“The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.”
The above quote is attributed to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Like so many of his oft-shared quotes, it taps into the meaning of courage, the power of bravery, and the importance of standing up to adversity. But it could just as well have come from Vince Lombardi, John Wooden, or Michael Jordan, or any one of many sports coaches or professional athletes. Because the values that we aspire to reflect in our society: among them determination, hard work, and fairness; those same values, are inculcated in our sports.
Dr. King was not much of a sports star. That is, unless you count billiards. Nevertheless, he understood that sports is one of the lenses through which we examine some of the most important cultural issues of our day. Sports provides a common platform and a common language for people, and particularly men, to engage passionately. As Sports Illustrated noted in its MLK Day piece on the connections between Dr. King and the world of sports from years ago, “Dr. King understood with remarkable acuity the political and symbolic power of sports. He understood that the athletic field—and athletes—could be a powerful megaphone for civil rights and racial justice.”
Perhaps the most powerful example of the connection between sports and civil rights is the story of Jackie Robinson. As an eighteen-year-old, Dr. King himself watched and was inspired by Jackie Robinson’s breaking of the color barrier. Robinson’s breaking into Major League Baseball, and the controversy around it, put civil rights squarely in front of our society at large. Through sports. And it did it in a different light. It wasn’t a narrow academic debate of laws or a special-interests political protest. It was there on display, larger than life, on a baseball field. In front of everyone to see and to viscerally feel.
That can inspire broad social awareness. That can inspire broad social change.
Dr. King recognized this: that sports was one important path across the seemingly unbridgeable racial divide at the time. And later, Dr. King supported Jackie Robinson openly speaking out on civil rights issues when others urged him not to do so. King called Robinson “a pilgrim that walked in the lonesome byways toward the high road of Freedom. He was a sit-inner before sit-ins, a freedom rider before freedom rides.”
On Martin Luther King Day, 2014, the powerful story of Dr. King and Jackie Robinson was the first story that leapt to our mind here at Good Men Project Sports. But this is a jumping off point; not the end. This is not only about the appeal of famous and accomplished athletes to speak out on social issues. Nor is this limited to issues of civil rights or racial equality. The values that underpin our culture—good and bad—are baked into sports; and at the same time, values from the world of sports soak out into the world at large.
The broader conversation is about tapping into and examining sports as a reflection of our values—of who were are and of where we are going—and as an agent of social change. We’re pleased to be a part of that conversation. And we look forward hearing from you in the comments as to how and where to drive that conversation.
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