Breathing Lessons

I grew up in an isolated, virtually all white small town in southeastern Wisconsin.  It was the 1960s, and my world was the small town streets and the shaded neighborhood backyards.  We were buffered from the bigger cities of Milwaukee and Racine by miles of farmland, and grew up in an idyllic world of fields and woods and backyards, isolated from the turmoil that invaded our homes via the television airwaves. While city after city was burning with race riots or bleeding with anti Vietnam War demonstrations, we were playing kick the can on warm summer nights or pickup basketball games in driveways.  The economy was booming, and most families were able to live comfortably with a single wage earner.  My mom, like a lot of moms, didn’t work, while my dad made a good living as an over the road semi truck driver.  From our vantage point, it was about as close to paradise as you could get, and adults and children alike couldn’t understand what the rioters and protesters were so angry about.

About the time I turned nine years old, in 1967, I became a huge professional sports fan, starting with football and the Green Bay Packers.  Soon I became a big fan of professional baseball and basketball.  I had many favorite players, with the great Packers quarterback Bart Starr becoming my hero.  Other heroes included Willie Mays and Bob Gibson in baseball, and Bill Russell, Oscar Robertson and Elgin Baylor in basketball, and Gayle Sayers in football.  Later, I’d grow to admire Muhammad Ali and later still Joe Frazier.

With the exception of Bart Starr, all of these great athletes had one thing in common:  they were all African Americans.  I really didn’t notice that.  They were all great at what they did, and they had skills that set them apart from the rest. They all imposed their personalities on the games they played, and they were all artists in the truest sense.  Meanwhile, in my isolated small town, I grew up and graduated high school never knowing a single black person.

My mom was a big reader, and would go to the library a couple of times a week.  I’d often go with her, and check out the books in the children’s section.  I remember graduating from the animal books I’d check out in the first and second grades to the slightly older section, and in fourth grade discovering the sports section, and the book The Willie Mays Story.  I checked it out and took it home and stayed up all night reading it.  The book told how Mays was born into poverty in the south (I think it was Alabama) and how he started his professional baseball career in the Negro Leagues.  It was the first I’d ever heard of the Negro Leagues, and I remember being shocked when the book told about Jackie Robinson and Monte Irvin and how there was a time when black players weren’t allowed in the major leagues.

I loved the book, mainly for the stories about how young Mays, while playing for the New York Giants, would still play stickball in the neighborhood streets with the kids, and the patience his manager, Leo Durocher, had with him when he started his career in a massive slump.  Over the course of two or three years, I probably checked the book out and read it about ten times.

There were other books, too, like Bill Russell’s Go Up For Glory and Bob Gibson’s From Ghetto to Glory.  These books inspired in me a love of reading, and they also opened my eyes to what was going on outside my town’s limits.  I began to understand that not everyone in our country had the same advantages I had, and that there was real suffering igniting the race riots I saw on television.

About the same time I was listening to a lot of AM top forty radio and falling in love with the sweet and simple and innocent songs of Smokey Robinson and the Miracles and The Temptations.  I’d see them on television and damned if they weren’t black, too.

It’s difficult to exaggerate the role that sports and music played in developing my sensibilities towards race. The fact that so many of the athletes and musicians I admired had to overcome so much was a revelation to me, and by the time Tommy Smith and John Carlos raised their fists at the medal ceremony in the 1968 Olympics, I understood at least on some small level their courage and the symbolic power of the act.

Go forward about twenty years, and two of the most powerful black cultural icons are basketball players Michael Jordan and Charles Barkley.  Jordan avoids getting involved in politics and becomes a corporate conglomerate, saying famously that “even Republicans buy shoes.”  Barkley stars in a television ad where he famously pronounces, “I am not a role model,” eloquently making the argument that parents should take responsibility for their kids and not look to sports figures to provide guidance.

Now with the events in Ferguson and the Eric Garner death, questions are being debated about whether it’s right for athletes to use their forum for political protest. I’d argue that of course it is, and I applaud LeBron James, this generation’s Michael Jordan, for wearing an “I can’t breathe” t-shirt.  Barkley may have been right that parents shouldn’t look to athletes to instill values in their children, but the truth is that athletes and musicians and actors all have a platform that reaches beyond cultural and physical and geographic barriers and touches people that wouldn’t otherwise be touched.  They can use this platform to sell shoes or to increase awareness and effect change.  Cultural battles may be waged in loud and acrimonious front lines, but they are usually won quietly and over time, when people far removed from the front lines see something they recognize in those who choose to get involved on the periphery.

There is responsibility that comes with this platform, and it isn’t limited to African American athletes.  White athletes have an even bigger platform. Imagine the impact if, for example, Aaron Rodgers wore an “I can’t breathe” t-shirt to his weekly press conference.

Just like in the 60s, the front lines of these battles are the inner city streets where violence and poverty run rampant, but real change will occur only when those who are isolated and far removed from the realities of this landscape understand what is at stake, and that there are lives in the balance, lives that they can recognize through the eyes of the football or basketball player they cheer for.  Athletes have a unique opportunity to not only increase awareness but also empathy.  With empathy comes compassion and understanding, the foundation of change.