How Blacks View Sports In Post-Robinson Era
When Jackie Robinson trotted onto that baseball diamond in Brooklyn 50 years ago, he must have felt like the loneliest man in the world.Skip to next paragraph
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It wasn't enough for Robinson just to cross the white chalk lines of major league baseball - to integrate professional sports with his presence. He had to play like a champion and endure racist taunts from the grandstands without bending to rage.
Each time Robinson planted his spikes in the soft dirt of the batter's box, he'd feel the full weight of a collective dream: That someday, in a different America, children of color would find the path to stardom uncluttered by racial obstacles. That his lonely struggle would hasten the day when black athletes could be athletes first, symbols second.
Three years ago, that moment arrived in the most unlikely medium: a television shoe commercial featuring professional basketball player Charles Barkley. The outspoken all-star forward discarded Robinson's yoke with these six words: "I am not a role model."
It's not true, of course, and Barkley knows it. Wherever "Sir Charles" goes, he's mobbed by legions of kids wearing his jersey. He funds scholarships, and he's pondering a run for governor of his native Alabama. Indeed, Barkley's comment was not a statement of fact, but one of opinion. Like many prominent African-Americans, he says the black community is too fixated on professional athletes, and that it's producing children who care more about honing their jump shots than learning to read. A recent poll by Boston's Northeastern University found that 66 percent of black teenagers in urban centers believe they can earn a living playing sports. Barkley says that's inappropriate.
But Barkley's view also seems to represent the end of Robinson's struggle for black respect. At a time when African-Americans already outnumber whites in professional basketball and baseball, and golfer Tiger Woods is shaping up to be that game's dominant player, it would be ridiculous to suggest that black athletes do not belong in professional sports. Today's problem, Barkley notes, is that black athletes may have succeeded too well.
It's true, of course, that Robinson's influence extended far beyond the ballpark. Americans have always viewed their indigenous games as metaphors for the larger society, and Robinson knew his achievements would help open doors in other realms.
But even though blacks have made substantial progress since then in most professions, many social observers argue that sports, in the eyes of society, is one of the few areas where black dominance is unquestioned.
"If I weren't earning more than $3 million a year to dunk a basketball," Barkley once said, "most people on the street would run in the other direction if they saw me coming."
By any measure, there's a tremendous emphasis on athletic achievement in black society. "The image of the black athlete has soared to the top of the prestige order," according to Harry Edwards, a sociologist at the University of California at Berkeley and sports consultant,
The reason, Professor Edwards says, is money. Despite salary caps in most pro sports, free agency has made it easier for talented players to shop for the highest bidder. Moreover, companies with their eyes on the youth market have begun wooing superstars with huge endorsement contracts. The biggest names can make as much as $40 million a year.
Another shade of altruism
Ever since Robinson traded his jersey for a business suit and worked to develop affordable apartments in ghetto areas, African-American athletes - more so than their white counterparts - have been expected to give something back to their communities. Many do. Baseball's Ken Griffey Jr. and basketball's Juwan Howard, among other young stars, have donated considerable time and money to programs that support inner-city youth.