It's always dangerous, but never boring, when a newspaper sports columnist uncorks a political thesis. Enter Mike Bianchi of the Orlando Sentinel. Bianchi thinks that there are some unsung heroes who deserve credit for helping put a black man in the White House—and they are athletes.
"If you're searching for tangible reasons why it became possible for Barack Obama to make his historic run at the presidency ... look no further than the golf course, basketball court or football field."
Bianchi believes that, since sports have conditioned white America to accept African-Americans as heroes and leaders, black sportsmen deserve a pat on the back. He wonders: "Where else but sports can you go to Amway Arena and see 15,000 mostly white fans cheer and celebrate the accomplishments of a team that is mostly black?"
Sounds lovely. But it happens to be embarrassingly wrong—and an insult to the reason that millions waited on long lines to cast their vote.
For more than a century, masses of white audiences have cheered black entertainers and athletes. And for most of that time, blacks struggled mightily to climb the corporate or political ladder. Why? Because being wowed by the ability of blacks to perform on a field or stage is not in the same ballpark as accepting their political leadership. Not even close.
More to the point, the rare black athletes who have dared to make waves have been pilloried for not knowing their place. After men like Jack Johnson, Muhammad Ali, Tommie Smith and John Carlos got too political, the phrase "just shut up and play" emerged—to smack down future jocks for trying to do more than entertain.
This is not just a hypocrisy of the musty past. On Thursday, Denver Broncos wide receiver Brandon Marshall caught the winning touchdown pass against the Cleveland Browns. He then—horror of horrors—wanted to take out a black and white glove to make a statement. "I wanted to create that symbol of unity because Obama inspires me, our multicultured society," he later said.
But we will never know how the public might have received even this tame message because teammates, led by Brandon Stokely, put the kibosh on him. Commentators then came down on Marshall like blitzing linebackers. ESPN anchor Neil Everett said, "It's not about you and what you think. It's about the team."
Our sport-mad culture has hardly softened the ground for black political leadership. If anything, it's produced a value system that prizes material gain and the almighty scoreboard over any kind of collective responsibility.
This is seen even more clearly when we look at the three figures that Bianchi holds up as the most crucial trailblazers: Michael Jordan, Tiger Woods and Indianapolis Colts coach Tony Dungy.
Bianchi writes, "the two most successful product pitchmen of the modern era—Tiger and Michael Jordan—are both black men who won over white corporate America."
But at what cost? These are also the two most aggressively apolitical athletes to ever walk the earth. They live by the creed that taking serious stands gets in the way of good business. If anything, Obama has had to overcome the racial landscape these two have charted, which says you must wear the cool mask and betray nothing.
Dungy is a different case. One of the most respected coaches in the NFL, he is also an evangelical Christian who has raised funds for the Indiana Family Institute. IFI organizes anti-gay marriage initiatives and takes part in the process of what's called "praying the gay away."
In fact, when you think about it, Woods, Jordan, and Dungy—signifying respectively disengagement, corporate greed and the right-wing side of the culture wars—hold the values many voters wanted to repudiate.
No doubt, black American athletes unafraid to be political will be part of charting us out of this wilderness. But it will not be those content to be money-making sideshows when the main stage is a real-world battle for change.