When I was growing up, I had a vague awareness of the fact that my father had been in the army during World War II and he had some kind of medal for an incident that occurred when he was stationed on the island of Saipan in 1945. He never volunteered any information about what had happened and I never pushed him on it because it was clearly not something he wanted to talk about.
Near the end of his life, I decided it was important for me to know. He was dying of pancreatic cancer and was home, with hospice care. His mind was as sharp as it had ever been , so, sitting in his bedroom one night, I asked him to please tell me about what had happened.
1The story was actually not complicated: He and three others had been returning to camp one morning from night patrol. Suddenly, they were being shot at–by a sniper, one of many on the island. Two of my father’s companions went down instantly, both dead. A third was also hit. The only on e not hit –by nothing more than freakish luck- – was my dad. He grabbed the wounded man and pulled, pushed, carried him to safety. It took three more days for his unit to finally find and kill the sniper.
My dad’s medal was for saving the man who was wounded.
“Okay?” he said when he finished . “Can we talk about something else now?”
I tell the story because I learned something that night, something that all of us tend to forget: those who have been through war often don’t want to talk about it. Those who have not been through war can’t possibly understand what it feels like.
On Monday, the Seattle Seahawks posted a tweet with a photo of Russell Wilson crying after his team had come from behind to beat the Green Bay Packers 28-22 in overtime to reach the Super Bowl. The caption on the photo–on Martin Luther King Day–was, “We Shall Overcome.”
Talk about not understanding.
The Seahawks pulled the tweet soon after it was posted and apologized for somehow comparing a football game to what Martin Luther King and those he worked with went through in the 1960s. Which reminded me of my father and of the movie, ‘Selma.’
If you have not done so ye t, go and see it. To begin with, it’s a good movie–well written, well acted, well directed. More important than that, even though it is certainly not an exact historical depiction of what happened in Alabama almost 5 0 years ago, it should make all of us stop and think about what King and those marchers accomplished and what they faced . it should also remind us that none of us who did not liv e through that march, can possibly understand how they felt.
What’s even more important–and more frightening–is how little has truly changed. Laws have changed but a lot of attitudes have not. When Richard Sherman went on his postgame rant a year ago after the Seahawks had beaten the 49ers, he was instantly labelled–by some–as ‘a thug.’ Sherman, as most people now understand, is one of the brightest and most thoughtful athletes in the NFL. You can agree or disagree with his point – of – view but if your knee-jerk reaction to him is that he’s “a thug,” because he trash-talks on occasion then you’ve never been in an NFL locker room. Or ANY locker room for that matter.
If Sherman didn’t have dreadlocks would he have been labelled a thug? I doubt it.
The reaction to five African-American members of the St. Louis Rams running onto the field with their arms up-in-the-air in a “don’t-shoot,” pose after there was no indictment in Michael Brown’s death is another example of how close we still live to 1965. Much of the white media–especially the older white media–thought it was flat out wrong or an embarrassment that the five Rams had expressed a political point – o f- view. The reaction was similar when many athletes, including Kobie Bryant and LeBron James, chose to wear “I Can’t Breathe,” shirts in response to the non-indictment in the choking death on Staten Island last summer of Eric Garner.
The Michael Brown death was a ‘h e-said/he-said,’ story , one in which different witnesses gave different versions of what happened on that night in Ferguson, Missouri. Garner’s death was caught on videotape. His last words were, “I Can’t Breathe.” Thus, the T-shirts.
Again, the reaction of many to the T-shirts was outrage. One white radio talk show host wondered how someone as wealthy as Bryant had the right to be disturbed about Garner’s death –or the lack of an indictment in the case. Apparently, once you reach a certain tax bracket–especially if you’re African-American– you give up your right to make political statements.
After the Garner non-indictment, p rotesters formed on both sides and, sadly, much of it broke down along racial lines. Then came the horrific shootings of two New York City police officers. When New York’s two NFL head coaches, Tom Coughlin and Rex Ryan wore ‘NYPD,’ hats on the sidelines a week after the shootings, there were very few objections. Even the NFL, with all its rules on wearing licensed gear with the proper logos, kept its collective mouth shut for once.
Which was the right thing to do. Coughlin and Ryan were showing support for two men who died brutally and senselessly. Most people applauded them for doing so. But they weren’t doing anything different than the athletes who put their hands up or wore the T-shirts were doing. They were recognizing a tragedy. And yet, none of those in the media who had rushed so quickly to judgment on the African-American athletes, insisting that politics shouldn’t be part of sports, said anything about Coughlin and Ryan.
One of the arguments made against the Rams and, to a lesser degree those who wore the ‘I can’t breathe,’ T-shirts was that they should not have used their public platform while representing their teams to show their support for the two men who died. No one seemed to have a problem with Coughlin and Ryan doing exactly the same thing.
ALL of them had the right to do what they did. But there’s clearly a double-standard in jockworld about who can make a political statement and who can’t. And on what topics.
All of this took place in 2014–not 1965. While it’s true that we no longer have governors standing in doorways to try to prevent African-American students from attending a state university and poll taxes have been done away with and schools have been de-segregated–legally anyway–there’s little doubting the racial divide that still exists in this country.
When I pointed out in a ‘CBS Sports Minute,’ a week ago that the New York Jets hiring of Todd Bowles as their coach meant there were now all of five African-Americans among the 32 coaches in the NFL, I received a number of angry tweets and notes saying that I was a racist –anti-white, apparently. I never even got around to the fact that there’s ONE African American managing in the major leagues right now.
The irony is this: many white people are angered and outraged by the fact that black people–or white people like me– point out in equalities that still exist in our country. You see, that’s the problem: they can’t possibly understand what Dr. King went through 50 years ago or what many African-Americans are still going through today. To be fair, a lot of African-American athletes who complain about ‘not getting respect,’ in the media as if that’s some horrible burden, don’t understand it either.
The Seahawks overcame five turnovers on Sunday. That’s it. They won a football game. That’s it.
What Dr. King (and all those who marched with him from Selma to Montgomery) overcame was a lot more significant and frightening than overcoming five turnovers. For his efforts, Dr. King was shot and killed at the age of 39.
THAT is what we should always remember.
Source: CBS Sports