Wednesday, June 25, 2014

The Kiss Heard 'Round the World

It was the “kiss heard ‘round the world.” Michael Sam celebrated being drafted by the St. Louis Rams by kissing his partner.

The best moments in sports aren’t only those times when a hail Mary pass wins a playoff game, or a walk-off home run wins the All-star game, or a three-pointer at the buzzer takes your team to the Final Four. Sports’ best moments are those times when players, coaches, or owners use the power of their positions in our culture to move the needle on the social justice barometer toward justice.

Michael Sam is a 261 pound, 6 foot 2 inch, first team All-American linebacker from the University of Missouri. Cameras were rolling as Sam heard from the Rams. He had become the first openly gay man to ever be drafted by an NFL team.

He celebrated as nearly all the 248 college players drafted ahead of him celebrated. He kissed a person he loved. Only this was his partner, a white male. A same-sex interracial relationship. That kiss will move the needle on the social justice barometer.

My guess is that many of the same people who are troubled by interracial relationships are the same ones troubled by same-sex relationships. People who have a problem with a black person kissing a white person should have gotten over it long ago. Those who have a problem with two persons of the same sex showing affection need to update their prejudices.

Moments like that kiss cause us to rethink prejudice. There have been many such moments in sports history.

The night before he was murdered, Dr. Martin Luther King said, "If I were standing at the beginning of time, with the possibility of taking a panoramic view of the whole of human history up to now, and the Almighty said to me, ‘Martin Luther King, which age would you like to live in?’ I would take my mental flight by Egypt and I would watch God's children in their magnificent trek from the dark dungeons of Egypt through, or rather across the Red Sea, through the wilderness on toward the Promised Land.

“And in spite of its magnificence, I wouldn't stop there.”

Neither would amateur or professional sports stop there. They would proudly hover over Berlin, watching Jessie Owens win four gold medals at the 1936 Olympics games and crush Hitler's delusions of Aryan supremacy.

And they wouldn’t stop there. They’d watch Jackie Robinson break baseball’s color barrier and earn his place in the Hall of Fame.

If you were taking, as Martin Luther King said, a “panoramic view” of sports history, you’d also take mental flight through the turbulence wrought by Cassius Clay’s refusal to be drafted. He relinquished the World Heavyweight Championship rather than serve in the immoral Viet Nam War. “I ain’t got no quarrel with them Viet Cong,” Clay, later Muhammad Ali, said poignantly. “No Viet Cong ever called me nigger.”

But you wouldn’t stop there. Indeed, you’d watch Tommie Smith and John Carlos raise that black glove fisted salute during their medal ceremony at the 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico City.

But you wouldn’t stop there. You’d have to come to Laramie to watch the University of Wyoming attempt, unsuccessfully, to crush the dreams of 14 black athletes. During the civil rights movement, they asked to wear black armbands during a football game to protest racism. Instead everyone from the coach to the governor attacked these student athletes and threw them off the team.

The “Black 14” made a louder anti-racism statement than would have been the case if UW had quietly acquiesced to their reasonable request.

What matters most is that what they and the others accomplished didn’t stop there.

Dr. King said, “I’d turn to the Almighty, and say, ‘If you allow me to live just a few years in the second half of the 20th century, I’ll be happy.” King lived only a few more hours, but his journey continued and how he’d have enjoyed that kiss.

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