ESPN, Veterans Day and the African-American Experience

Dexter RogersCorrespondent INovember 10, 2010

SANDY, UT - NOVEMBER 6: A large American flag is displayed on the field before a game against Real Salt Lake and FC Dallas at an MLS play off game November 6, 2010 at Rio Tinto Stadium in Sandy, Utah. Real Slat Lake and FC Dallas tied 1-1 but Dallas won the two game series 3-2 to advance into the play offs. (Photo by George Frey/Getty Images) *** Local Caption
George Frey/Getty Images

This week I watched ESPN as I usually do to spruce up on the happenings in sports.  Outside the Lines was airing a special titled “America's Heroes.”  It was a salute to the veterans in society and in sports, who historically have made America safe.

The special focused on World War II and the role of Major League Baseball. We all know what happened at Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941.  It was "a date which will live in infamy.”

During World War II Major League Baseball was Americas’ favorite pastime.  Baseball players flocked to serve their country.  The likes of Ted Williams, Joe DiMaggio, and Hank Greenberg served their country without batting an eye. 

Over 500 Major League players served during World War II.  The athletes, along with other Americans, were depicted as heroes who sacrificed it all in the name of American Democracy. 

The interesting part about the show is that it didn’t feature one African-American face the entire time.  ESPN host Bob Ley and his ESPN producers failed to mention the role of African-Americans or even show one African-American face during the 30-minute show.

During the 1940’s African-Americans were not embraced in society, sports or the military.  It was a reflection of the ideological framework which prevailed in society which didn’t view African-Americans as being viable citizens because of systemic racism.

African-Americans played Americas’ favorite pastime in 1941, but it wasn’t in the Major Leagues: They had to establish a league of their own in 1920 called the Negro Leagues.  Americas’ favorite pastime didn’t allow all Americans to play the due to race.  America was a society that professed to be a free democratic society, yet those proclamations didn’t extend to the lives of African-Americans in society and sports.

If America's game was truly American, how come all were not welcome to play?

In the 1940’s American society was divided along racial lines, as was the military and baseball.  During World War II African-Americans served the country as well.  Many of those who served were forced to hold menial jobs such as cooks and janitors.  Furthermore, they were not allowed to serve in the same units as whites. 

The most famous African-American solider during World War II was the heavyweight champion of the world Joe Louis.  At the prime of his career Louis served his country by joining the Army in 1942.  He donated large sums of money to the Army and Navy relief funds.  He was a true patriot who sacrificed his career for a country he truly believed in. 

It’s too bad the country Louis loved so deeply didn’t totally believe in him.

While Louis held the most important title in sports, at the end of the day he was still an African-American solider.  That meant even the heavyweight champion of the entire world couldn’t serve with white soldiers.  Louis was given a token Sergeant position where he was in charge of an all-African-American unit.

After Louis returned to the boxing ring he amassed a large IRS debt stemming from the donations he gave to the Army and Navy relief funds.  A simple accounting error that could have instantly been forgiven by the IRS turned into a $1 million debt that destroyed Louis in his later years.

For a man who famously professed “We will win because we are on God’s side” during World War II, despite attaining iconic status in the ring, he was treated second-class as a citizen once the dust settled.

When the Japanese dropped that bomb on Pearl Harbor in 1941, facts indicate African-Americans in society were deemed inferior to whites. Within the realm of American sports, African-Americans were not permitted to play in the Major Leagues because of racism.

As I watched this ESPN special that didn’t feature one African-American face during the entire segment I began to think of their historic contributions and the hypocrisy that has blanketed America for centuries.

Slaves fought doing the Civil War. History demonstrates they were instrumental in helping the North defeat the persistent South.  Obviously slaves were deemed inferior because of the status they occupied. Yet when the rubber hit the pavement, President Abraham Lincoln reluctantly allowed slaves to take up arms, and that is when the tide turned for the better.

Muhammad Ali didn’t fight in Vietnam War.  He proclaimed, “I don’t have no quarrel with them Vietcong.”

In 1967 Ali failed to step forward and fight in a war that was against his religious beliefs.  Ali also consistently stated that his enemies were not abroad but in America.  He found it to be a major contradiction to fight a people who had nothing to do with the racism he and other African-Americans faced upon American soil.

Ali faced a tremendous amount of ridicule for standing up the United States government.  But many of those who initially expressed disdain for Ali over time realized he was right because the war was wrong. 

During the Vietnam War, like most wars, African-Americans fought hard and died for a freedom whites didn’t want to extend to them in mainstream America.  African-Americans died at a much higher rate than their white counterparts as well. 

I understand why African-Americans don’t just get their due respect.  Mainstream media is dominated by whites and so are the vast majority of the textbooks written that are utilized to educate the masses.

According to The Institute of Diversity and Ethics in Sports, well over 90 percent of the mainstream media outlets are run by white males.  Furthermore, just 8 percent of professors at institutions of higher learning are people of color. 

Therefore, it is logical to assert that much of what is disseminated in mainstream media and what’s being taught at colleges across this country is from a white vantage point that often omits and or distorts the legacy of the African-American citizen and athlete.

This isn’t about my being racist.  That accusation falls on deaf ears.  This is about giving an overall depiction of contributions that are often not considered to any substantial degree. 

History should not be documented as HIS STORY but as history.  Once everything is on the table, one can make logical conclusions based on the historical transgressions and who were involved.

Jack Nicholson famously stated in the movie A Few Good Men that “You can’t handle the truth.”  History should be documented in fashion where it gives everyone an accurate depiction of what transpired along racial lines, whether it is uncomfortable or not. 

In short, failing to regard what transpired in its entirety from a historical standpoint is lying.  In essence ESPN’s special could have been named “Americas’ White Heroes” instead of “Americas’ Heroes.”

As you celebrate the contributions of veterans in this country past and present, consider it in its entirety and not in fragments. 

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