Tackling Social Justice By Fighting Whitewashing In Professional Football
I find the retelling of history often to be a problematic exercise. As we evolve, looking back becomes very uncomfortable and the stories and narratives reflect today’s sensibilities more than the time period itself. We recast our heroes as infallible, and the villains aren’t afforded a retrial in the court of public opinion.
There are other techniques we use when altering the narrative of sports: erasure. When history leaves a pile so repulsive, we are unable to spin it in a favorable manner — don’t mention it, pretend it never happened, or make it disappear. Worst of all for the forgotten man, all of his great accomplishments will be forever foreshadowed by his bad acts.
When it comes to bad acts, nothing will get you redacted from the history books quite like racism. While pioneers like Ernie Davis, Fritz Pollard and Doug Williams are rightfully acknowledged for fighting racial stigmas, the racists who opposed their inclusions are largely faceless ghosts. Of course they existed, but better to not mention them individually, because then the public would have to acknowledge their contribution. I mean when’s the last time you heard the name George Preston Marshall? While Marshall is shunned for his overt racism against blacks, the derogatory name of his team still remains. The lazy historical narratives allow this hypocrisy to exist. Rather than explore the issues, omitting the uncomfortable becomes a cop out from actually tackling some of the persisting social problems within the league.
The same goes for another forgotten pioneer in football: Jimmy “the Greek” Snyder. Snyder’s off-the-cuff remarks where he claimed that “the black is a better athlete to begin with because he's been bred to be that way” — I never mistook Snyder for an anthropologist or a doctor — stung. However, what’s forgotten is that for as much as times have changed and those comments seem outdated, many of the principles remain when evaluating athletes of different racial backgrounds.
Now the issue of the day is sexual preferences in the football locker room. Because this is America and the media monster needs to be fed, there will be gaggles of reporters waiting to catch the homophobe in a Snyder moment or find the Marshall willing to publicly deny an openly gay player a spot on their team. The treatment of Michael Sam over the next few months will go far in defining this sports generation. Intolerance and homophobia won’t be tolerated by the masses. One of the most glaring examples was David Tyree’s anti-gay marriage infomercial. For all of the heroism and goodwill that Tyree earned with the infamous helmet catch, his comments in the infomercial raised eyebrows and enemies. Time will tell how we view Tyree long-term. After all, the helmet catch can still be remembered without the presence of Tyree’s name attached.
The issues going forward will be challenging and murky, and sports figures are likely to handle them in a clumsy manner. But embracing the complexity will keep the dialogue fresh and, therefore, relevant. With sports embracing our modern civil rights struggle, perhaps it has learned a thing or two from the integration of African-Americans in sports. If not, 40 years from now we will still be debating the merits of the “F-word”.