Imagine sports without Martin Luther King Jr. Imagine sports without these faces. (Kelly Ryan/The Villanovan)
by Arman Asemani
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. had a dream that one day Michael Jordan, Mike Tyson, Tiger Woods and millions of lesser-known American athletes of color could also dream. As King Jr. preached equality on the steps of the Lincoln Monument on Aug. 28, 1963, did he care who would win the NBA finals that year?
He made a grand total of zero sports references in his “I Have a Dream” speech. Little did King know the transcendence his efforts would have in the world of sports.
Most modern professional sports leagues were integrated, technically, before King Jr.’s March on Washington. Jackie Robinson signed with Major League Baseball’s Brooklyn Dodgers in 1946.
Kenny Washington and Woody Strode, as well as Marion Motley and Bill Willis, played for the National Football League’s Los Angeles Rams and Cleveland Browns, respectively, in 1946.
Chuck Cooper was drafted by the National Basketball Association’s Boston Celtics in 1950.
Willie O’Ree joined the National Hockey League’s Boston Bruins in 1958.
John Shippen played in the U.S. Open (golf) in 1896 and Althea Gibson competed in the U.S. Open (tennis) in 1950.
These pioneers, all black athletes, were preceded by unsung heroes such as Moses Fleetwood Walker and brother Welday Walker on teams in obscure professional sports leagues, like the Toledo Blue Stockings of baseball’s extinct professional American Association in 1884.
Yet, if King did not lead the March on Washington over 50 years ago, we would see a more monochromatic image marching down basketball courts and football fields today.
But to King’s distaste, those aforementioned athletes would not be judged by the record of their career statistics but rather by the color of their skin. They were the token minorities of the major leagues.
However, King’s dream has finally come true in sports. In the NFL and NBA, black athletes make up more than 50 percent and 75 percent, respectively, of the total players. The minority has become the majority. Problem solved. Just kidding.
Sports are analogous to life. From preachers to teachers, sports stories and examples are prime supplements to church or class lessons. I can’t imagine not liking sports and having to hear the countless tired sports clichés and metaphors. But for old times’ sake, here is another for your sociology professor: diversity in professional sports reflects disparity of resources between races in America.
Why are over half of professional football and basketball players athletes of color while only about one third of professional baseball players are black, Latino or Asian?
Why is professional hockey so white that they measure diversity by the comparative number of players from Canada, United States, Sweden, Russia, Czech Republic, Finland, Slovakia and Other? It is impossible for two black goalies to compete against each other in the NHL this year. Ray Emery of the Philadelphia Flyers is the only one.
Best black golfer in the PGA tour? Easy. Tiger Woods with 79 wins, 29 second place finishes, 19 third place finishes, 185 top 10 finishes and 245 top 25 finishes.
Even easier. Being the only other African-American on the 250 man tour, Joseph Bramlett earns the silver medal by default with zero wins, zero second place finishes, zero third place finishes, zero top 10 finishes and two top 25 finishes. Two out of two.
Resources, resources, resources. All a kid needs to learn football or basketball is a cheap ball and some grass or pavement to supplement. Baseball needs gloves and bats. Hockey needs sticks, skates and a certain type of ice not sold at grocery stores.
Golf needs clubs, balls and a golf course. Football and basketball are like Happy Meal toys. They are ready to be ripped out of the package and be used.
Hockey and golf are like toys in which batteries are not included. The accessories are necessities.
King Jr. gave Americans hope that ethnic equality was imminent, but the march is far from over. King told the world that if people are good enough then they are good enough, regardless of race.
Today, that idea has substantially materialized. In this ultra-competitive world, the most qualified applicant gets the job. But resources are the tools used in the construction of talent. Children of color are often at a disadvantage for resources. They have golf balls but no golf clubs. Their dreams play to the tune of “Bye Bye Birdie.” And that is a handicap they cannot overcome.
King Jr. had a dream. I have a nightmare.
I frightfully imagine a world in which I turn on The Weather Channel to be informed of the daily temperature and precipitation by a slender 6’ 6’’ weather man who studied geography at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Michael Jordan was destined to display a different type of season highs and lows.
I dread befriending a bouncer at the local bar with fists the size of soccer balls, a tribal tattoo on his face and Iron Mike as a nickname. Mike Tyson was destined to beat up people rowdier than drunk bar crawlers.
Or even worse, visit the National Aviary in Pittsburgh, Pa., and be led on a tour by some Stanford University dropout. Tiger Woods was destined to showcase a different type of birdies.
Without King Jr.’s vision, even my illusions of occupationally misplaced sport legends as meteorologists and tour guides would be wishful thinking. But thanks to King Jr.’s and other key players in the Civil Rights Movement, my nightmare is far from a reality. The game clock on King’s life ended on April 4, 1968, but his legacy lives in an eternal overtime.