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Doing the right thing on race – but it took a minute

Kevin B. Blackistone, ESPN panellist and visiting professor at the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland, writes sports commentary for The Washington Post

No matter the temperatures that cooled Washington, this past summer as the midnight hour came to Juneteenth, a couple of hundred people protesting in memory of George Floyd at Black Lives Matter Plaza remained hot-tempered and found their way to the park at Judiciary Square a few blocks away. There they denounced a statue of Albert Pike, a Confederate general, defaced it, toppled it with ropes and chains and set it ablaze.

And not long after, another crowd stoked by uprisings across the country in response to yet another extrajudicial killing of a black man, and seeking to avenge it by attacking symbols of systemic racism and white supremacy, made its way to RFK Stadium, of all places. A sports site.

There, it targeted the monument to George Preston Marshall, a segregationist who just happened to be the founder of the Washington Football Team that he proudly kept an all-white club, the last such in the NFL, until the Federal Government forced him to integrate. Marshall even used Confederate imagery to promote his team.

The crowd splashed his marker with red paint. When the sun rose, the city dispatched workers to remove it.

It should have been razed years earlier. Just like the name of the team Marshall owned for its first 37 years. A month later, the name was finally tossed into the trash heap of sports history.

But it highlighted again that we've afforded sport credit they are not due as being in the vanguard of social justice. It reminded that sport more often lagged on progress. That they played by reprehensible rules of society rather than shattering them. They lived up to their much celebrated ideals of meritocracy only under pressure or threat. So it has been the tsunami of racial reckoning washing over all of our institutions in the wake of the police killing of Floyd on May 25 that has brought sport again to do the right thing.

The newest example came on Wednesday when Major League Baseball announced it was ". . . correcting a longtime oversight in the game's history by officially elevating the Negro Leagues to 'Major League' status."

It was more than an oversight. It was a decided omission.

The Negro Leagues were born 100 years ago, three decades after the majors refused to let any more progeny of enslaved Africans play among it. MLB this past season celebrated that entrepreneurship as it does Jackie Robinson, the first black man it allowed to play on its teams since Moses Fleetwood Walker in the late 1880s. But until Wednesday, the major leagues refused to recognise the Negro Leagues' players as equals.

The Negro Leagues were not included in 1969 when a "Special Baseball Records Committee" determined what other leagues qualified as major going back to 1876. And the majors were reticent to apologise for its complicity in forcing black men to play what became celebrated as America's pastime only among themselves.

"Accordingly, the statistics and records of these players will become a part of Major League Baseball's history," MLB stated.

John Thorn, the official historian of Major League Baseball, acknowledged in the statement: "The perceived deficiencies of the Negro Leagues' structure and scheduling were borne of MLB's exclusionary practices, and denying them Major League status has been a double penalty, much like that exacted of Hall of Fame candidates prior to Satchel Paige's induction in 1971."

Also Wednesday, the NCAA learnt the Supreme Court will review a case against the association's limits on paying its athletes like the labourers many such as me argue them to be. The unusual step by the highest court into sport came only after successful agitation by advocates for more equitable treatment of college athletes won legislative and court battles such as, for example, in California last year when a law passed allowing athletes to earn from their names, images and likenesses, which the NCAA long prohibited.

Make no mistake, however. That, too, is an issue of racial equity, because the NCAA's lifeblood comes from the toil and sweat of mostly black males who disproportionately populate the rosters of the two most profitable college sports — football and basketball. The revenue generated by those two sports makes up a large portion of the billions that make conference commissioners, athletic directors and coaches, most of whom are white males, multimillionaires. Ernie Chambers, a longtime Nebraska state legislator, started decrying the financial exploitation of black football players for the Cornhuskers in the 1980s and demanded they earn a paycheque for their work. But it is just now that the issue could be decided.

Earlier this week, baseball's Cleveland franchise announced it would finally dump its Indians name. After 105 years. And much of the past 30, during which Native Americans and those of us who empathise with them called out for the disparaging name and image to be purged. They are nobody's mascot. No people are.

But no corner of society has done more than sport to normalise — mostly through commodification — such denigration and ignore it. One day, Washington Football Team coach Ron Rivera requested and received a portrait of the team's Indian head logo he so admired, an image many native folk said angered and nauseated them. He displayed it prominently in his new home. Not until the wrecking crew came to Marshall's monument and eventually the team name did Rivera change his tune.

It is a familiar timeline. And it is void of altruism. After all these years of watching the Confederate flag flap over Nascar, just in the past few months was the practice curbed. A lone black driver in the sport born from the deep Jim Crow South, Bubba Wallace, embraced the Black Lives Matter movement and all but demanded the racing league stop letting the banner of the slave economy and racist resistance to human rights be a part of its events. It heeded his words in early June.

Wallace's stance, embraced by many of his fellow drivers, no doubt emboldened star black football players at the University of Mississippi to tell the state to take the Confederate Stars and Bars off the state flag or they would no longer carry a football or make a tackle for the state's flagship school. The state legislature voted to change the flag at the end of June.

Sports are to be applauded for the steps they have taken in the past few months to reconcile their racist past. But the standing ovation should go to those who, over many years and especially the past several months in the Black Lives Matter movement, demanded our games be played fairly, or else.

Kevin B. Blackistone, ESPN panellist and visiting professor at the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland, writes sports commentary for The Washington Post

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Published December 19, 2020 at 8:00 am (Updated December 18, 2020 at 5:07 pm)

Doing the right thing on race – but it took a minute

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