Commentary

Derek Jeter embodies MLK's dream

Biracial Yankees captain a symbol of the America Martin Luther King once envisioned

Updated: January 17, 2012, 1:00 PM ET
By Wallace Matthews | ESPNNewYork.com

When the average person thinks of Derek Jeter, he or she is likely to think of the 3,000 hits, or the five World Series rings, or the highlight reel full of great plays he has made over the past 16 years for the New York Yankees.

They are likely to linger on the countless clutch hits he has delivered in key moments, or the 2000 World Series MVP, or the fact he has been captain of the Yankees for nearly a decade and the face of the franchise for considerably longer than that.

It is a safe bet that for most people, one of the last things they think about when they think about Derek Jeter is his race. Or, more correctly, his races.

[+] EnlargeJeter
Jim McIsaac/Getty ImagesYankees captain Derek Jeter (pictured with his mother, father and sister) is the product of a mixed-race marriage.

To all the remarkable accomplishments Jeter has achieved in his Cooperstown-bound baseball career, add one that few of us ever bother to think about -- that Jeter is the product of a mixed-race marriage, a happenstance that at one time would have caused him to suffer hardship, if not scorn, from many, but now is just another fact in the Derek Jeter biography.

As we celebrate Martin Luther King Day, it is important to understand that of all the things Derek Jeter is, one of the most significant is that he is a symbol of the kind of America Dr. King hoped one day to live in.

When he said in his most famous speech, delivered from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial on Aug. 28, 1963, "I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character," he could well have been talking about Derek Jeter.

Because as ESPN New York's Ian O'Connor wrote in "The Captain," his excellently written and researched biography of Jeter, his childhood was hardly free of racism.

The son of a white mother and a black father, Jeter experienced racial prejudice from both groups as a boy growing up in Kalamazoo, Mich., and playing in the minor leagues down south. Even as recently as 2006, according to O'Connor, Jeter received a "racially-tinged threat" in his mail at Yankee Stadium, a threat the NYPD's Hate Crimes Unit considered serious enough to investigate.

Even a former teammate, Gary Sheffield, stung him by saying "he ain't all the way black" in an HBO interview in 2007.

So the issue remains real to many people of all races, but somehow, Jeter has managed to transcend it by becoming a role model who cuts across racial and ethnic lines.

Jeter, always wary of discussing topics outside of his comfort zone -- the baseball diamond -- declined a request to be interviewed for this story.

But Dr. Harry Edwards, a sociologist and black activist of the 1960s who has spoken and written extensively on the subject of race and professional athletics, explained Jeter's appeal as a combination both of his unique attributes as an athlete and individual, and as a sign that the United States, throughout its history often bitterly divided along racial, ethnic and territorial lines, is moving toward an era of diversity and inclusion.

"I think it's absolutely appropriate in the 21st century that a Derek Jeter should be the face of the premier baseball team in this country," Edwards said. "When you talk about leadership and production and consistency and durability over the years, what he has achieved and what he has accomplished, and more than that, the way that he has done it is just absolutely phenomenal. He is one of our real athletic heroes and role models to the point that his race or ethnicity does not matter."

While it is true that sports fans are notorious for forgiving their heroes just about anything, the fact Jeter is one of the few Yankees who is respected and even admired by his bitterest rivals -- not even Mets or Red Sox can hate him -- points to the fact Jeter appeals to a lot more than just Yankees fans.

So, too, does his endorsement portfolio, which runs the gamut from shaving products to colognes to whiskey to automobiles. The fact he is of mixed race makes it in some ways even more remarkable, because as Edwards points out, biracial individuals are often scorned by both races.

And, says Edwards, the fact Jeter has achieved his remarkable crossover popularity by adopting a public persona that is as bland, non-offensive and non-controversial as possible should not be seen as a character flaw but as a sign of progress.

"It is unfair and uninformed to expect 21st-century athletes to replicate the kind of stands taken by past generations of athletes," said Edwards, who was a key player in the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s and headed the Olympic Project for Human Rights, a protest group that led directly to the "Black Power" salutes of U.S. Olympians John Carlos and Tommie Smith at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City.

As Edwards points out, Carlos and Smith were criticized by Jesse Owens, who adopted a much more passive -- but similarly effective -- approach to the racial prejudice of Adolf Hitler at the 1936 Olympics in Munich: He went out and won four gold medals.

Similarly, Muhammad Ali was criticized by Joe Louis for his activism and braggadocio, as was Bill Russell for not being more like the Harlem Globetrotters.

Time has proven all of their actions to have been right in the context of their eras, as were those of the athletes who preceded them in their own.

Edwards sees the rise of Jeter as the natural progression from Jackie Robinson, who paved the way for African-American ballplayers by dealing with the racial prejudice of the 1940s in a way that might not be considered appropriate today.

And he does not consider the burnishing of Jeter's public image for economic gain as a form of sellout, but as the natural result of the fights that were waged by his predecessors.

"The same way Joe Louis opened the door for Muhammad Ali and Jesse Owens paved the way for Carlos and Smith, Jackie opened the door for Derek Jeter to become an athletic and economic force," he said. "That is not a reason for despair but for celebration. The struggle is perpetual and we need to allow this generation to approach it in their own way. What makes us think their way is any less valid than our way was?"

What, indeed?

Derek Jeter's way, the way of hard work, discipline and exemplary behavior, would have made Dr. King proud.

It certainly has made proud those of us who have had the privilege of watching him, regardless of race, creed or uniform.

Wallace Matthews has covered New York sports since 1983 as a reporter, columnist, radio host and TV commentator. He covers the Yankees for ESPNNewYork.com after working for Newsday, the New York Post, the New York Sun and ESPN New York 98.7 FM.
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