Jackie Robinson was a man. Seems like a simple and obvious statement, but there was a time when it wasn't. Not to everyone, not in his day. Jackie Robinson was a baseball player. Again, simple and obvious, but this time an understatement of massive proportions because he was so much more than that. He did more than change the game. He did more than change sports. He changed the world. Forever. I have heard countless individuals describe him as one of the greatest baseball players, or even athletes, of all time. But it's time to drop the qualifiers and labels and remember that Jackie Robinson was a treasure of humanity, one of the greatest people of all time.
Twenty-one years, almost to the day, before Opening Day was postponed after the murder of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Jackie Robinson took the most important jog out of the dugout in history. He endured the taunting, the hatred, and the violence of people who believed he was somehow less than a man. And he did it mostly alone. There were no marches, no causes, and no law changes when Jackie took the field -- just one man's belief that he was as much a man as anyone else who had ever taken the field before or since. Now we live in a time when LeBron James highlights make him seem like a man-and-a-half in a country where people who look like him used to be valued at 3/5ths. We have come a long way, but we are still learning from Jackie.
At this point his story has become so ingrained in our national conscience that anyone who is a pioneer in human rights can be referred to as the "Jackie Robinson" of their field. He played a kid's game and changed the whole world by showing people through rules-based competition that he wasn't inherently inferior to anyone.
"The right of every American to first-class citizenship is the most important issue of our time."
Last week it spread in wide circulation that (former) Baltimore Ravens linebacker Brendon Ayanbadejo (easy for you to say) believes that we are on the brink of what could be one of the biggest sports stories in decades. If four NFL players come out to the world, they will be met immediately with many of the same challenges that faced Jackie Robinson. There will be words. Awful words. There will be taunts and threats. But they will carry inside them something far more powerful than any word or any threat: they will carry that same burden and honor of being proof positive to the viewing public that "the other" competes just the same as everyone else.
They will not be doing it alone, however. Many of us are with them.
"I don't care if the guy is yellow or black, or if he has stripes like a (bleep)ing zebra. I'm the manager of this team and I say he plays" -Leo Durocher
Sports are a true meritocracy. Sure we argue and debate the details, but ultimately the players who have the most talent and work ethic are the ones who succeed. Sports force you to get past your biases because the bottom line is winning. Being Hispanic or black, or gay, doesn't change the number points or runs you get for executing a perfect scoring play. In the box score, we are all the same.
People tie their lives to Sunday NFL games or to their college team, or even still to baseball. Suddenly the constant proof of another person's talents, hard work, and ability become much more present and obvious than some perceived flaw or difference. When "the other" helps your guys win, he becomes less scary. When the facts become a part of your everyday life, it is harder to maintain ignorance.
The upcoming release of the film 42 gave me inspiration (and an excuse) to write this piece, but it also speaks more ways we are still learning from Jackie. It will undoubtedly gross millions of dollars and I hope it is a quality film, but let us not take away from it the idea that sports being opened up to minorities means that all the work is done. It is amazing that we can live in a time where so many differently pigmented faces can dominate professional and collegiate sports and entertainment.
But there are still many damning facts, including the NCAA stats on minority head coaches. Yes, there were 15 black coaches in 124 Division 1 schools last year, and that was a marked improvement. Quickly, name every minority who is also an owner of a sports franchise but is not one of the greatest players of all time. And the horrifying story at Rutgers basketball reminds us that skin color isn't the only way to try to dehumanize someone. In the game of equality we are still rounding third at best.
"The way I figured it, I was even with baseball and baseball with me. The game had done much for me, and I had done much for it."
Pee Wee Reese was a great ballplayer in his own right. He was, however, probably most famous for a single moment in his life during some particularly harsh harassment of his 2nd basemen, when he committed the seemingly innocuous act of putting his arm around his teammate. People saw that who had potentially never before seen a white man embrace a black man, and certainly not in the face of "his fellow whites." And therein lies our unfulfilled and ongoing promise to the legacy of Jackie Robinson. Baseball and Jackie may be even, but humanity still owes Jackie a great deal.
We owe him the promise that we will ever strive to be better, that we will put our arms around those who need it at times it matters the most. We owe him the promise to not let any "Jackie Robinson" since the original walk alone. We owe him the promise that, no matter their endeavors, all people regardless of skin color, religion, background, or sexual orientation ought to be judged on their merits.
The horizon looks beautiful from here, but as long as there are still lessons to be applied from his story, we are all still learning from Jackie.