No matter how many times it is disproved by the realities of politics and corruption, ego and greed, racism and class, meritocracy remains the great American ideal. It survives because it represents hope, hope that difference and disagreement will eventually be overcome by the respect for talent and accomplishment.
Meritocracy, or the pursuit of it, is chiefly responsible for giving sports its special importance in the historical recounting of the 20th century, whether it was Jesse Owens and the Nazis, Hank Greenberg and anti-Semitism, Joe Louis beating Max Schmeling (not only to discredit Nazism, but for the elusive acceptance at home) or, naturally, Jackie Robinson's integration of modern-day organized baseball. Sports provided the roadmap to solving societal issues. Sports offered moments of what was possible, through the digestible simplicity of having a collective goal that everyone on the team was working toward, no matter who is wearing the uniform.
It is a simple, superficial narrative, usually and painfully undone by time and the rest of the story. Robinson was alienated by baseball in retirement, especially by the Dodgers. He had been dead almost a decade before the National League hired a black manager, and the Dodgers, Cardinals, Red Sox and Yankees -- the most important franchises in baseball to this day -- still haven't broken that barrier. But the instances when the games move us forward, even narrowly, allow sports to be more than the fleeting and globally meaningless sensation of winning and losing. An insular place supposedly has the power to foster universal change.
As the Robinson ideal is celebrated on movie screens and at baseball stadiums across the country, sports once again are being challenged by deep and seemingly intractable societal issues that live on Main Street, in office buildings and school yards but also under the sports tent: the male problem of defining weakness though homophobia and misogyny.
The dynamic is so old and common it blends in with the dirt. We live in a time of seemingly increased acceptance (at least in polls and referendums and symbolism) of gay marriage, the growing discrediting of bullying, the judicial intolerance and public outrage at the Steubenville, Ohio, football-sex scandal and the seeming inevitability that gay players will soon come out and be themselves in a locker room culture that motivates itself by thinking it's their antithesis. Sports in the 21st century is having something of a 20th century moment: It is challenged, as it was with race, to be the pace car to change well-embedded elements of a culture.
Steubenville, where two teenage football players were convicted and sentenced for sexually assaulting a classmate, served as a referendum on the power and influence of sports as well as the locker room mentality of men and boys toward women. Mike Rice, the disgraced former Rutgers basketball coach, is gone and has plenty of time to reflect (with a $1 million payout) while the Rutgers scandal morphs into the next moon phases. We're stuck with the most disturbing images from his infamous practice video, the ones of him being an everyday coach, an everyday American male, using everyday male language linking -- if more graphically emphasized than most by basketballs hurled at his players -- homosexuality and gender with weakness.
Language is the time-honored billy club, the device designed either to belittle an opponent or belittle a teammate for the dubious purpose of making that player (or son or co-worker or employee) tougher. It creates the structure of a boy's rite of passage to manhood that manifests too often on the court and in the boardroom.
The pressure to incorporate misogyny into an athlete's personality is the most intractable element of the locker room culture because it is the most intractable element of the male culture. Boys and young men are often conflicted by the collisions between real toughness and perceived toughness, either not knowing the difference or being intimidated to act against better judgments. It is a dynamic of peer pressure and accepted cultural reflexes, whether it be in speech ("You throw like a girl") or in imagery (Larry Bird's famous "We played like a bunch of sissies" assessment following Game 3 of the 1984 Finals against the Lakers that turned the series in Boston's favor). Winners and losers are often determined by which is tougher in the toughest moments, mentally, physically or both. There is nothing worse in sports than being compared to being gay or a woman and yet -- as Robinson embodied when race was used as a similar denigrating factor nearly 70 years ago -- the society is changing in a way that must be accompanied by individual behavioral and attitudinal change, as well.
Rice berated his players with gay slurs (stressed with expletives) ostensibly for the purpose of instilling toughness in them, for the purpose of making them stronger, tougher, battle-tested men. This is nothing new, and the mistake would be to isolate him as the problem. Boys are inundated with similar assaults in the pop culture and their daily lives, whether it be music or Hollywood or from coaches.
The differences are not so great historically. African-Americans fought in wars -- for a country that did not provide them basic citizenship rights -- to prove not only their worthiness as patriotic, full-blooded Americans but also to break the stereotype that blacks were not as physically tough, not as committed and not as dedicated or patriotic as whites. It was an attitude reinforced by racist, diminutive speech, just as a million coaches have done with gay slurs. Negative caricature permeated culture, too, spread by all the popular media, including Hollywood, which depicted black characters as stereotypically frightened, eyes bulging or as the scared, unsophisticated tribesman calmed by the steely nerves of the great white hunter (countless Indiana Jones-style characters), the dynamics no different or less damaging than today's effeminate stereotyping of gay men or advertising that emphasizes hyper-masculinity.
Segregation, though, was dismantled structurally. Laws were changed. Rights were fought for and ultimately granted. The injustices were so obvious as to be unavoidable. There are similar efforts underway today regarding marriage and discrimination. The conflicts that lawmakers and courts can't solve are the unwritten male cultural codes that have enormous consequences but continue to be tolerated as acceptable.
Without change in the culture, the speech and attitude, it will be impossible for sports (or for that matter the average office environment) to reach the goal of tolerance implied by a meritocracy. If Bobby Knight or Mike Rice or a million high school coaches can belittle and bully players and have it be an acceptable motivational tool, it is then unrealistic, in such an environment, to expect a gay player to come out. If it is acceptable for boys to be taught that women, either by definition or because of their anatomy, represent the epitome of weakness, it is then realistic to expect multiple repeats of Steubenville and countless other lower-profile assaults. One less-discussed element of the collateral damage from the Rice video was the number of potential good players from the youth ranks who may not want to play sports because of the stifling pressure to adopt these attitudes.
The societal parallels are not clean, but in 1945, when Robinson was humiliated by the Boston Red Sox and even for several years after he broke the barrier in 1947, there existed great pessimism that blacks and whites would be able to work together, even if the activity was merely hitting a ball with a stick. It was conceivable to put a man on the moon before anyone imagined it possible to elect a black president. At one point in time even the most imaginative and optimistic corners of America could not envision a nation without slavery, and after that without prolonged legal inequality.
Obstructionists at every moment of social change promised apocalyptic outcomes, yet the country is still here. The impossible has not only been possible, but is becoming normal. The same is true in this 21st century moment, when encouragement for more openness, more tolerance, more acceptance is supposedly higher than ever even as the attitudinal conventions, the language, the peer pressure remain the same. The competition is compelling as always, and the athletic battlegrounds remain the same, but it is past time to build a new way to teach, coach and draw the best out of boys and young men. There must be a thousand different and better ways to express toughness.