Sports can lead us above horror of racism

John Gilbert

 

The sports world, like every other facet of daily life, has been consumed by the unfolding tragedy of the death of George Floyd, the Minneapolis man who died right there on our television sets two weeks ago while having his final breaths squeezed out of him by a Minneapolis policeman, whose knee forcefully pinned his neck to the pavement.

It almost seems like fate has conspired to make sure we saw it all graphically, just by the timing of the coronavirus pandemic that has swept the world and forced businesses, entertainment sources, and all sports to simply close down while we try to cope with the deadly virus. That has caused everyone to pay closer attention to newscasts and news stations, which, in turn, led directly to the horrifying reality of an unarmed black man in Minneapolis being accosted by four policemen and eventually pinned down with his hands handcuffed behind his back. The four policemen held him down and defenseless, with one of them, Derek Chauvin, taking charge by jamming his knee on the side of George’s neck. He held firmly for 8 minutes and 46 seconds, rejecting some pleas from fellow-officers and bystanders, as well as George’s pleading that he couldn’t breathe, as he took his final breath and died.

For all the world to see.

The incident became the focal point for the city, the state, the nation, and the entire world as a shocking testimony to police brutality and excessive use of physical force that has become a sickening trend in the relationship between mostly-armed white policemen and mostly-unarmed black citizens.

The sorrow and disgust that has swept over us has been something we’ve grown shockingly accustomed to in recent years, although this one was different. Like almost all the others, the police report said the victim was “resisting arrest,” but this time a courageous 17-year-old girl captured the entire drama on her cell phone video, proving conclusively there was nothing resembling resisting arrest.

Turns out, when the police report claims resisting arrest, it’s a major cop-out, so to speak, that allows, by definition, the policemen to use as much force for as long as they feel it’s necessary. It is a license for the most macho and aggressive of cops to go crazy on their victims. Maybe they are over-aggressive to begin with, maybe they want to show how tough they are and they can show it more readily if armed with a handgun and a baton.

Whatever, it is just one of the elements of our society that needs to be changed. And it appears that the widespread reaction of protests that often became costly with damage, looting and fires, in cities all across the country, makes this time different.

Change may be coming, this time. Change has to be coming, this time.

We have been living under the cloak of racism all of our lives, from the days of settlers trying to exterminate Native Americans, to the slavery issue that led to the Civil War, where the Confederacy wanted to maintain slavery and the Union side of the North striving to make everyone free.

We also know, of course, that it never really made everyone free. The white power base still stifles and controls Native Americans, and prevents African-Americans from attaining anything close to equality of education, job potential, lifestyle, and even freedom to live where they’d like.

It is the world of sports, ironically, that affords the closest thing to equal-ity and the recognition of potential for all races, and while politicians wrangle over how to revise and retrain police departments and attitudes, we can patiently await the resumption of sports to lead the way.

As a kid growing up in Duluth, we rarely saw any blacks on our sports teams or in our schools. I remember one older black kid who was a great running back in high school. In our junior high class at Washington, we had a lanky, athletic black kid named Duane Dew in my homeroom, where we also had another white kid who was a good back-alley basketball player.

I was a timid little guy, but I could shoot with great accuracy from the corners. The other two would carry our attack, and if they ever got stymied, they’d throw it to me in the corner and I’d drill a shot. We won the entire homeroom basketball tournament championship, to everyone’s amazement.

Transferring from UMD to the University of Minnesota six years later, it was impressive to watch Sandy Stephens at quarterback, and Bobby Bell and Carl Eller play defense, and I was too naive, or just unaware, to realize they were the breakthrough first black athletes Murray Warmath imported from the South.

The Gophers had a strong basketball team too, and I was particularly inter-ested because Terry Kunze, also from Duluth Central, brought his state championship form to college.

The Gophers also had a big kid named Mel Northway at center, and they also had three black kids – Lou Hudson, Don Yates and Archie Clark – who came in and gave the team an outstanding starting five.

Again, I was too naive at the time to realize those were the first three black basketball players recruited to Minnesota by legendary coach John Kundla.

I got to know Clark much better because in the summer, I had been lured to play Park National baseball for a team, and the manager also recruited Clark to play, so we were teammates. It was a lot of fun, and I remember it vividly.

When he became a star in the NBA, I always figured I might run into him, and I might have, if I hadn’t become so consumed by hockey.

Think how pro sports and college sports have evolved since the 1960s. These days, a black athlete might still undergo racism and subtle types of discrimination, but they also are revered and held up high by sports fans of all colors. Same with football, where speedy running backs, receivers and great physical specimens in the line are almost all black college stars.

Quarterbacks are more rare, but Russell Wilson is my favorite, and look around at the expanding world that includes Pat Mahomes and Colin Kaepernick.

Oops!

That’s right. Kaepernick, who is black, had the audacity to kneel during the National Anthem while starting at quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers. That shocked us all, and he was either supported or scorned  throughout the country. The insults won, and he has been blacklisted by a league that could clearly still profit by his talent.

Even Kaepernick seems to have a chance again, in the aftermath of all the tributes and heartfelt apologies coming from every class of bight up to and including the NFL hierarchy. You can salute the flag and the anthem to show your patriotism, but it’s not mandatory, and you also can express your feeling for social inequality by taking a knee.

The predominant black players in the NBA are offset by the still-rare black players amid the white dominated NHL. But in both cases, they are exalted, compared to the average citizen.

Soccer, too, is well integrated in most countries.

In fact, as we get ready to resume pro sports, even in stadiums bereft of fans, we can only imagine how things might have played out differently if Chauvin, the cop being tried for second-degree murder, and George, the 6-foot-6 black victim, had their confrontation in sports. Let’s see George go up for a lob pass or a rebound while Chauvin, without his gun, baton and backup, went up to defend.

Better yet, if they played on the same baseball team and Chauvin was a second baseman who hits .213 and bats ninth, while George hits 40 home runs and bats clean-up. Which of them, in that case, would get more respect from the fans, and the management. Ah, if only…

The reality is harshly different, of course. The nationwide, and worldwide, protests also touched down in Duluth, although the protesters were well-behaved, and the police were too. We hope what happened in Minneapolis can affect us positively. But we can’t be sure.

When we first moved back to Duluth, almost 20 years ago now, there was an interesting campaign where a couple of billboards were strategically placed in Duluth, and read: “It’s hard to see racism when you’re white.”

I thought it was a thought-provoking commentary. True, those of us who are white tend to dismiss racism accusations because we can’t ever imagine what people of color go through. Unless we could walk a mile in their moccasins, as they say, we never will be as sensitive to it. But the sign was great for stimulating thought.

Unfortunately, some folks were outraged by the sign. We don’t have any racism, I could almost hear them say. And the billboards came down. Maybe it’s time to put them up again, to free us to do a little thinking.