When Jackie Robinson trotted onto that baseball diamond in Brooklyn 50 years ago, he must have felt like the loneliest man in the world.
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.
But according to Edwards, the immense profitability of professional sports has changed the character of many of its players - both black and white. As their bankrolls swell, he says, young jocks begin to view all behavior - even altruistic impulses - through the lens of personal gain. Money has become a new kind of competition, he says, one that leaves today's athletes with one ironclad rule: They want to be paid.
Although there's no evidence that today's professional athletes are any less generous than their predecessors, the sports industry is undeniably richer. Some athletes complain that more of the money athletes generate for owners, sponsors, and communities should return to the poor neighborhoods that incubate some of the game's best talent.
"Even though some blacks are generating billions of dollars [in revenue], that money is not really helping black communities," Barkley told George magazine. "I would love to see some of those billions put into poor black neighborhoods - but it won't get there."
What does filter down to the street, Edwards says, is the new attitude many young stars exhibit. More players are leaving college early for the professional ranks - or bypassing it altogether. Some change clubs in fits of pique, and then slam their former teammates. Others complain openly that they're not being paid enough.
To many older athletes, this new generation of high-paid jocks - goaded on by companies hoping to cash in on the bad-boy mystique - display a trash-talking and authority-bashing style that has already begun to alienate many fans.
"If you watch athletes today, you'll see an awful lot of them displaying the 'me' side of the things they do, rather than the 'team' side of it," says Jim Marshall, the former Minnesota Vikings defensive end who now runs an outreach program for poor kids in Minneapolis. "The athletes of today view themselves as individuals whose sole responsibility is to perform, to entertain."
Ron Donaldson coaches basketball, baseball, and football at Spence Middle School in Dallas. He's seen this new crop of pro athletes taunt competitors, harass officials, and celebrate after every favorable play. He's dismayed to see this behavior glorified in commercials. "There's an arrogance about these guys that kids respond to," he says. "I've got kids on my teams who are already talking about being a first-round draft pick and what kind of Mercedes they're going to buy. They're not playing for the love of the game anymore."
Arrogance as progress
But there is, of course, another side to the story. To many young black players and fans, this new attitude is actually a sign of progress. For the first time in history, they argue, professional athletes are approaching their careers as professionals.
"These athletes are trying to take care of their future, to take care of themselves first," says Eric Roman, student body president at the University of North Texas in Denton. "If the market places a value on these high-flair guys, then that's who you're going to see. If fans are willing to pay more for tickets, then the athletes are going to want their cut. I don't have a problem with that."
He's not alone. Robert Woodson, director of the National Center for Neighborhood Enterprise in Washington, says that for years it was acceptable for team owners to approach sports as a business, while athletes were held to a higher standard.
"What we're seeing today is the culture of sports imitating the economic reality," he says. "There's been an attitude change, but I don't blame the young men. Sports are providing a business opportunity for these athletes, but we're trying to pretend that it's not a business."
It's hard to imagine what Jackie Robinson would think of his modern heirs. He'd surely be surprised by their wealth and marketing power. Perhaps the sight of children of all races fighting for their autographs would make him smile.
Either way, Robinson's heroism remains much clearer than his legacy.
"I never discourage any young person from pursuing their dreams, even if it's to become a professional athlete," Barkley says. "But it can't be their only dream."