By DERON SNYDER
Athletic competition can teach us a lot. Through sports, we’re able to learn about athletes and fans, as well as coaches and owners.
The most obvious lessons center on principles like sacrifice, dedication and commitment. No one comes close to, or reaches, championships without paying a price, whether in team or individual sports.
But some of the most important takeaways have nothing to do with our fun and games.
Instead, we’re presented valuable instruction on real life and death, issues like human rights and civil liberties.
Vanderbilt University hosted a “A Conversation About the Intersection of Race and Sports” last week at the National Museum of African American History and Culture. The event was part of Vanderbilt’s commemoration of the 50th anniversary of basketball players Perry Wallace and Godfrey Dillard integrating the Southeastern Conference.
Along with a preview of the documentary “Triumph: The Untold Story of Perry Wallace,” the evening featured a panel discussion moderated by David Williams, the school’s vice chancellor for university affairs and athletics. Dillard, who played one season, was in attendance along with Wallace’s wife and daughter.
Wallace, who played four seasons and was named captain, died Dec. 1, the eve of his historic debut. He became the first black varsity player in the SEC, which was the last of the major conferences to integrate.
Some folks think sports should be a safe zone from society’s larger issues around race, justice and equality. But Damion Thomas, the NMAAHC’s curator of sports, noted the connection is natural and unavoidable. He made sure that message was clear as the year-old museum was in development.
“The sports gallery isn’t about sports,” he said during the panel discussion. “It’s about African Americans’ struggle for progress through sports.”
Sometimes sports blaze a trail for society. The country was still segregated and Jim Crow laws saturated the south when Jackie Robinson broke the Major League Baseball’s color line in 1947.
One year later, President Harry Truman signed Executive Order 9981, which integrated the military.
Sometimes sports lag society. A handful of blacks played pro football until 1934, when notorious racist George Preston Marshall persuaded his fellow NFL owners to institute a ban. The Los Angeles Rams reintegrated the league in 1946 with Kenny Washington and Woody Strode.
But the NFL didn’t have its first African-American coach until 1989, when Oakland Raiders owner Al Davis hired Art Shell for the job.
What’s that you say? The presence of black athletes and coaches today make this discussion moot?
I strongly disagree with suggestions that coaches are getting a fair shake. And the overall situation only worsens the farther you go from the playing surface.
Don’t be fooled by the millionaires scoring touchdowns and sinking jumpers. The struggle is real, in the pros and especially in college, where African Americans other than student-athletes are largely invisible within the industry.
“That’s the ultimate Oreo power arrangement,” former New York Times sports columnist Bill Rhoden said on the panel. “Black on the outside, white on the inside.”
Panelist Harry Edwards, noted sociologist and professor emeritus at the University of California-Berkeley, put it this way: “There’s a difference between progress and profit. There’s been progress on the field, but it hasn’t profited us in other areas of sports.”
Then there’s the larger picture that has nothing to do with sports, the circumstances and conditions that have been highlighted by athletes from Jack Johnson to Colin Kaepernick.
For those unafraid to speak out, the platform they’re provided is too substantial to waste by sticking to X’s and O’s.
“The state of racism will never die,” LeBron James told reporters on Martin Luther King Day. “But what we cannot do is allow it to conquer us as people. We can’t allow it to divide us.
“The guy in control has given people and racism an opportunity to be out and outspoken without fear. And that’s the fearful thing for us, because it’s with you and it’s around you every day.”
In “Strength to Love,” King wrote: “Nothing in the world is more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity.”
Vanderbilt will do its part to increase knowledge and wisdom. Chancellor Nicholas Zeppos used last week’s event to announce the establishment of a new academic center to explore the intersection of sports, race, gender and culture.
According to a university release, The Center for Sports and Society will support research, teaching and scholarship, and intends “to serve as a catalyst and a resource to make a more just and fair society, using sports as a vehicle for change.”
“Some strange bedfellows come together when we talk about race and sports,” Zeppos said in his opening remarks at the museum. “We can learn some uncomfortable truths about ourselves and others.”
Add those to the list of things that sports are good for.