The National Basketball Association’s ban of Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling caused a remarkable outpouring of applause. It seems that the world Sterling once knew and manipulated so well has changed and passed him by. What recent off-field developments in big-time sports show is that while athletics may be a bastion of tradition, they remain a visible marker of what is happening in the culture at large. It was true when Jesse Owens and Joe Louis taught white Americans that it was okay to cheer for blacks. It was true when Jackie Robinson re-integrated baseball.
And it is still the case. Consider some of the largest stories in sports over the past year or two:
Jason Collins: the veteran NBA center came out, leading to speculation about whether he would be hired to play again. The Brooklyn Nets had him on their roster as they competed in the playoffs this year.
Jonathan Martin: The Miami Dolphins tackle left the team in the wake of chronic bullying on the part of his teammate and fellow offensive lineman Richie Incognito. The affair introduced seemingly new terms to NFL locker rooms, words like “workplace” and “harassment.” Among other things, Martin was criticized because of his intellect and Stanford education.
Michael Sams: The standout University of Missouri football player came out and found acceptance among his teammates, who kept the news covered until Sams himself was ready to address it after the season and before the National Football League draft. Drafted in the final round by St. Louis, he will be the first openly gay NFL player if he makes the team.
There are other indicators that the major sports may have to let go of some traditions, including discrimination. That’s the word former coach and current broadcaster Jon Gruden used in a 2012 draft-day on-air argument with ESPN’s Mel Kiper Jr. The subject: Russell Wilson, Wisconsin’s five-foot-eleven quarterback. Thirty or forty years ago his skin color would have kept him from playing quarterback. Kiper argued that the NFL contained no successful quarterbacks under six feet tall, so he argued that expectations for Wilson’s success should be kept low. Gruden called him out.
“If he were just a little taller,” said Kiper. “I say he’s a test case. . . If he can’t get it done, for the next ten years I don’t want to hear about quarterbacks under six feet.”
“What else do you want him to do?” said Gruden of a quarterback who had led two different college programs to success and had completed 73 percent of his passes as a senior. “You discriminate against guys that aren’t six feet tall.”
The Seattle Seahawks drafted Russell Wilson in the third round. He became the starter at quarterback as a rookie. Including the playoffs, his record is 30 wins, seven losses and even casual fans recall his recent Super Bowl victory. Wilson’s replica jersey is the best selling in the NFL. But his play has proven nothing about short quarterbacking, just about good quarterbacking.
Donald Sterling’s musings about the ways he provided for his workers remind me of nothing so much as the self-satisfied nineteenth century plantation owner who kept his enslaved people fed and clothed from cradle to grave and called it ingratitude when they left during the Civil War. We continue to lurch toward a meritocracy, where you have to prove your abilities rather then merely flash your connections (or visible characteristics) to advance. The Supreme Court may still be confused about whether discrimination and lack of opportunity still exists in the U.S. (see the recent Michigan ruling) but when it comes to basic respect, most Americans seem to agree that pure discrimination is simply not fair. Many people suffered greatly for what many now are able to treat as a commonplace truth, even if institutional racism is still alive and kicking. There are indications—in of all places, the sports world—that the suffering was not all in vain.