To What End to We Honor?

I have been thinking a lot about the ways we as a society choose to honor historic figures. Earlier this month marked the 40th anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. Next week will mark the 15th anniversary of the death of Cesar Chavez. Both men lived and died for movements framed around a vision of justice. Now, in death, we commemorate the days of their birth as a way of saying something, but what?

And then I came across this simply fantastic story from last Sunday’s Los Angeles Times. The story recounts last year’s 50th anniversary celebration of Jackie Robinson’s “integration” of (all-white) professional baseball. More accurately, the story is about Torii Hunter, currently a player for the Los Angeles Angels and formerly of the Minnesota Twins. In 2007, during the Robinson celebration, some baseball players wore Jackie Robinson’s jersey number (42). Back then, USA Today quoted Hunter as saying:

“This is supposed to be an honor, and just a handful of guys wearing the number. Now you’ve got entire teams doing it. I think we’re killing the meaning. . . It should be special wearing Jackie’s number, not just because it looks cool.”

The Times article reports that Hunter experienced some backlash for his comments last year. Accordingly, they gave him a chance to clarify what he said. Now, Hunter expressed particular concern with the 2007 Houston Astros, an entire team of white players who sported Robinson’s number for the celebration. Hunter told the Times:

“When you have a team that doesn’t have any African American players on the team, and then everybody on the team wears it, yes, it’s watered down, because they don’t have blacks to represent Jackie Robinson over there. . .”

Let me say first, at the risk of sounding like an elitist, I do not turn to baseball players for a critical analysis of race issues. It is not that there aren’t people who play baseball who are capable of such. There are. It is simply that this is not what they are paid to do. [By the same token, don’t expect a professor to hit a home run for you. S/he might be able to, but. . . you get my point.]

That said, Hunter’s comments bring the issue I have been struggling with to the forefront of today’s sports-related blogosphere. Commemoration means little if we do not also honor the work of these historic figures. At its worse, commemoration often excuses the inaction of the present by suggesting that the struggles of the past are just that, relegated to the past.

For men like King and Chavez, commemoration does little to advance the struggles of their lives. Instead, it waters down what they stood for, seizing the safe and palatable and ignoring the challenging, the radical, and, often, the most meaningful. Tribute to Dr. King would be better served by ending the war in Iraq (and if you don’t see the connection, you have proven my point!), just like a real tribute to Chavez would entail securing federal bargaining rights for agricultural workers.

Hunter’s comments force a recognition of the ways we continue to live in a society where opportunity is framed by the powerful intersections of race and class. This does not have to mean that there is conscious and deliberate discrimination against players (it doesn’t mean there isn’t either), but it does mean having to abandon our unquestioned adherence to the belief that sports is a purely merit-based occupation. While there are numerous and regular examples of players from humble beginnings finding the eye of a scout and making it to the big show, and while much of a player’s career is determined by his ability to perform, that doesn’t mean we live in a world (or even a nation) where each person with talent has the same chance to realize and apply that talent.

In effect, an empty celebration of Robinson celebrates baseball for its progress from the past while avoiding any meaningful assessment of where it is today.

Most of us in this society have a hard time grappling with this. Here’s just a small sample of some of the comments posted on Yahoo Sports related to this story:

“This is a very old, tired arguement. No-one ever asks why there are not more white players in the NBA or why there are not any white Cornerbacks and running backs in the NFL.”

“Someone who enjoys and understands the GAME should be able to get his head around the idea that maybe a team drafted the best guys it could find (and afford) for the positions it needed to fill, not that a team purposely chose only one skin color. I’m pretty sure the Astros have been wanting to win the last couple of seasons, so I doubt they would have avoided any great player who was available to them just because of race.”

“So what I am reading here is that according to Mr Hunter, no white players are allowed to honor Jackie Robinson by wearing his number. Seems that by white players wearing his number they are making progress. Am I wrong??”

None of the above is wrong. They are just unable to shift their perspective and look at this issue from a different angle. As part of a society that nurtures easy answers to complex problems, and seeks the quick and dirty sound bite over the prolonged analysis, this should come as no mystery. At the same time, that just makes the challenge of Robinson (of King and of Chavez) all the more significant.

In the end, whether we are talking about Jackie Robinson, Martin Luther King, or Cesar Chavez, we should be careful about tribute, especially those that do little to continue the struggle for a more racially just world.

AFTERWORD: Hunter made headlines in the past for other seemingly “radical” comments relating to race and baseball. Last year, he said of the numbers of Latin American players in the league: “You can go to Latin America and get that same talent as a black player in Compton and if he’s in Compton he gets drafted in the first round he’s going to get two million dollars. If he doesn’t pan out, you’re out two million dollars but if you go to the Domincan, Cuba, or whatever and you can get a guy for two thousand dollars and he doesn’t pan out you’re only down two thousand dollars. I do agree that, you know 10 years from now you’ll see no blacks, at all.” [See the ESPN report of these comments.] I defer to my comments above; I know I can’t hit an 80 mile and hour fastball to save my life.


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