Honoring the Legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr. in Sport

Editor’s Note: This post is part of a series of pieces written by those in academia. In this piece, Dr. Nancy Spencer of Bowling Green State University looks at the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. in the world of sport. 

By Dr. Nancy Spencer

January 20, 2015

Each year the sports world honors the legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr. in his relationship to sport. This year, several noteworthy commemorations were aired in honor of the civil rights leader. Several days ago, the NBA released “Barrier Breakers,” a 1-minute clip featuring individuals who have broken barriers in the world of professional basketball: from Charley Cooper (the “first Negro” to play in the NBA for the Boston Celtics, in 1950); to Bill Russell, the “First Black Coach” in the NBA; to Violet Palmer, the first woman to become an NBA referee; to Michael Jordan who proclaimed, “Owning Team Dream Come True;” to Jason Collins, who became the first professional athlete in a North American team sport to publicly say, “I am gay.”

On Sunday, ESPN aired a special ‘Outside the Lines’ program focusing on the “Content of Character,” that featured three Union Leaders of major professional sports’ leagues. The title of the program was taken from Martin Luther King’s famous “I have a dream” speech, when he spoke of a day when his children would not be judged on the color of their skin but on the ‘content of their character.’ Jay Harris moderated the panel of three Black Union leaders: Tony Clark (former professional baseball player and recently elected Executive Director of the Major League Baseball Players Association); Michele Roberts (the first woman selected as Executive Director of the National Basketball Players Association); and DeMaurice Smith (Executive Director of the National Football League Players Association).

While the successes of individual barrier breakers in the NBA clip are noteworthy and can be linked to messages of Dr. King, the work of Union leaders in the major sports leagues seems even more relevant as reflected by this quote by MLK, Jr: “The labor movement was the principal force that transformed misery and despair into hope and progress.” I was in High School during the civil rights movement and I remember Dr. King not only as a powerful orator, but also as someone who was willing to take a stand – even if it was not popular. This was borne out in the recently released movie, Selma, which documents the efforts of King, along with members of the SCLC (Southern Christian Leadership Conference) and SNCC (Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee) to register Black voters in the south. As seen in the movie, the coalition of these groups culminated with a march from Selma to Montgomery.

More recently, professional athletes in the NFL and NBA protested what are believed to be unjust deaths of young Black men. Members of the panel on OTL were asked how they felt when NFL and NBA players demonstrated in the aftermath of events in Ferguson, MO and New York City, NY.

“Hands up don’t shoot:” After a Ferguson, MO court failed to indict the policeman who shot and killed Michael Brown, five St. Louis Rams’ players entered the stadium for their next game holding their hands up in the pose that was used to protest the failure of the Grand Jury to indict. Although the St. Louis Police Union asked the Rams players to apologize, the NFL announced that they would not.

When asked how he felt about the players’ actions, DeMaurice Smith replied that the NFLPA wants players to be socially aware. He pointed out that when players flew to help those who had suffered loss from a tornado that had torn apart a community it was because they were socially aware. Similarly, he suggested that they should be allowed to make statements in response to the events that occurred in Ferguson.

“I can’t breathe:” T-shirts that were worn in protest of the choking death of Eric Garner in New York City reflected the words of Garner before he died. When Michele Roberts was asked how she felt about players wearing the t-shirts after the police officer who had choked Garner was not indicted, she acknowledged that she was very proud of the players for taking a stand.

Perhaps the best way to honor Dr. King on this day is to remember his words: “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.”

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