A Changed America: Sport helped level the playing field

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Sport can't cause a society to change course suddenly, the way this earthquake of an election can. Instead, like an aftershock, sport produces ripples that nudge people in a different direction.

It's far from the biggest reason Barack Obama was swept to the threshold of the White House late Tuesday night. The civil-rights movement, political realities and the inclusion of blacks in the military had much more to do with making race matter less in this presidential season.

Yet sport was one reason the election played out in a way that was almost unimaginable to your father let alone his father.

A level playing field has long been one of the few places that produces fair results. Competitors rise or fall on their merits. They become leaders or followers based on their ability to command. No one who saw Jesse Owens run, Muhammad Ali box, Michael Jordan soar, or Tiger Woods play golf -- whether in grainy film clips, on HD or in person -- could deny their successes or fail to admire them, if only grudgingly a generation or two ago.

Trust takes time to develop, and it's difficult to pinpoint the moment when those attitudes shifted from simply watching to active support.

But it's clear the current generation is already there. Chances are good they grew up rooting for a high school or college quarterback, point guard or first baseman whose skin color was different from their own.

Race will remain a divisive force for a long time to come, but the fact that so many diverse kids dress, talk and play ball alike suggests the gap might actually be closing.

In the February edition of Golf Digest, when the primaries were still playing out, columnist Jaime Diaz wrote that the rise of Woods had helped pave the way for Obama's ascension. The premise seemed provocative enough to Richard Lapchick and Harry Edwards, two men who have studied the intersection of race and sports in American society for decades, that each advised him not to go there. Lapchick, who heads the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport, called it a "stretch that I had not considered before."

It's a stretch, to be sure, but mostly because it doesn't go back far enough.

Few of us were around in 1936, when a slim black man strained for opportunity and leaped into immortality. Despite the less-than-enthusiastic backing of most of his countrymen, Owens won four gold medals at the Berlin Olympics, and in the bargain exposed the claim of white superiority for the silliness that it was.

It would be nice to recall Owens being embraced on his return home, but it would also be wrong. More than a decade passed before any blacks were accorded similar opportunities in pro sports, and Owens had to eke out a living at jobs that had nothing to do with his talent.

But at Owens' funeral in 1980, activist Dick Gregory told a story about the impact the man had on his life and, indirectly, on more than a few others.

It began with Gregory remembering how he would run through both his own black neighborhood and adjoining white areas on his way to school, and how, after Owens' signature achievement, he could run the entire route for the first time with his head held high.

"White folks would look out the window and see me running to the streetcar and call me 'Jesse Owens,'" Gregory said. "Jesse created an atmosphere that gave a lot of white folks, who never thought about calling us black folks anything other than 'n-----,' a word they could handle that was respectful and nice."

By the time of Owens' passing, sport was a different place.

Robinson had long since forced owners to acknowledge a shameful past and integrate teams in every sport. Ali's principled defiance taught everyone there was no turning back to the old ways. Then came Jordan, so clutch that rooting against him was a waste of time.

There were too many others, before and since, in the evolution and acceptance by the wider sporting public to call any list comprehensive. But there's no question who occupies the top spot. To decide for yourself whether Woods' crossover appeal is considerable enough to have smoothed out a few of the bumps in Obama's path, read the Golf Digest article.

This is how it ends:

"Here's the big difference so far: Woods has achieved truly great things in his field, while Obama has yet to. But I'm convinced, for reasons mostly visceral but nonetheless real, Woods has helped people believe that Obama will."

I was standing on the lawn behind the clubhouse at the Masters on that Sunday morning in 1997, when Woods made people begin to believe. Past champions, current players, Augusta National members and assorted captains of industry -- nearly all of them white -- stood mesmerized, elbow to elbow in the shade of a great live oak alongside the first tee.

At the last moment, the line was extended by a half-dozen or so clubhouse and kitchen attendants -- nearly all of them black -- carrying their jackets and aprons. As Woods' tee shot receded in the distance, everyone exhaled and began cheering as Woods were one of their own. Considering the challenges the new president is about to face, that's not a bad place to start.



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