Rubel: As Athletes Protest, Will Society Listen?

Aug 31, 2020

Commentary: Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in Major League Baseball in 1947, but change came slower to Birmingham, Alabama.

The minor league Birmingham Barons played in the Southern Association, which had just one black player in its history. Nat Peeples played in two games for the Atlanta Crackers in 1954. The Southern Association went under in 1961. After two years without baseball, the Barons were ready to make their return. But there was a problem.

All of the leagues by then were integrated. In Birmingham, segregation was more than just tradition. It was the law. The so-called “checkers law” made it a crime for blacks and whites to compete against each other.

If the good people of Birmingham wanted to see the Barons return, they would have to change their laws. On opening day for the 1964 season, the Barons’ lineup included a young pitcher named John “Blue Moon” Odom, who would go on to star for the Oakland A’s. Black fans were allowed to sit in the same section as whites at Rickwood Field for the first time.

When it comes to race relations, sports has long been ahead of society in general. The 1964 Barons are one example where that made a tangible difference. Lou Henson is another. When he took the job at Hardin Simmons University in 1962, Henson insisted that they include black players for the first time.

Last week, the Milwaukee Bucks refused to play their scheduled NBA playoff game after seeing the video of Jacob Blake being shot seven times in the back by police in Kenosha, Wisconsin.

All of the other NBA teams joined with the Bucks, and the playoffs were stopped. Teams and players in other sports united in solidarity, and for a couple of days they brought most of the sports world to a halt.

The show of strength and unity was impressive. But they are making a demand that can’t be met: no more black lives ended at the hands of police.

For their part, Bucks players said they were frustrated by inaction in the Wisconsin Legislature, and they did have some success at that level. It’s a start.

Part of the legend of Jackie Robinson was that he was selected by former Brooklyn Dodgers owner Branch Rickey to be the first back player in major league baseball, in part, for his strength to not fight back in the face of racial slurs and abuse. That is undoubtedly why he is universally held in such high esteem today. We venerate passive black resistance to white brutality.

Athletes like Tommie Smith, John Carlos and Colin Kaepernick haven’t fared as well in our collective memories, even though their protests were all peaceful.

Games resumed after a couple of days. There’s talk of voter registration campaigns, and work toward supporting the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act of 2020, which has passed the House but is stuck in the Senate.

“We understand that it’s not going to end,” former NBA player and current analyst Chris Webber said. “But that does not mean, young man, that you do not do anything.”

Maybe in the next generation things will get better, he said. Or the generation after that.

There will be more protests by athletes in the days ahead. Some people will brand them as unpatriotic. Others, such as Jared Kushner,  will suggest that those who are paid so well have no right to complain. Just shut up and dribble. They’ve heard it all before.

Protests never solve the problem, but they do draw attention to it. The rest is up to us. 

Walter Rubel can be reached at