When I was a kid growing up in Queens, New York, three-time most valuable player Yogi Berra of the New York Yankees was my sports idol. Perhaps it was the elegance of that first big league game I saw. August 1963, Yankees Stadium, a Wednesday afternoon game against the Cleveland Indians, which they lost 7-4, scoring their only runs on a pinch-hit grand slam by Johnny Blanchard (for the sake of authenticity I am not looking any of this up).
I’m not sure Berra played that day, but I was smitten by the look and feel of that ballpark – the elegant façade that draped the upper deck, the greenest green lawn I had ever seen, the smell of hot dogs and the fact that our seats only cost 50 cents. The trip, made on a school bus, was our reward for a decently played Little League season and one that confirmed my love of baseball. Having followed Major League Baseball on my transistor radio and our black and white TV set, I was overwhelmed by the depth, color and sounds of the game played at a major league level.
Berra looked like my father, at least in my mind, which made it easier to adopt him. I knew I was smitten beyond normal bounds that fall when I started Hebrew School, four afternoons a week and Sunday mornings. My first grade (Aleph) teacher was named Mr. Bear, and (I kid you not) I developed this weird fascination by which I convinced myself he was Yogi Berra in disguise, with just enough time after class to race over to the stadium for game time.
Apparently, the complications presented by road games did not get in the way. Perhaps I rationalized it back then knowing that he was only a part time player. I’m not sure even now I ever actually believed he was my Hebrew School teacher, but I do recall deriving great pleasure imagining he might be.
Back then we did not associate our favorite athletes with great social causes. It was enough to model our swings and throwing styles after them and leave it at that. As adolescence and adulthood set in it became apparent to me that most athletes were equally comfortable being nothing more than that, without their confronting injustice or voicing protest over war, poverty or racism.
Muhammed Ali changed all of that. I will never forget how uncomfortable this made most sportswriters, virtually all of whom condemned him for being outspoken and for stepping outside his presumed role as a purely physical presence.
The whole history of the Civil Rights Movement has been characterized by extreme White discomfort. The owners of National Football League teams were acting entirely within their comfort zone as protectors of the status quo when they reacted with horror at the sight of San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick kneeling during a national anthem in protest of race discrimination. Of course the whole point of civil protest is precisely to make those in power feel uneasy and to reveal to an observing public where they really stand when it comes to maintain prevailing power relations.
The idea that sports are somehow above or beyond politics is hopelessly naïve. International Olympics likes to pretend that politics has no place at its quadrennial assemblies. When Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised their black-gloved fists in a powerful show of protest on the podium after winning gold and bronze medals respectively in the 200 meter sprint, they were promptly stripped of their honors and shipped home, to suffer ignominiously for offending the IOC and the U.S. Olympic Committee.
This, of course, was the 1968 Summer Olympics; it took place just two weeks after the Mexican government massacred hundreds of protesting students in a brutal effort to quell populist protest. “But the games must go on,” we were told.
When they do go on, regimes claim it as evidence of order and legitimacy. That’s exactly how Hitler used the 1936 Summer Olympiad in Berlin – as propaganda on behalf of Nazi rule and Aryan supremacy.
The notion that sports is beyond politics and that athletes should remain aloof from civil protest reappears these days in only slightly more subtle forms. Outspoken figures like basketball star LeBron James are expected to “stay in their lane” and confine themselves to hoops.
The same attitude plays itself out when it comes to the national anthem. What really needs to be asked is why a ritual act of patriotic enrapture is required before athletes can take the field at all. If it’s meant to inculcate loyalty or publicly affirm a mobilized citizenship, it should come as no surprise that some people take offense and defer from participating. Or that they seek to take the politics and reverse it, turning it from a sign of collective assent to a sign of mass withdrawal.
There are many ways for politics to play out these days. We’re seeing it every day. I think it’s evidence of a healthy democratic spirit. That’s especially the case when athletes use their fame and money to take up causes – not simply in protest but also in the forms of scholarship funds, education and community foundations, and skill training programs for the community. When our sports heroes take action, people notice. When they say “Black Lives Matter,” that resonates widely enough that all of us should be saying it, too.
There’s no going back to those days of youthful obsession with the likes of a Yogi Berra. I’m fine with that. I hope more people are, too.