Timeout: Don't trivialize this

November 09, 2008|By DAVID STEELE | DAVID STEELE,david.steele@baltsun.com

We've reached another point in the nation's evolution where we try to explain the inexplicable, make sense of something that once seemed impossible. A black man being elected president of the United States - how did that happen?

Through sports, more than a few explanations have been offered. America learned how to live together and to see our similarities instead of our differences because of the likes of Jackie Robinson, Joe Louis, Michael Jordan and Tiger Woods. Sports paved Barack Obama's path to the White House, the theory goes.

It's not an implausible or invalid idea.

But it also trivializes such a significant moment, and the deep-rooted reasons so many voters of varying demographics found Obama so appealing - not to mention the unique obstacles he himself had to scale to get here.

Decades-old anecdotes about Jackie and Pee Wee or that first pair of Air Jordans offer only a shred of an explanation.

The reality is that sports, like any other aspect of society, can unveil the best of us and the worst.

There are too many examples of that going too far back and hitting too close to home today, and involving the very iconic figures we want to applaud for smoothing the path. (By the way, some smooth path - from Jack Johnson winning the heavyweight championship to Obama winning the presidency, a mere 100 years of trauma, humiliation and death passed.)

On the other hand, it's an understandable and admirable attempt to wrap our heads around this.

It advances the discussion further away from the typical nasty, narrow-minded shouting at each other we usually do. The more thoughtful approaches are more encouraging, even if they're a little misguided.

Even more encouraging: The conversations are taking place within sports. You couldn't open a paper, click on a site or turn on the television or radio without finding a reaction to the election from an African-American athlete.

A few came out of the Ravens' locker room, including from Terrell Suggs, vilified mercilessly less than two weeks earlier for talking about bounties and starting quarterbacks. Last week, he spoke eloquently about what a defining moment it was for him in his young life.

The previous Suggs and this one are the same person, but it took an event previously perceived to be impossible to bring the other one to light.

Suddenly, a nation whose reaction to athletes making political and social statements historically has been "shut up and play" couldn't get enough from a group disproportionately populated by the race shared by the president-elect.

Even an act that seemed sure to unleash a torrent of controversy - Denver Broncos wide receiver Brandon Marshall's aborted attempt to acknowledge Obama with an end-zone celebration in Thursday's game - sparked more reasonable debate than rage afterward.

Go figure. Society might have been a catalyst for change in sports, instead of the widely held view that it's the other way around. Or, at worst, they're catalysts for change in each other.

You can't minimize what sports and, more importantly, our athletic forebears, did to change minds and hearts over the years.

But let's not overinflate their meaning. Deluding ourselves with nostalgia does a disservice to us, to sports and to Obama's accomplishment.

However, if we've got to go in that direction, heck, let's give some credit to Duke Ellington, the Jackson 5 and Run-D.M.C., too.

Listen to David Steele on Fridays at 9 a.m. on WNST (1570 AM).

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