When sports jump the tracks onto mainstream media, even non-sport fans benefit. The news about Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling did just that, and so much more. His feelings about 80% of NBA players created a teaching moment.
History students, like this blogger, enjoy relating past events and people to current times. It builds context for "the rest of the story" as Paul Harvey used to tell us.
Bear with me as we erase any confusion about the African American influence in sports.
Upsets in sports happen when victory comes unexpected, when the most unlikely player or team unseats the fan favorite, the dominant team, and in the case of Jesse Owens and the 1936 Olympics, the Master Race.
Was Nazi Germany the future evolution of the human race? Hitler said it often enough that the people rallied behind the idea and cheered themselves silly.
After the 'Buckeye Bullet' showed up, the cheering took another tone.
Hitler said he needed a master race. The Berlin Olympics, or Aryan proving grounds, would show the world, along with the German doubters, how the Nazi spirit produced super men who would define the Olympic motto of Citius - Altius - Fortius, or faster-higher-stonger.
One athlete didn't follow the Nazi game plan. The four gold medals Jesse Owens collected wasn't the first slap to the Fatherland's face, but it stung the most. This was a black man running and jumping through the darkest heart of white supremacy. The light he shined in triumph over Hitler's will still glows today.
Owens faced racial tension in American society, the U.S. Olympic Committee, and even teammates. Yet there he stood in the center of the greatest race-hating eras in history. Instead of fading away under pressure, or boycotting in protest, all he did was smoke the opposition in his track events.
The long jump was another story. The legend of Luz Long says he helped Jesse with his jump by telling him to take off earlier. Helping an opponent, especially a black opponent, didn't endear Long with his Fuhrer. For his kindness, the long jumper landed in WWII where he died in Sicily.
One athlete beat the master race four times. Donald Sterling, take note: Jesse Owens was African American and he crushed all Olympic foes as well as Hitler's idea of invincibility.
If one black man pounding a Nazi wasn't enough, then make it two.
Just before the Olympics, German heavyweight boxer Max Schmeling came to America for a fight. His opponent, Joe Louis, met him in Yankee Stadium. Louis had been training for a washed up fighter. While he trained near a golf course and got in a few rounds, Schmeling studied. It paid off with a Nazi knockout in the 12th round. Imagine the thrill of that victory in Hitler's house.
Ignorance celebrated world wide for the white over black victory. The Brown Bomber didn't celebrate. In 1938 Louis restored proper order by hammering Schmeling down for a first round knock-out in the same Yankee Stadium. The rematch was supposed to validate the first fight's result. Instead it showed how a motivated athlete takes care of their business.
A black athlete rose to the occasion, doing what no one else could. He fought against racial stereotyping, against hate, and stayed true to his sport. In a time of uncertainty, Joe Louis was a beacon of American hope, even if he couldn't drink from the same water fountain, eat in the same restaurants, or stay in the same hotels as the white men around him.
We like to think things have changed from the 1930's. Baby boomers have seen the greatest athletes in history on the biggest stages. From Muhammad Ali to Pele, Arthur Ashe to Michael Jordan, we don't make distinctions on race. If you're good enough to win, you're good enough for our love.
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How would today's icon of intolerance, Donald Sterling, regard sports heroes from days gone by? I'll take a shot and say he would be unimpressed, no big deal.
His mind may be made up on issues of race, but education is still the tool, the crow bar, to pry open newly shut minds. In sports the question isn't black or white. It's who's the best. Real sports fans embrace the best as their own. Winning allows the biggest bandwagon to jump on.
If you can't come out and cheer for your winners, just stay home and shut the curtains like Mr. Sterling.
David Gillaspie is an active researcher, skills he honed during twenty years with the Oregon Historical Society. His education wavered between English major/Fiction writer at the University of Oregon where he met Ken Kesey, to a BS in History from Portland State with news writing. Married, with two millennial sons, he connects sports and fitness to the realities of baby boomer life, with no mention ever of skydiving or base-jumping. David covers a wide variety of fascinating topics on his boomer-centric blog, Boomer PDX. Check it out -- you'll be glad you did.