Wednesday, September 3, 2014

JACKIE ROBINSON, MICHAEL SAM & DANICA PATRICK: BEING FIRST

Sportswriters have a more difficult job than most journalists.

As is the case with news reporters, the object of the exercise for sportswriters is to get the facts straight while displaying a modicum of facility with the English language. In order to be considered elite, particularly in the case of investigative journalists, kudos specifically derive from getting the tough story and getting it first. Simple enough.


But in order to be considered elite in their field, sportswriters have to do more. For instance, the elite sportswriter has to have more than a facility with the language. The legends of the genre include the likes of Ring Lardner, Damon Runyon, Shirley Povich, Grantland Rice, and Red Smith, masters of story telling. They saw the same contests at the same time as their contemporaries. But few could compete with the scintillating rhythms of their prose.

One way for a  less than poetic sportswriter to compete with the greats of the genre is to demonstrate an encyclopedic knowledge of the history of not only the sport under discussion but of any related story in another sport that might shine a light on the subject of the piece. So when I come across a work that represents that sort of original thought, I rejoice. Take the case of a recent article by a guy named Dan Wetzel for Yahoo! Sports.

Others have rightly pointed out that it's simply too easy to conflate Michael Sam's draft selection by football's St. Louis Rams, becoming the first openly gay professional football player, with Jackie Robinson's joining the Brooklyn Dodgers as the first black MLB player. (I use the term 'black' instead of African-American advisedly. As a friend has said, "I'm an American but I have no real connection to Africa.") Times have changed. The civil rights struggle was just beginning in Robinson's day. The disgusting and disgraceful jeers and taunts which Robinson regularly endured would be unthinkable today. Indeed, a fan in the stands who called a player the N-word today would have reason to fear for his/her life.

Today, LBGT rights are at the forefront of just about every news cycle and are recognized by courts, state legislatures, and federal agencies. While still a pioneer, Sam has come along at a point in time when just about every American family has knowingly hosted an LGBT member or friend at the dinner table. Even today, the same may not be true of African-Americans.

But on the day after the Rams cut Sam, Wetzel made the point that the fact that Sam is not of the same Hall of Fame caliber as Robinson was bears some consideration. The Dodgers made the conscious, strategic decision to wait to sign a black player until that player was a can't-miss prospect. In doing so, the Dodgers may have made a prudent political move. But at the same time, any number of black players who could have carved out a career in The Show as everyday players, or even utility players, lost that opportunity. On the other hand, now that Sam has broken the barrier, been given a full shot, and demonstrated that his mere presence in the locker room was not disruptive, the gates are open. The onus didn't fall to Michael Sam to be great. Michael Sam didn't need to be Dick Butkus. He just needed to be Michael Sam. The Rams needed to give him his shot and let the chips fall where they may. The Rams did. The chips did. And that's that. No drama necessary. 

What has Danica Patrick to do with all of this?

Patrick is not a Hall of Fame driver. Given her equipment (the cars, you salacious
voyeurs, the cars), she should be a contender every week. She has shown some improvement and, given sufficient time, she may someday live up to the potential of her ride. But again, that's good for women and the sport. If she'd hit the scene like Jeff Gordon, winning races and championships from the get-go, she would have been considered a freak, an exception to the 'rule' that a woman can't compete with the good ole boys on the track. Instead, Patrick is doing just good enough to tantalize, to allow folks to reasonably wonder what a 'really good' woman driver might accomplish given a competitive ride. As a result, the next woman driver in NASCAR will be given a Michael Sam chance to succeed, a fair and square shot at the brass ring.

In professional sports, as in life itself, getting a fair deal all anyone can ask.


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