Performance and Reality: Race, Sports and the Modern World

By Early, Gerald | The Nation, August 10, 1998 | Go to article overview

Performance and Reality: Race, Sports and the Modern World


Early, Gerald, The Nation


Last year's celebration of the fiftieth anniversary of Jackie Robinson's breaking the color line in major league baseball was one of the most pronounced and prolonged ever held in the history of our Republic in memory of a black man or of an athlete. It seems nearly obvious that, on one level, our preoccupation was not so much with Robinson himself--previous milestone anniversaries of his starting at first base for the Brooklyn Dodgers in April 1947 produced little fanfare--as it was with ourselves and our own dilemma about race, a problem that strikes us simultaneously as being intractable and "progressing" toward resolution; as a chronic, inevitably fatal disease and as a test of national character that we will, finally, pass.

Robinson was the man white society could not defeat in the short term, though his untimely death at age 53 convinced many that the stress of the battle defeated him in the long run. In this respect, Robinson did become something of an uneasy elegiac symbol of race relations, satisfying everyone's psychic needs: blacks, with a redemptive black hero who did not sell out and in whose personal tragedy was a corporate triumph over racism; whites, with a black hero who showed assimilation to be a triumphant act. For each group, it was important that he was a hero for the other. All this was easier to accomplish because Robinson played baseball, a "pastoral" sport of innocence and triumphalism in the American mind, a sport of epic romanticism, a sport whose golden age is always associated with childhood In the end, Robinson as tragic hero represented paradoxically, depending on the faction, how far we have come and how much more needs to be done.

As a nation, I think we needed the evocation of Jackie Robinson to save us from the nihilistic fires of race: from the trials of O.J. Simpson (the failed black athletic hero who seems nothing more than a symbol of serf-centered consumption), from the Rodney King trial and subsequent riot in Los Angeles and, most significant, from the turmoil over affirmative action, an issue not only about how blacks are to achieve a place in American society but about the perennial existential question: Can black people have a rightful place of dignity in our realm, or is the stigma of race to taint everything they do and desire? We know that some of the most admired celebrities in the United States today--in many instances, excessively so by some whites--are black athletes. Michael Jordan, the most admired athlete in modern history, is a $10 billion industry, we are told, beloved all over the world. But what does Michael Jordan want except what most insecure, upwardly bound Americans want? More of what he already has to assure himself that he does, indeed, have what he wants. Michael Jordan is not simply a brilliant athlete, the personification of an unstoppable will, but, like all figures in popular culture, a complex, charismatic representation of desire, his own and ours.

Perhaps we reached back for Jackie Robinson last year (just as we reached back for an ailing Muhammad Ali, the boastful athlete as expiatory dissident, the year before at the Olympics) because of our need for an athlete who transcends his self-absorbed prowess and quest for championships, or whose self-absorption and quest for titles meant something deeper politically and socially, told us something a bit more important about ourselves as a racially divided, racially stricken nation. A baseball strike in 1994-95 that canceled the World Series, gambling scandals in college basketball, ceaseless recruiting violations with student athletes, rape and drug eases involving athletes, the increasing commercialization of sports resulting in more tax concessions to team owners and ever-more-expensive stadiums, the wild inflation of salaries, prize money and endorsement fees for the most elite athletes--all this has led to a general dissatisfaction with sports or at least to some legitimate uneasiness about them, as many people see sports, amateur and professional, more and more as a depraved enterprise, as a Babylon of greed, dishonesty and hypocrisy, or as an industry out to rob the public blind.

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