Commentary

Race to the top

Part I of a look at what the games we play and watch can bring to the race debate

Originally Published: April 3, 2012
By Jeff MacGregor | ESPN.com

It's easy to get discouraged.

Maybe you thought we were done arguing about race. Maybe we all thought so. We are not.

When we elected Barack Obama president, it was easy to believe that we'd moved past the black and white of our old fears and hatreds. In some ways, we had. But that historic moment was convenient for the bigots and the carpetbaggers and the charlatans, too, because no one wants to put an honest public conversation about race behind us faster and more completely than a racist.

So for reasons both right and wrong, good and bad, we set down this nation's most bruising and exhausting argument.

[+] EnlargeLin/Anthony/Fields
Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE/Getty ImagesSports -- in this case, Knicks Landry Fields, Jeremy Lin and Carmelo Anthony -- really can be the American melting pot.

Now we take it up again.

Because racism abides nearly everywhere. It is a familiar and disheartening exercise in prejudice to see the worst and most virulent of the online commentariat telling my colleagues and me that a discussion of race or culture or politics has no place in sports.

But persist, read widely enough and deeply enough, and you'll come across a second, much more encouraging line of argument.

Good people want to believe sports are colorblind.

They want to believe, most of them very earnestly and uncynically, that a meritocracy can exist in which all that matters is what you do, not who you are. That we are no more and no less than our contribution to the group, to the uniform, to the collective, to the team.

It seems obvious to them that a level playing field begins on a level playing field. It seems that way to me, too.

A very recent case in point was the brief and awkward rejection, then quick and complete absorption of Jeremy Lin into the American tabloid bloodstream. The arc of his arrival and assimilation into the hearts of Knicks fans and beat writers could be measured in minutes. Where he came from meant little; where he might lead a moribund team meant everything.

That kind of racial and cultural pragmatism is what sports contribute to the global debate about who we are and how we value one another. Winning has always been sports' surest goad to equality.

[+] EnlargeWalt Frazier
AP Photo/Bill KostrounFormer Knicks guard Walt Frazier went places that might not have been available to him without sports.

Never has this seemed truer or more necessary to remember than in our current economy of fear. There's a fortune to be made peddling hate and political blame these days, and no shortage of demagogues and patent medicine salesmen on cable TV to do so.

Ironically, then, walled off as it is from other, harsher realities and deformities, sports might be exactly the place to hammer out a few truths about race in America. I've been standing on the floor at Madison Square Garden for the past few Knicks games trying to figure out if this is true. And beneath those bright lights, it seems so. There's no place to hide.

I spent some time last weekend there with Walt Frazier, talking about where sports have taken him. I've written before about what it was like growing up a white kid with black heroes in the 1960s, and I'm going to write about that again next week, too. And about why Clyde the Glide -- and Reed, Monroe, Bradley, Lucas, Jackson, DeBusschere and even Harthorne Wingo -- were pulled from a magazine and taped to my mirror.

In the meantime, and because the founding premise of this space is a question -- what are sports for? -- I'm asking you to send me your thoughts on race in sports for the second part of this column. (Here's how: Jeff_MacGregor@hotmail.com.) Be as honest as you can or care to.

The Heat take a stand. Tiger heads to Augusta. Magic is the new face of the Dodgers. Race is everywhere and race is nowhere, and some days misunderstanding feels as powerful and permanent as gravity. It's easy to be discouraged. Our progress is incremental, agonizing. But still, it's progress.

And maybe that's what the death of Trayvon Martin can mean. Maybe that can be his sacrifice. To give every one of us another chance to get things right.

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