Martin Luther King had one of the greatest impacts on not just African-American culture, but on American culture. “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 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. 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 those values are 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 that 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.
Dr. King understood 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. 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. Later, Dr. King supported Jackie Robinson openly speaking out on civil rights issues when others urged him not to do so. Dr. 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.”
The values that underpin our culture both good and bad are baked into sports. 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 we are, where we are going, and as an agent of social change.
In the 1960s, Dr. King also embraced, albeit privately, a boxer named Cassis Marcellus Clay (a.k.a. Muhammad Ali). We now know about their friendship because the FBI recorded their discussions. Their relationship was private because Ali, with his membership in the separatist Nation of Islam, was rebuked by the civil rights community. Prominent civil rights activist Roy Wilkins once said, “Clay is like a voluntary member of the White Citizens Council.”
King and Ali appeared in public together only once at a demonstration for fair housing in Ali’s hometown of Louisville. But the connection was a strong one. In 1967 when Dr King, in the face of torrents of criticism, came out against the war in Vietnam, he invoked the champ saying, “Like Muhammad Ali puts it, we are all-Black and Brown and poor-victims of the same system of oppression.”
Also in 1967, track stars Tommie Smith, Lee Evans, John Carlos and others were organizing the Olympic Project for Human Rights arguing that African-American athletes should boycott the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City. Their demands were to have Muhammad Ali’s title restored, to have apartheid South Africa and Rhodesia disinvited from the Olympics, to hire more African- American coaches and to see IOC president Avery Brundage removed after 32 years of iron rule.
Many civil Rights leaders were again appalled. Protesting the Olympics was unpatriotic, even unseemly. But Dr. King offered his unwavering support saying, “This is a protest and a struggle against racism and injustice and that is what we are working to eliminate in our organization and in our total struggle … No one looking at these demands can ignore the truth of them. Freedom always demands sacrifice and … they have the courage to say, ‘We’re going to be men and the United States of America have deprived us of our manhood, of our dignity and our native worth, and consequently we’re going to stand up and make the sacrifices …”
King even met with a group of the athletes weeks before his assassination in 1968. As John Carlos said to me, “Dr. King was in my mind and heart when I raised my fist on that podium.”
Despite criticism from his own civil rights community, Dr. King was involved in three of history’s most critical collisions of sports and politics.
The professional sports league that holds the highest percentage of African-American players in the United States today is the NBA. The NBA always has a full slate of games on their Martin Luther King Day, and makes sure to honor him.
“I try to talk to my players about it (MLK day) every year, I told them today and I didn’t go into the black history thing, I went into the ‘American history’ thing,” said Los Angeles Clippers head coach Doc Rivers. “When we really have made it as a country, it will be called ‘American History’ in my opinion.”
“He fought for so much, he fought in the right way, he stood for the right things,” said Clippers superstar forward, Blake Griffin. “He did it without violence and he did it the smart way. It’s important to keep that dream alive and educate younger people and keep his dream intact.”
“It’s big,” said Clippers point guard, Chris Paul about playing on Martin Luther King Jr. day. “A lot of us look at making it to the NBA and being so successful and a lot of times we lose sight of how we got here in the first place. It’s always special to play on Martin Luther King Day. It’s crazy for me now being a father and teaching my son, he was at home yesterday talking about what today is, and it means a lot to me.”