On Fourth of July, let’s celebrate our right to protest
Big-time sports continue to fly the flag of the illusion of national unity
“I like the dreams of the future better than the history of the past.”
– Thomas Jefferson, Declaration of Independence author, third U.S. president and slaveholder
We come to another Independence Day. Some will celebrate the nation’s present and its glorious and mythical past. Others will protest its present and fight for major changes to ensure a different future.
It is the American way, what Abe Lincoln, who would become the 16th president, called a “house divided against itself.” And yet the sports world, especially in the major team sports, stands on a mountain made of surface unity, a mountain we would do well to climb in other phases of our society.
When cameras pan our stadiums and arenas, from the front-row seats to the bleachers, we see fans who have adopted the hand jives and other rituals of the players. In the most delicious moments, it appears that the fans and athletes are one. If the athletes can play professional baseball or hockey, fans don’t denounce the players for speaking Spanish, French or another language other than English in the workplace. If they can win Olympic gold for America, the athletes, especially our female athletes, can be openly gay and outspoken.
Oh, to be sure, big-time sports offer no refuge or respite from other aspects of American life. Indeed, historians, documentarians and journalists rightly present sports as just another battlefield in the ongoing war for social equality, for liberty and justice for all: from Jack Johnson to Jackie Robinson, from Muhammad Ali to Billie Jean King to Colin Kaepernick.
Nevertheless, in the clutch, when we really have to win, when championships and medals are on the line, when index fingers are to be held aloft and fans are set to chant, “We’re No. 1,” athletes and fans can come together for a common cause, again and again.
And that’s been true since black Olympic sprinter Jesse Owens and black heavyweight boxer Joe Louis delivered a brutal blow to the myth of white supremacy in the 1930s. Meanwhile, countless other black Americans went toe-to-toe against the combination of the Great Depression and anti-black racism, the latter a constant insult to their humanity.
Today, as ever, we can be like multicolored billiard balls that scatter to pockets of indifference and antagonism. But we can also come together when it really matters, especially to sports fans. For decades, the sports arena has been a place where groups can trumpet their Americanness and growing power and excellence, from Irish heavyweight boxers in the late 1800s to South Asian spelling bee champs today.
Consequently, the sports world, sometimes reluctantly, can be a place where fans welcome outliers, foreigners and newcomers, even star black NFL quarterbacks, tattooed NBA players or bat-flipping MLB players. In our nation of strangers, athletes we otherwise would never know, sometimes people we would cross the street to avoid, become our friends, leaders and heroes through sports, if only for a time.
It’s an illusion, I know. Many of us see the reality of a segregated America almost daily: where we live, where we attend school or where we worship.
But big-time sports continue to fly the flag of the illusion of national unity in our country.
And we salute that illusion, one big game at a time. And we look to the dreams of the future.