By Ralph Wiley
Page 2 columnist
Whenever a choice of actions, reactions, or just a fork in the road confront today's black athletes, they should all pause, then ask themselves one question: "What would Jackie Robinson do?"
If he could come back from being dead and gone for 31 years, the first thing he'd do is shake somebody's hand in baseball until it made a splintering sound and the guy drew back a nub. Bud Selig would be as good a place as any to start, but I get the feeling Jackie would be passing out handshakes all around. For it is the NFL, pro and college football, and not baseball, that trails in society, in its minority hiring practice for field managers or head coaches. It is the NBA and college basketball, not baseball, which needs lessons in self-control, discipline, manhood -- or a shot to the teeth. Jackie Robinson was adept at passing out all three lessons.
Jackie would start a consulting clearinghouse where he and his staff's steely-eyed personal interviews would determine if a head coaching or managerial candidate had the goods, or was just riding on someone else's coattails.
Some 37 percent of head coaches in the NBA are minority, in this case, African-American. Jackie Robinson would say, "That's how it should be, isn't it? Coaches in the NBA are not what I want to talk about. I want to talk about a--holes."
As for all these would-be Thugs and Killers in the NBA, waiting for people in parking lots and by loading docks and near benches, wanting to throw hands and sling lead, like they are all answering casting calls for revivals of "West Side Story," or "Colors" ... all that trash-talking and beating on their chests, Jackie would have two words them:
"Try me, sucker, tough guy, front-runner. Try me, after I've given up the better part of my life and all of my old age by holding in my righteous anger and rage at really deserving subjects who were trying to hurt me, and keep me from making a living, and keep me from making a future for you or your children, a future that you in your malignant ignorance are now screwing up royally for those who follow you. You think the world owes you a living, jerk? Don't you know anything, fool-ass boy? Who died and made you Prince of Mid-Air? If it weren't for me, you'd be jumping over dog poop in the backyard for free. Think being rich is your divine and selfish right, clown? Yes, you, you're nothing but a clown. A weak, stupid clown. And you're actually dangerous. Dangerous to yourself, to your family and to my legacy. And if you don't like it, Mills, Rasheed, Ron Artest, then come get some."
You think the NBA bullies would be offended? Probably. Just about everything offends them, when they are not abusing women or the refs. Then they'd be offended again, by Jackie Robinson picking them out for it, by everything except their own selfish acts of cruelty and disrespect, not only of authority but themselves and their peers. We know where the underlying hate comes from -- the jealousy, the envy, and the long history of scientific bigotry as moral backbone for economic exploitation. That part's easy to figure, Jackie would think. Not really all that easy to deal with, but at least familiar. At least there is nobility in a fight against such evil. But where did all this self-hate come from? Where is the nobility in that? I think Jackie Robinson would think about that long and hard, and curse the men who left these babies to grow up into giants who don't know how to be men. He might blame music. He might blame movies. But, mostly, Jackie would blame them. Jackie would say, "You're not a man. You're a punk."
In retort, think the NBA or NFL bullies would want some of Jackie Robinson bare-knuckled? I can pretty much guarantee you -- not.
You didn't want any of that -- believe me. I don't know if even Chuck Bednarik, Jim Brown, Paul Bunyan, Sonny Liston, Luca Brasi and Bill the Butcher put together would want any of that. In fact, I know they wouldn't. They'd have too much respect to try.
That's so much of what's missing today -- respect. It's something that's not given. It must be earned. Only thing is, people are so confused today, they can't tell who has earned it or how.
At heart, down deep, Jackie Robinson was pure football player. He even approached playing baseball that way. Today, only eight percent of head coaches in the NFL are minorities. Jackie would glower and fume about this, and ask for a meeting, and get it, and odds are you wouldn't need Cochran & Mehri. I'd like to see the 49ers blow off Jackie Robinson.
Jackie would go to pro football mad today, because that's where a problem lies. He'd call for a Congressional hearing into the matter of both pro and college football hiring practices, where there are three black head coaches out of 117 at the Division I-A level. But he'd start with pro football, because pro football today it is what baseball used to be when Jackie played. It is the revealer of the national character, it is the great national pastime, it is that which you'd better understand if you want to know America. It is the map of our hearts and minds.
Jackie would demand accountability, because the NFL is essentially operated like a public trust, with its own Congressional antitrust exemptions and taxpayer-financed superstadia initiatives holding up municipalities for millions of taxpayers' dollars. Jackie Robinson would demand some kind of accountability for this taxation without representation. His blood pressure would rise if remedies weren't forthcoming. That's what blinded and killed the mighty Jackie at 53, hypertension and diabetes, a pounding in his veins, a deferred, internalized need and desire to see himself and his people (and yours) free to live, excel or fail on their own merit.
Would Jackie Robinson have lived longer today, with better health care and meds, but still in this current climate of screed, dogma, diatribe, hate-eration, than he did live in helping to overcome the system of exploitive segregation? He'd probably live just long enough to ask the new national game of football some questions. Like, how in hell do you hire Dennis Erickson over Denny Green? Explain that to him.
Jackie would save some heat for the rank and file of the players.
Jackie Robinson, who was born in Cairo, Ga., back when a black man trying to be nothing but a man would be meant for a chain gang, if not death, would be surprised to see the SEC football teams now being populated mostly by young African-Americans, particularly young African-Americans who had no use for going to college. Jackie had been like that back at UCLA, and he was always sorry for it. He never saw a black SEC football player until the end, if he saw one then, in the era of the Bryants, Vaughts, Jordans and Buttses. Black bodies on the field but none of their faces in coaching boxes or graduating classes would trouble him.
He'd wonder if they'd gone from cotton fields to playing fields. He wouldn't need Jesse Jackson to speak for him on it. He wouldn't abide Al Sharpton speaking for him on it. He'd be his own man.
He'd think the old, tried-and-true system of exploiting free labor was so advantageous to those receiving the fruits of those labors, that it would never change, not without a demand. Jackie Robinson would spit in a spluttering rage that zero African-Americans had ever been head football coaches at taxpayer-driven, public state universities making up most of the SEC. "Unacceptable," he'd say.
Jackie Robinson would demand an audience with all the university presidents. He'd have Myles Brand on speed dial. He'd make the NCAA think it stood for, "Need to Catch African-Americans."
Jackie Robinson was the shotgun in the marriage between black and white, and although many of us belittle that marriage until this day -- looking at each other and rolling our eyes and saying, "Yeah, that's my skank old lady" -- we enjoy it when we win a national title or a war or big-time profits with the help of "The Other One." If they were going to budge the university presidents' hearts and minds, the way Jackie and Branch Rickey did with American hearts and minds, then that's what it was going to take, someone with the character, the fire, the shoulders, the stomach, the heart of a Jackie Robinson.
Jack would be backed by some very powerful people. Tyrone Willingham is too busy coaching Notre Dame to meet with university presidents. But Jackie Robinson wouldn't be -- not today. What's Michael Jordan's excuse? Busy shooting commercials for glorified flavored water?
Jackie Robinson would be the one guy who could make Jordan or Richard Williams or Earl Woods listen to him in rapt awe.
At the same time, Jackie would admire Jordan and Serena and Venus and Tiger to the nth degree for their on-field prowess. And when they were eventually resented and examined and their loyalties tested, as his were, Jackie would tell them it's no big thing, and to keep going, to be true to themselves, to their country, and to what's right. Jackie never put the cart before the horse. He always knew nobody would care what he said, thought or believed until he had given them a reason to, until he'd shown his skill, talent, tenacity, fearlessness, durability, and ability to win and be a team player on the field over time. You don't make an icon over the weekend. That's when people paid attention to him, over time. He'd get that across to Tiger.
Jackie Robinson would have zero tolerance for the malingerers, the guys who get their big-contract and sit there practicing their excuses while waiting for the next limo. He'd dismiss weak black coaches quicker than Sgt. Waters dismissed Pvt. Memphis.
Yes, Jackie would be cold to any inferior black coaches who thought getting a job via protest was the end of the line. "We can't afford you," Jackie would say, echoing Sgt. Waters in "A Soldier's Story." They were no different than the inferior white coaches who thought getting a job via inheritance was the end of the line. Jackie would have pink slips and resumes flying around so fast we'd all think it was a ticker-tape parade. Jackie would be the judge of who could coach. We could trust him. Who else?
Jackie Robinson would nod his head knowingly at the people who call into the sports talk shows in Lexington and say they hope Tubby Smith gets beat by L'ullville in the national championship game -- just so they can get rid of him. Jackie would nod because he knows the intractability of racism. He could see how well the Kentucky team, featuring five black starters and a black coach, played the beautiful game, the team passing game of basketball. Jackie would call up Tubby and tell him the UCLA job was better; Jack could get Tub interviewed.
But Jackie would have never left baseball alone for long.
Jackie would say, "Put Pete Rose's ass in the Hall of Fame; you hypocritical S.O.B.s! A lot of people didn't want me in the Hall either; my 'crime' was that my skin was black. That too was a crapshoot. I had no idea what color I'd be before I came out. I'm my mother's color. Got a problem with that?" If Jackie were to ask you that, I'd advise this answer: "No. No, sir. Not at all, sir."
Jackie would say that Vida Pinson and Frank Robinson and Curt Flood had good things to say about Pete, because he hung out on the wrong side of the dugout with them when they all were young, because he was from the wrong side of the tracks and some of his teammates -- like Wally Post and big Klu -- had no use for the kid. 4,196 hits later -- let him in the Hall, Jackie would say. But don't let him back into organized baseball, because I saw from above where he screwed up the lineup card a few times, thereby disqualifying some of his hitters, and we can never condone compromising the integrity of the game.
Jackie would look around at Tony Pena in K.C., Jerry Manuel and Dusty Baker in Chicago, Frank Robinson in Montreal (and Puerto Rico) Lloyd McClendon in Pittsburgh ("Say, that's one of Pete's boys in Cincinnati, isn't it!") and say that it was pretty good.
When Jackie gave his farewell address in what was then the new Riverfront Stadium in 1972, across town from Crosley Field where he had been booed and cursed and threatened as a black man trying to play a game of baseball in May of 1947, he said he dreamed of the day when he'd look out there and see those black managers.
So Jackie would be proud of baseball in that sense, in comparison to the NFL, and in the sense that baseball has progressed; a game once taught with such ignorance and blatant bigotry would have tried to pull itself up, to recognize that it was the one game that didn't discriminate, not in terms of national or continental origin or physical size or anything else. It was a game of skill, and of recognizing skills, and of deploying skills, and a black or brown man could do any of that as well as a white one. And vice versa.
Jackie Robinson would be the unofficial commissioner of baseball, in fact. He'd call up Sandy Koufax and Henry Aaron, and they would be his advisory committee. In fact, Jackie Robinson might be the unofficial czar of all sports. They gave the wrong guy the right name. It should have been Jackie "Mountain" Robinson.
But then, what would you expect? The side opposite of Jackie Robinson isn't the black or white side. It's the wrong side.
Jackie would call up former Yankees GM Bob Watson and current ChiSox GM Kenny Williams. And Jackie would say to them and others who never had to go through the fire that he did, "You've got to replace yourselves with guys who can be like Mr. Rickey, who see the future, one possible future, and who see the inherent, intrinsic value in people. Don't let it stop with just you. ID the talent. Help it develop, then let it flow free."
That's what Jackie "%@#&%!" Robinson would do.
If Jackie Robinson were around today, I get the uneasy feeling that he would take one look around at the wide, wide world of sports, at what's been done, and undone, and what's left to do, and for all his strength, power, versatility, and relentlessness, I believe he'd start to cry. What I don't know is whether they'd be tears of joy or pain.
Then he'd do something.
Ralph Wiley spent nine years at Sports Illustrated and wrote 28 cover stories on celebrity athletes. He is the author of several books, including "Best Seat in the House," with Spike Lee, "Born to Play: The Eric Davis Story," and "Serenity, A Boxing Memoir."