sports history—from Babe Ruth and Arnold Palmer to the inventors of everything from the jump shot to the point spread. Jackie Robinson topped the list—and it wasn’t even close. He wasn’t merely a significant sports figure; I think he ranks as one of the most important Americans.
It used to be that the sports world was often ahead of the sociological curve, acting as an agent of progressive change. When Robinson integrated the national pastime, he caused millions of people to confront race prejudice—seven years before Brown v. Board of Education and seventeen years before the Civil Rights Act. A generation later, tennis star Billie Jean King was a leader in the movement to empower women both athletically and financially. Even tragic moments, like basketball star Magic Johnson’s announcement in 1991 that he had contracted the HIV virus, enlightened a large part of the population for whom sports are such an intimate part of life.
So in the 20th century, sports had the power to transform. But something has happened in the past couple of decades. Perhaps the explosion of money and advertising has replaced courage with a certain conservatism, but big-time sports now seem to be lagging behind.
Recently, college football star Michael Sam and pro basketball player Jason Collins made headlines simply by going public about their sexuality. Courageous? You bet. “Progress!” everyone shouted. But really? In this day and age, the fact that a gay athlete is news would seem to be an indication that male team sports is only now coming out of the Dark Ages. And the rampant whispers among participants and observers that the NFL “might not be ready” for an openly gay player are somehow considered acceptable. Can you imagine if someone said such things about an “openly Catholic player” or an “openly Hmong player?”
And yes, a national discussion about bullying followed the revelation that Miami Dolphins offensive lineman Jonathan Martin left the team after being the victim of a “pattern of harassment” by teammates. But beyond the locker rooms, hasn’t that national discussion been going on for years? These days, nearly every elementary school strives to be a no-bullying zone. Pro football players are only now getting the message?
Here’s the thing: When it comes to acceptance, when it comes to perspective, when it comes to modeling behavior and showing how the sporting scene can produce touching moments that transcend the scoreboard, youth is leading the way.
As I write this, just yesterday in Minnesota, a high school student named Mitchell McKee won a state wrestling title. In attendance was his father, who was battling lung cancer and had desperately wanted to be around to watch his son compete. But this story is about the losing wrestler. After being pinned by Mitchell, Malik Stewart stood up, hugged his opponent, then walked over to Mitchell’s father. He congratulated him. He embraced him. He told him to stay strong. The crowd responded with a standing ovation. “I knew his dad was pretty proud,” said Malik, who was only seven when his own father died from cardiac arrest. “I just did it straight from the heart.”
Just the day before, in California, Trinity Classical Academy beat Desert Chapel High School to win a sectional basketball championship. But the real winner was karma. With his team up 23 points and under a minute to play, Trinity’s Beau Howell entered the game. Beau is autistic. He had never scored a point. His teammates fed him the ball, and he missed a couple of easy shots. His opponents rebounded the ball . . . and gave it back to Howell. He missed a shot. He missed again. An opposing player guided him closer to the basket. And with seconds left, Beau Howell swished it. He raised his arms triumphantly, after which he was immediately swarmed by his teammates. Will he ever forget that moment? Will anyone who was in attendance?
And “openly gay” Michael Sam’s teammates at the University of Missouri? They knew he was gay. They supported him. They loved him. And last year they had the best season in school history.
So while it’s easy to suggest that sport has somehow lost its power to transcend, we need only turn our attention to the moments far from the spotlight and close to the heart.
Have you encountered sporting gestures in your life? Please share your stories in the comments.
Brad Herzog is the author of more than thirty books for children, including more than two dozen sports books. For his freelance magazine writing (including for Sports Illustrated and Sports Illustrated Kids), Brad has won three gold medals from the Council for Advancement and Support of Education. Brad travels all over the United States visiting schools as a guest author. He lives on California’s Monterey Peninsula with his wife and two sons.
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