Professional athletes usually stand somewhat removed from everyday society. They make millions of dollars more than the rest of us and often hide away from the world at the end of some gated cul-de-sac.
But the hubbub over National Football League players kneeling for the national anthem has brought top-class athletes back into our midst.
While some deride their efforts and protests, declaring that sports should only be about fun and games, it’s about time athletes joined the fray. If anything, history demonstrates that we could use their resolve, even their insight, once again.
A half-century ago, Muhammad Ali took a stand against the Vietnam War and Olympic sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised their gloved fists in protest on the medal stand.
Such action sparked outrage among many Americans but it helped further the debates about fighting a war halfway around world and the battle for civil rights right here at home.
When professional athletes get involved, they can sometimes show us a better way.
A half-century ago, the city of Detroit suffered the worst riots in our country since the Civil War. That’s when Tigers ballplayer Willie Horton stepped up. Still in uniform, he spoke in-person with many of the demonstrators.
Unfortunately, the Motor City burned that evening. But the seeds for recovery were sown, and a year later, blacks and whites celebrated together when Horton’s team won the World Series.
During this period, the St. Louis Cardinals roster included black, whites and Latino stars. Long before Jesse Jackson coined the phrase, they “were the rainbow coalition of baseball,” said star pitcher Bob Gibson.
In 1968, the morning after the Rev. Martin Luther King’s assassination in Memphis, Gibson got into a heated argument with his catcher, Tim McCarver. To his credit, McCarver, who was born in Memphis, refused to let the conversation drop.
In doing so, McCarver found himself in “the unfamiliar position of arguing that the races were equal and that we were all the same.” Such honest, sometimes uncomfortable, talk made the Cardinals one of the most successful teams of their day.
One may not agree with everything athletes do when they step forward in such tumultuous times. But one has to agree that it’s ultimately healthy for our nation when they not only talk the talk, but walk the walk.
Such actions force the rest of us to reach a better understanding about what it means to be an American and the responsibilities that go along with that.
We live in a nation in which everyone deserves to have a say. The roots of this nation began with speaking out, not always falling in line. If anything, we need to be wary about marching too much in lockstep, saluting without thinking twice. That sounds more like a dictatorship in another country than our land of the free and the brave.
Nate Boyer, a former Army Green Beret and NFL player, met with Colin Kaepernick last year and urged him not to sit down during the national anthem.
Together, the two of them came up with idea of the quarterback kneeling, respectfully, with his teammates, for the playing of “The Star Spangled Banner.”
A season later, Boyer remains unhappy by how dialogue in this country has stalled. “Simply put, it seems we just hate each other,” he told ESPN.com’s Nick Wagoner, “and that is far more painful to me than any protest, or demonstration, or rally, or tweet.”
What can be done? What will help us come together as a nation and find common ground? Boyer suggests that we swallow our pride, open our minds and learn to “love one another again.”
That kind of effort will take all of us. Even our superstar athletes.
Tim Wendel is the author “Summer of ’68: The Season that Changed Baseball, and America, Forever” and the forthcoming “Cancer Crossings: A Brother, His Doctors and the Quest to Cure Childhood Leukemia.” He is writer-in-residence at Johns Hopkins School of Arts and Sciences. Readers may write him at Johns Hopkins University, 1717 Massachusetts Ave. NW, Washington, D.C., 20036.