THE COURAGE TO PLAY ON
Sport headlines in America for the past sixty-plus hours have focused on the asinine utterances of franchise owner of the National Basketball Association’s Los Angeles Clippers – and with good reason.
In a country which is trying to move beyond the hatred, ignorance, fear, and xenophobia of racism for a “Donald Sterling” to even exist is an unwelcome anachronism. It is anathema to those who love the NBA and utterly confusing to those who love their individual teams. And it is absolutely counter-productive to notions of sport in America.
Yet, while the focus of the well justified ire of sportscasters, newscasters, sports writers, coaches, athletes and others has been on Sterling and his pernicious palaver, I watched the players on that Clippers team.
Some claim that racism comes out of fear and ignorance which festers into hatred. Sterling, however, is of a different ilk. You see, he believes that he and his “kind” are naturally superior. He does not fear the other ethnic groups he looks down on. He sees them as less blessed with his “human” qualities, and, therefore, can be toyed with, commanded, exploited.
Such incidents are nothing new with Sterling. Ask the great Elgin Baylor, former General Manager of the Clippers and, in my humble opinion, the greatest NBA player of all time. Baylor tried to sue Sterling for wrongful termination unsuccessfully, but in that suit it was revealed that Sterling had wished to have a “white Southern coach coaching poor black players.” As a Southerner, I take great offense at such an outrageous whimsy. His arbitrary assignation of racial superiority being somehow the hallmark of the South I find very offensive and prejudice against the many Southerners, both Black and White, who have fought racial intolerance and bigotry for decades upon decades.
So here is a portrait of a person whose sheer insensitivity and obnoxious malevolence has manifested itself throughout his lifetime – and the “club” of the NBA owners knew it when they “let him in.”
But that is not the point of my message here. I would rather we examine those men whose only vestige of protest was to toss off their uniforms before the game in symbolic retribution to their franchise owner. And then went out and actually played the game.
From where I sat, that took courage!
Of the many attributes and benefits we claim our philosophy of sport in America to profess is the combination of individual achievement through team success. Individual dedication and work ethic yield to cooperation and personal sacrifice for the team. Success follows and unifies the effort into a consummate amalgamation of what we as Americans hold as our highest ideals in sport – and hopefully are reflected in our society.
And even though the Clippers may have known what Sterling was, it was easier to live with when it was not broadcast nationally. Denial is sometimes the best potion, the best antidote to a disease one does not want to admit having. But once that sickness bursts forth and is out for all to see, it is near unbearable.
But the Clippers played on! Coaches and fans often cheer their teams to “play your hearts out!” But what if someone who is supposed to be watching out for you has broken your heart with utterances so insensitive and delivered them with such blatant banality that it stuns – burns – confuses? What then of the courage to play? What then of the team?
Courage is the spawn of honor. When I watched those Clippers playing yesterday, I saw honor in every effort they gave – in every gesture and attempt to give and give and give.
But there was so little left to give. It was as if what was left of their hearts, their souls would shed a tear too heavy to hold back, and too proud to fall. And to those detractors who may rebut that they had to because it was their job, I pity such a view.
They played for their team. They revealed their honor.
And they played with courage.
Dr. Arthur Ogden is Chair of Sports Management at the United States Sports Academy. He has worked in higher education for more than four decades. He has served as a college dean, vice-president, president, football coach, and athletic director. He is a published author and poet and writes a weekly column on issues facing America. He has also served on NCAA committees and on the All-American Football Selection Committee.