Today African American athletes dominate almost all professional team sports. In basketball some of the record holders were Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Wilt Chamberlain, Magic Johnson, and Michael Jordan. In football Walter Payton, Jim Brown, Jerry Rice, Erik Dickerson, and Jim Marshall set records. Baseball’s Ricky Henderson held the stolen-base record at 939 in 1991. From Joe Louis in the 1930s until Evander Holyfield in the 1990’s, black Americans have almost monopolized heavyweight boxing. Arthur Ashe and Althea Gibson were at the top of the game of tennis. Since Jesse Owens won four Olympic gold medals in 1936, African Americans have excelled in track and field sports. Florence Griffith Joyner and Jackie Joyner-Kersee won medals at the 1988 Olympics. Carl Lewis, Butch Reynolds, Roger Kingdom, Edwin Moses, Bob Beamon, and Willie Banks also set track records.
How is it possible that a particular race can be so accepted in the arena of popular entertainment and sports, yet the American populous still does not have a homogeneous attitude toward the black athletes that make professional sports in America so popular?
Beyond the audience that directly watches professional sports, the rest of America is still influenced by athletes who pose as role models and cultural icons in America. The negative aspect of black culture in the eyes of the public, or blackness, is regarded as a threat to the integrity of the professional sports leagues and to America as a whole. Blackness, as defined by popular culture is an African American’s attitude such that he or she is extremely overt in the eyes of the public by emphasizing his or her race as opposed to skill. By wearing corn-rows or an afro haircut or preaching against white society, a black athlete can come to be seen in a negative light by the public, which in general, has its children propped in front of a television watching black super-athletes dunk the ball and walk off the court to put on a platinum pendant studded with 63 diamonds. This hypocrisy stands regardless of color of the viewer, because in our postmodern era, blackness has come to be associated with violence and the “gangsta” lifestyle. The truth is that the blackness of yore, where an athlete fought for black equality, no longer exists.
Allen Iverson of the Philadelphia 76ers epitomizes the blackest of black athletes at the start of this millennium yet represents nothing positive off the court. Regardless of his basketball skills which surpass those of all other current basketball players, he is a negative icon because, in truth, his “flava” is fake. Steve Rushin of Sports Illustrated is one of the most critical sports writers of the idea of blackness in sports. In the October 23rd issue of SI, his column was spent criticizing Iverson’s fakeness and flawed perspective on black America. With the recent release of his album 40 Bars, Iverson raps about murdering “faggots, niggas and bitches” and the hardships that come with being one of the most overpaid athletes in the NBA. Rushin mocks Iverson’s comments:
“So when A.I., who has a five year old daughter, busts a rhyme about his desire to ‘kill and f— bitches,’ that ain’t him really flowin’. It’s his MC alter ego – whom Iverson calls ‘Jewelz’ – keeping it real by rhymin’ about all the wack shiznit that a playa sees everyday on the mean, clean, privately maintained streets in the gated communities of suburban Illadelph. YouknowwhatI’msayin’? [Sic]”
“Sure he’s makin’ mad paper: $71 million over six years from the Sixers, plus $50 million cash money to wear Reeboks. But check this shiznit: In the NBA, ballers are only clockin’ $85 a day in meal money! For real! Try getting a Cristal breakfast at the Ritz-Carleton Laguna Niguel for $85, yo. Or what if your posse is visiting from Newport News, Va-then e’ybody goes hungry. The little orchid in the tiny vase on the room-service tray costs more than that!”
The statements about Iverson sum up the image of blackness today. Iverson’s career choices on and off of the court are solely his. He is the only person to blame for his flawed persona. With the help of the Hip-Hop movement, blackness has emerged as a means for black society to show that it no longer values the ideals of being black during the civil rights movement and during the times of the desegregation of baseball, where being black meant having a sense of pride about who you are, not about how black and “iced out” you are.
With this said about modern blackness, it is necessary to look at the polar opposite of characters such as Iverson. When one’s black identity is completely lost, a colorless product of the almighty dollar is formed. Epitomizing this scenario is the greatest basketball player ever or at least on the court. Michael Jordan, regardless of his “sellout” nature, is the largest role model in modern sports. Not since Babe Ruth have children and adults alike been so empowered by the strict on-court performance and commercial value of an athlete. For all practical purposes, there a few obvious reasons for Michael Jordan’s success as a persuasive communicator to the public, black, white, and Hispanic, alike. He was, after all, the hottest player in the NBA — his is name mentioned in the same breath with basketball greats such as Wilt Chamberlain, Julius Irving, and Magic Johnson. With a 6′6″ frame — about an inch shorter than the average NBA player–he soars up, around, and above his opponents, always with his universally recognized tongue hanging out. Whenever he graces the courts, he astounds audiences with his mid-air mastery. We are all familiar with many of his successes and each of them serves as at least one elemental persuader. During his college career, Jordan was twice chosen College Player of the Year and was a unanimous All-American. He was the leading scorer on the American team that won the gold medal at the Pan American games in 1983, and co-captain of the team that captured the Olympic gold in 1984. After a 63-point scoring binge by the basketball wiz in a 1986 playoff game, Boston Celtics star Larry Bird said, “God came down disguised as Michael Jordan.” By his fourth year as the Chicago Bulls’ All-Star guard, Jordan had won every major individual NBA award there is: Rookie of the Year, after his first season; the first player besides Chamberlain to break the 3,000-point barrier, in his third season; and an unprecedented triple crown NBA honor as Most Valuable Player, Defensive Player of the Year, and top scorer in his ‘87-’88 season. In the nineties, he led his Chicago Bulls to six NBA championships.
But he’s not only a genius on the court, Jordan is also an advertising agent extraordinary. He’s peddled fast food for McDonald’s, an autographed basketball for the Wilson sporting goods company, Coca-Cola, a backyard game for Ohio Art, tuxedos, Haynes underwear, Johnson Products, Excelsior International (which manufactures “Time Jordan” watches), Guy LaRoche watches, and Gatorade. His clean-cut, wholesome look earned him a spot on the Wheaties cereal box, the first basketball player ever to do so. Between his $25 million contract and his endorsements, Jordan has pocketed an estimated $65 million. He may be bigger than that other Michael. But his claim to fame in the advertising department is his endorsement of the Nike Air Jordan basketball shoe. The red-and-black sneakers put Nike on the map, earning the company more than $70 million in sales when introduced in 1985.
But can all this success off of the court be attributed to the same Michael Jordan that led the Chicago Bulls far and beyond the previously known limits for a professional basketball team? The answer to this question is a simple no. Michael Jordan’s off court image is a construct of his agent David Falk with the support of NBA commissioner David Stern. In truth, Jordan’s real character came about with his second Nike campaign. Although the first Air Force and Air Jordan campaign was extremely successful, the second campaign formed his true colorless (or even white) persona. When paired up with Mars Blackmon, Spike Lee’s character and representation of black youth in America, a new side of the basketball player was formed. He was no longer the image of another black athlete whose superior skill was his only attribute; he metamorphosed into a passionate icon concerned about the community at large, an ideal to Americana. This new image for the basketball icon was actually created around a boardroom table as opposed to at a blacktop court in lower class North Carolina. In fact, Jordan was not even present for the advertising decisions made. Even the latest ploys constructed to continue to forge Jordan’s image were strictly to make him less black. The movie Space Jam, in which Jordan is paired up with cartoon characters, serves a critical example of his whiteness. In the film, Jordan is playing golf when he is mysteriously sucked into the 18th hole to help a team of “white” Saturday morning cartoons win a hoops game against the players of a crime ring. The crime ring serves as a metaphor for black America, while Jordan, the very un-black man leaves his white collar game of golf to help the white community defeat this dark force. Although this analogy seems far-fetched, it cannot be denied that the image of Michael Jordan became more white with this release.
Michael Jordan, like all athletes, is flawed. His true off-court personality falls into white society’s image of any black man with money. Jordan’s gambling fiasco in 1993 tainted the icon and made the general public question the integrity of his money making image. Following his late night run at an Atlantic City casino before a playoff game against the Knicks, Jordan’s second half play in the game, although still spectacular but not of “Jordan Caliber,” was alluded to his gambling binge. At this point in his career, Jordan became black again. Luckily, his career was greatly salvaged with the tragic death of his father that same year. After scrutinizing the murder as a possible reaction to Jordan’s gambling debt, the murderer, Daniel Andre Green was apprehended. A “real” black man had killed Jordan’s father for no reason. This event made Jordan colorless again because it reinstated that America’s fear (especially white America’s fear) of being mugged or murdered by a black man over money also applied to Michael Jordan. Jordan was again white, and has been so ever since. Ironically enough, the American public forgets what it does not want to hear, and embraces what it does.
In stark contrast to both Iverson and Jordan lie the original ideals of blackness that were not only unacceptable to the general public as they are now, but were also well intentioned. Iverson stands for a blackness that reveals the negative aspects of the black community. Jordan is neutral, allowing himself to be the puppet of corporate America and having no stand on any issue (unless his manager tells him to.) Jackie Robinson on the other hand played the system and allowed the true, well natured ideals of his black community to be revealed.
Truly the greatest legend to have emerged from the Negro League was Jackie Robinson. Although probably not the most talented player at the time of integration of baseball, Robinson was chosen because of his extensive background and education. Robinson never did receive a degree from UCLA, but his athletic background at that time was astounding, having excelled in football playing for the Bruins, as well as being a baseball and track star at Pasadena Junior College. Robinson encountered one of his first public conflicts with racism when he won a court martial case for refusing to sit in the colored section of an Army bus during his tenure in the Armed Forces. He did complete Officer Candidates School and was eventually honorably discharged from the Army as a second lieutenant. These events as well as his child hood in nearly all white Pasadena, CA forged the character for the man who would be given the chance to integrate baseball.
In his first year playing on a “white team,” the Dodger’s farm club team the Montreal Royals, Robinson surprised all hitting an astounding .349 and leading the Royals to a Little World Series championship. In 1947, Robinson finally donned Dodger Blue and performed better than anyone would have expected him to, batting .297 and leading the NL with 29 stolen bases, earning him the honor of being Rookie of the Year and being the leading force in taking the Dodgers to a league pennant. But, it was still not Robinson’s statistics that made him the legend he is today.
Considered a novelty by some baseball cynics, Robinson’s major league baptismal on the field was no gimmick. Fans released black cats onto the field, teammates rubbed his head for good luck, while others attempted to spike him, spit tobacco juice in his face, and dropped racial slurs at every opportunity. Off the field, he faced death threats, “dear nigger” letters, and was subjected daily to segregated public accommodations. However, these racial barriers only served to inspire Robinson to higher standards.
As the pressure of being the only black player in the Major Leagues increased, Robinson was able to channel all of the negative energy imposed on by the other players as well as the fans and America for that matter, and use it to be the best player in baseball at the time. In 1949, Robinson led the league with 37 stolen bases and a .342 batting average. He ranked in the top five of every major offensive category except home runs and walks. He was awarded with the highest honor for an active baseball player, the League’s Most Valuable Player award. In the next three years of his career, he led the league with most double plays by a second baseman as well as a .992 fielding percentage. In his ten-year career, he played on six all-star teams, compiling a career batting average of .311, stealing home 19 times and leading the Dodgers to six national league pennants. One of the greatest highlights from his career was stealing home in game 1 of the World Series, and thus inspiring the Dodgers to win their only title over the Yankees’ Bronx Bombers.
Robinson’s career proved, without a doubt, that baseball should be integrated. He slowly gained the respect of peers, who began to see through the racial barriers and acknowledge his dominance of the game despite the color of his skin. Former Dodger manager Leo Durocher once claimed, “He didn’t just come to play, he came to beat you.” While former home run king Ralph Kiner added, “Robinson was the only player I ever saw who could completely turn a game around by himself.” The fans and the media gained his respect by inducting him into the Baseball Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility, a feat only accomplished by a handful of other players in the entire history of Major League Baseball.
Like Jordan and Iverson, Robinson inspired with his play on the field. Unlike Jordan and Iverson, his fame was not handed to him. His aloofness toward the racial segregated institution that was America at the time made those crucial to his initial opportunity to play in the majors second guess their initial intention: to have an “Uncle Tom” play in the majors. In his meetings with Branch Rickey, Robinson was told to just stay quiet and play ball. He did the opposite, and thus earned himself the title of a truly honorable black man who could not be fazed by the system that gave him the opportunity but did not make him what he was. He was a gentleman of color rising to the occasion by throwing his talent in the face of adversity.
Iverson, at that time would have been the worst choice to be the first African American in the majors. His behavior would have by far exceeded any of Robinson’s actions. It could be postulated that Iverson would have spat back into the faces in the crowd and showed little or no respect for the game. Although Robinson’s actions were considered extreme, Iverson in the same context would have taken extreme to a new level. It is for this reason that Josh Gibson was never signed to play in the majors.
I believe it can be said without a doubt that in the same situation, in the same racial climate, Michael Jordan would have been the ideal first black player to join the majors. His off-court antics and gambling would have confirmed what whites expected of a black pro-athlete, while his play on the field would be superior, confirming the white construct that black people are physically superior. He would have answered the press’ questions as Branch Rickey wanted them answered. He would have allowed himself to be the good black boy that America wanted playing THEIR national pastime.
Although these situations are extremely hypothetical, they do allow us realize the perfection with which Robinson tackled his situation, the ignorance with which Jordan allowed himself to be controlled and the negative image that Allen Iverson sets upon the black community in postmodern America. Blackness in Robinson’s time, or at least in retrospect, represented something more positive, which would later be mimicked by greats to the like of Dr. Martin Luther King and other civil rights activists. To be proud of one’s race or ethnicity means to appreciate the positive aspects that come with being a member, and holding true to those ideals in the face of conflict.