Athletes didn't "pave way" for Obama

Heroes like Jackie Robinson played a small role, but exaggerating it diminishes what anonymous millions have done.

By King Kaufman

Published November 6, 2008 12:00PM (EST)

Did black athletes pave the way for Barack Obama to become president? Frank DeFord said so over the summer and others have chimed in with similar thoughts.

The easy answer is yes. Even the most shallow discussion of black advancement in this country has to mention Jackie Robinson, and more serious treatments consider the roles of Jack Johnson, Joe Louis and Muhammad Ali, the black jockeys of the late 19th century and the relative dominance of black athletes in the most popular American sports since the middle of the 20th.

For many white Americans, the first minorities they identified with and got to know, even if from afar, were famous African-American athletes. The first minority in the lives of many with executive-type power and trappings was the black coach of a favorite or rival NBA team. And of course African-Americans drew strength and pride from sporting heroes, used them as role models and beacons of the idea that, given a chance, blacks could succeed at anything.

But that's all too simple.

Sports often get short shrift when serious subjects are being discussed. Just a bunch of games. But they're more than that. Obama is a once-in-a-generation political figure not because of his brown skin but because of his ability to unite, motivate and inspire people.

Sports do those things every day.

That's because sports are not just a part of our society but a big part. What else draws so many people together so often? What else can be discussed so easily across so many lines and barriers? What else is such a constant, passed from one generation to the next?

Then again, they're just a part. If Obama stood on the shoulders of Jackie Robinson and Joe Louis and Arthur Ashe Tuesday, he also stood on the shoulders of the great black entertainers who used the other most obviously open avenue to fame and fortune for African-Americans for too much of this country's history.

But beyond that, he got a boost from millions of anonymous firefighters and teachers and bricklayers and doctors. Not just from every first this or that, first black cop or university president or shop foreman, but from all of those who came after.

We advance as a society. It was easy for white people to love Willie Mays or Magic Johnson, but it was also possible to love them and hate the black family that just moved in down the street. The kids from that new family and the kids from the rest of the block playing together and becoming friends did as much to put Barack Obama in Grant Park Tuesday night as Joe Louis did.

Blacks have succeeded in sports -- and entertainment -- in disproportionate numbers in this country, partly because there were more opportunities there, fewer barriers in those lines of work, though there were still plenty.

In fact, while sports have often been at the forefront of social progress, they've also lagged behind. There were African-Americans in the Senate and the Cabinet and on the Supreme Court before there was one managing a major league baseball team. We were still talking in this decade about "black quarterbacks," as a thing to talk about.

But if the barriers had been even greater in sports and entertainment, or better yet if they'd been lesser in other fields of endeavor, blacks would have succeeded elsewhere.

Jackie Robinson and the other great African-American sports pioneers were genuine heroes who did play a role in the success of blacks in this country. To say they paved the way, though, is too much.

It's to reduce African-Americans, again, to playing ball or being entertainers. It's to say that President-elect Barack Obama was made possible by sports. He wasn't. He was made possible by a long, complex, too-slow process, and sports were a part of that.

If Jackie Robinson hadn't been Jackie Robinson, someone else would have done it. And if it hadn't been baseball that gave us a Jackie Robinson, it would have been something else. There would have been a transcendent hero who was an astronaut or an inventor or a crusading preacher.

When I gave my 5-year-old son a reprieve from bedtime Tuesday night and sat him on my lap to watch delirious people in Grant Park and Ebenezer Baptist Church and in front of the White House, hoping this would be a moment he'd tell his kids about someday, I didn't talk about Jackie Robinson or Joe Louis.

I can talk about those guys all day, and we will, we will. But Tuesday night I talked about a whole country.

King Kaufman

King Kaufman is a senior writer for Salon. You can e-mail him at king at salon dot com. Facebook / Twitter / Tumblr

MORE FROM King Kaufman

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

2008 Elections Barack Obama Paul Shirley Race