Black History Month

Tuesday, March 4
Where is today's Jackie Robinson?

By David Steele
Special to

Fifty-six years ago this month, Jackie Robinson was making his historic debut at spring training with a major-league team. Thirty-nine years ago, Cassius Clay was following up his ascent to the heavyweight boxing throne with a religious conversion that shocked America. Thirty-five years ago, Tommie Smith and John Carlos were deep in discussion about whether the nation's premier black athletes should boycott the upcoming Summer Olympic Games. Ten years ago, Arthur Ashe died after a lifetime of activism on nearly every front imaginable.

Jackie Robinson broke sports' color barrier in 1947, but today's athletes aren't keeping up his pace for change.
Those men, and many others from their respective eras, left enormous footprints that many are convinced today's most prominent African-American athletes don't come close to filling. It's accepted almost as gospel that these athletes are too wealthy, isolated, unconcerned, self-absorbed or uninformed -- or some combination of them all -- to take the sort of stands their iconic forebears did routinely. Michael Jordan, Tiger Woods, all the others that have achieved unprecedented riches and fame that crosses color lines -- none seem to have a fraction of the social awareness or responsibility the Alis, Smiths, Ashes, Jim Browns and Oscar Robertsons took for granted.

It's a pervasive and convincing image. But it isn't necessarily accurate. The perception of today's black athletes -- as well as the ones that preceded them -- depends on who's doing the perceiving. It doesn't split along generational lines as seamlessly as one might think.

For instance, there might not be a more eager defender of the athletes of today than a man who came of age during the 1960s and who counted outspoken athletes such as Wilt Chamberlain and Bill Russell as his teammates, colleagues and friends -- Al Attles, the Warriors' long-time player, coach and now an executive vice president with the franchise. And among the more socially active and well-informed of today's athletes, one who's not afraid to point out the shortcomings of his peers in this area, is a player on Attles' team, Golden State center Adonal Foyle.

"Guys talk about things all the time, in the locker room, on the buses, on planes, that sort of thing. They pay attention to what's going on," Foyle said, "but most athletes aren't secure enough to come out and talk publicly about it. Guys are so scared about the stigma of people saying, 'Stay within your sport, don't go outside your realm.' When you hear enough people say that you're an idiot if you talk about anything besides your sport, you're not going to step out and do much talking about it."

Foyle, in his sixth NBA season, has braved that stigma enough to start a college campus-based organization for political campaign finance reform, Democracy Matters, that has grown to more than 150 students on 46 campuses in the three years of its existence. He never hesitated to trade on his additional recognition and his increased wealth to work on a cause that meant something to him.

Attles is convinced that Foyle is not alone among athletes, but that their actions are more low-key -- and that they shouldn't be knocked for not being more up-front about it.

Bill Russell and Red Auerbach
Bill Russell struggled for acceptance in Boston despite all the championship he and Red Auerbach brought the Celtics during the 1960s.
"You're used to seeing in past days guys like Russell marching with Dr. King, guys going to demonstrations, guys being seen being active," Attles said. "Today, though, a lot of these players have foundations that you don't know about, you don't read about and you don't hear about. Teams have community relations departments, which is something we didn't have back then. Guys do things individually; sometimes they have to be told to do these things, and maybe that's not the way it should be done, but if it accomplishes the same goal, does it matter?"

"It's almost like apples and oranges" to compare how socially active athletes are today to three or four decades ago, Attles added.

Still, in the eyes of many, what is said and done in public is what counts, and to find examples of athletes taking a principled, possibly unpopular stand on issues related to African-Americans, one has to go back three or four decades. That's too far back to look, said Don Johnson, a longtime friend and business partner of Ashe who now runs tennis programs for the city of San Jose, Calif.

Johnson, one of the first blacks to coach tennis at a predominantly white college, New York's Pratt Institute, in the 1960s, saw up-close how many times Ashe stood up in the face of the injustices he saw in America and abroad, particularly in South Africa. When asked whether black athletes today ought to do the same thing, Johnson said without hesitation, "Yes. Hell, yes."

"They make more money than any of us could imagine, and most of them give nothing back," Johnson continued. "It's what they must do. But most of them won't, first of all because he's not going to stick his neck out and do something that might hurt their image, something that might affect how they're accepted by white people. They're afraid they'll fall off their little edge. They'd made a lot, they've succeeded where we never have before, and they now feel they have to stay in line."

That's precisely the argument Jordan and Woods hear. Jordan may never be allowed to forget the response he made the first time he was asked to use his name politically, back in the 1980s when Harvey Gantt was competing to be the first black senator from Jordan's home state of North Carolina. "Republicans buy shoes, too," he said. His belated interest in working conditions in the plants that sell the shoes he endorses never truly came to fruition, either.

Woods, meanwhile, took a beating from those who believed he should have been more vocal from the beginning about the membership policy at Augusta National Golf Club; leading the dissent was none other than the New York Times, which urged him (but no other prominent golfer) to boycott the Masters this year. Woods' counter-argument was that while he believed the club should be opened to women, it wasn't his place to push for that change -- and opinion has been sharply divided on whether a groundbreaker like him can honestly believe that.

David Robinson
"Some people are more combative, out-front kind of people,' David Robinson says. "In order to make change, they have to kind of stir people up. I'm not like that though."
It's not so hard to believe or understand, said David Robinson of the San Antonio Spurs, who has been both admired and vilified for his low-key, soft-spoken nature in light of his enormous popularity.

"I think people have to play with what their personality is," Robinson said. "Some people are more combative, out-front kind of people. Some people like that, they like to fight and they like to stir people up. I like to challenge people more by example than to get in their faces and argue with them. You have the Al Sharptons who like to go out there and do that, and they have a role, too. In order to make change, they have to kind of stir people up. I'm not like that though."

Plus, Robinson doesn't necessarily believe that he has to be outspoken just because he's a well-known athlete. "That's always been a funny thing to me -- people don't know you, they get an impression of you from watching you on TV, like I did with my favorite players when I was growing up, but I never really felt like I knew them. I appreciated what they did on the floor, but I never really thought of them as my role models. I wanted to be more like them. I see now how kids look at us, but for me personally I never felt that way.

"Guys are 20 years old coming into this league. What do you expect? You have to be realistic," he said. "Idealistically, you want everybody to do the right thing and be an example, but it just doesn't happen all the time."

One of Robinson's contemporaries, Charles Barkley, has said almost the same thing for more than a decade, to widespread ridicule. Ironically, when he has spoken out about issues, especially concerning race, he has been routinely hooted down by the public. When in a national magazine article last spring he criticized Augusta's alteration of the Masters course as "blatant racism" designed to prevent Woods from dominating, the outcry didn't die down for weeks.

Meanwhile, the charitable work done by the majority of players in impoverished communities goes largely overlooked by the public. Jordan has heard criticism since early in his career about not "giving back to the community," especially in terms of the rough neighborhood surrounding the arena at which he once played in Chicago, yet his foundations have given close to $10 million to programs for area youths. Woods' foundation has, among other projects, started golf programs in inner-cities around the country.

Warrick Dunn
Falcons running back Warrick Dunn knows how to make something out of nothing, both on and off the field.
Robinson has achieved near-saint-like status in San Antonio for his work, which includes his building a charter school and pledging college scholarships to grade-school students who maintained good grades throughout high school. The Atlanta Falcons' Warrick Dunn is viewed similarly in his hometown of Baton Rouge, La., for his "Homes for the Holidays" program, building homes for families with single mothers, in honor of his own mother who was shot to death in a robbery while he was in high school.

In most of these cases, part of the goal is to inspire youth not only to achieve, but to give back after they do, and to be role models themselves rather than rely on celebrities to do it. "I try with kids to make sure they know that when they grow up they have a responsibility to come back to this community and make a difference," Robinson said.

Such work is also kept quiet, often to avoid any accusations that such community-based actions are done to polish the players' image. Yet it's the quiet in terms of social activism that still draws criticism. Even when it concerns sports itself, the silence is often deafening.

There might be no bigger hot-button issue in sports now than the hiring practices of NFL and college football teams, where African-Americans are being shut out at the same rate as a decade ago. A news conference was held in San Diego the week of the Super Bowl, in which lawyers Johnnie Cochran and Cyrus Mehri reiterated their plans to push the NFL for change, possibly with a class-action suit. Two retired NFL players, Kellen Winslow and Warren Moon, spoke passionately on the topic.

However, there were no current players on the scene, and none willing to talk openly about the issue, even though it affects them directly in their careers and could affect them if they want to go into coaching after retirement.

The scene is often repeated any time an issue involving race arises. The presence of the Confederate flag on the statehouse in South Carolina spurred several pull-outs by sports organizations and events -- including Serena and Venus Williams, who refused to play a tournament there in 2000. Woods, however, was noncommital about playing a tournament in Hilton Head that year, although he did decide to skip the event to rest up after the Masters.

The last two times the Super Bowl was played in Atlanta, reporters routinely asked participating players how they felt about the Confederate symbol on the Georgia state flag; they uniformly declined comment, sometimes angrily.

To say that players don't contribute to the community at large wouldn't really be fair. They just may not be out in the public about it the way they used to, for a lot of reasons.
Al Attles, Golden State Warriors assistant general manager
Ashe and his contemporaries would never be shy about such issues, said Johnson, his friend and associate.

"Those guys were pioneers. They had to fight for what they had, and they had to fight to hold on to what they had," Johnson said. "The athletes today don't have that same sense because they have so much, and they're afraid they're going to lose it all. Now they say, 'I may be feeling these things, but I can't say it. I've got to keep my job.' "

It all forms a contradictory and conflicting image: athletes that do a lot for their people, yet don't do much at all.

"To say that players don't contribute to the community at large wouldn't really be fair," Attles said. "They just may not be out in the public about it the way they used to, for a lot of reasons."

David Steele is a columnist with the San Francisco Chronicle and a contributor to

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