Monday, January 18, 2016

Gerald Early on Jackie Robinson, unabated racial alienation, and the meritocracy of sports; is sports business a meritocracy?

Gerald Early's 2011 book A Level Playing Field: African American Athletes and the Republic of Sports, contains an essay titled "American Integration, Black Heroism, and the Meaning of Jackie Robinson. He writes:
Robinson arguably was the person who launched the American era of racial integration after World War II. This rush and flood of people and events--the Brown decision, the Montgomery bus boycott, the sit-ins, the March on Washington, Birmingham and Selma, Martin Luther King Jr., the Watts riots, Malcolm X, affirmative action, multiculturalism, the Million Man March--provoked unprecedented historical change in how Americans perceived pluralism and race, but shockingly, in the end, did not at all lessen the abiding sense of alienation that African Americans felt toward their native land.
Early's point--did not at all lessen the abiding sense of alienation--could be debated (not at all?), but clearly it did not come close to removing that sense of alienation.

Though Robinson made the Brooklyn Dodgers an enduring symbol, historian Craig Wilder has observed that desegregating baseball was easier than repairing Brooklyn's enduring racial divide.

Sports as (racial) meritocracy?

Early also writes:
We Americans seem to have blundered about in our history with two clumsy contrivances strapped to our backs, unreconciled and weight: our democratic traditions and race. What makes Robinson so significant is that he seemed to have found a way to balance this baggage in the place that is so much the stuff of our dreams: the level playing field of top-flight competitive athletics. "Athletics," stated Robinson in his first autobiography... "both school and professional, come nearer to offering an American Negro equality of opportunity than does any other field of social and economic activity." It is not so much that this is true as that Robinson believed it, and that most Americans today, black and white, still do or still want to. This is one of the important aspects of modern sports in a democratic society that has saved us from being totally cynical about them. Sports are the ultimate meritocracy. Might it be said that sports are what all other professional activities and business endeavors, all leisure pursuits and hobbies, in our society aspire to be?
(Emphasis added)

Early seems to be discussing the game itself and, perhaps to a lesser extent, the process of choosing the best player (though there's enduring controversy over such things as who gets to play quarterback).

He said in an interview:
If a quarterback throws 35 touchdowns in a season, that’s 35 touchdowns. And it means whatever it means within that context, which in that case would mean that the quarterback is very good.
Sports are, for the most part, quantitative and, seemingly, objective. Sports are the ultimate triumph of a sort of social science view of the world: Sports are measurable and even, on some level, predictive, if not precisely predictable. An athlete is chosen on the basis of how well he or she can do the job, purely on measurable skill. That is why sports are admired as a true, an ideal, meritocracy.
But it's not completely a meritocracy, is it? Consider the use of performance-enhancing drugs.

Or the fact the coaching staff in some leagues--the NFL comes to mind--does not come close to matching the racial mix on the field.

Sports business a meritocracy?

There's an even bigger "but" that could be applied to the meritocracy argument.

The broader business of sports is hardly a meritocracy, as chronicled in this blog or in the book/website Field of Schemes, and many other news outlets. The leagues are cartels.

Then again, so many sports fans, even journalists like Will Leitch, are willing to put that aside.

"There are so few things in the world that are black and white," Leitch said in September 2010 at a panel at the Brooklyn Book Festival. "If you win you're happy; if you lose you’re sad. Everything else is gray. Sports is the one thing that I have. I know that everything that goes into it is gray, but for three hours, if they win, I'm happy, if they lose I'm sad. That's something I want to protect."

"I know I am willfully putting on blinders," Leitch said. "I'm fully aware of that... but, sorry, life's hard enough, give me sports."

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