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COLUMN: The games provide the best lessons on color

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By John Herndon

Usually, they are just games. They're diversions from everyday life.

We leave our cares at the office, then behold Joey Votto's sweet swing or Brandon Phillips' wizardry at second base. We could be mesmerized by Magic Johnson running Showtime or Larry Bird just fundamentaling his opponent into submission. We marvel at the artistry of Adrian Peterson and the precision of Tom Brady.

But the alarm clock goes off and the sun comes up on Monday morning for us to get right back to what we had tried to escape.

However, sports are best when they teach life lessons.

And how we need some life lessons in our country today.

I really don't know what to make of the George Zimmerman-Trayvon Martin case. Like 99.999 percent of the people who have voiced an opinion on the controversial verdict in Sanford, Fla., I got my information from the national news.I was not in the courtroom hearing the evidence.

There were times I would read an account of the trial proceedings and think, “There is no way Zimmerman is innocent.” The next day or two, I would read a different report and think, “There is no way Zimmerman is guilty.”

I do know there were, and are, strong opinions on the case.

What I don't know is who is right. From the conglomeration of reportage, there was reasonable doubt in the cases both sides presented, which, of course, super-charged the tensions that were already there.

What I do know is that a jury of peers, agreed upon by attorneys from both sides, heard the evidence and found Zimmerman not guilty of the charges brought against him.

That is where the world of sports comes in.

What I truly believe is that sports gives a much greater lesson in resolving racial tension than any number of protests or celebrations of a truly unfortunate incident.

It is kind of ironic that the movie “42” came out on DVD about the same time of the Zimmerman verdict. The contrasts are striking.

While people around the country have been framing their interpretations based on race, the Hollywood version of Jackie Robinson breaking baseball's color barrier has a prominent scene depicting the story of Pee Wee Reese, the pride of racially-segregated Louisville, silencing the jeering and slurs directed at Robinson in Cincinnati's Crosley Field.

Reese, the Brooklyn Dodger shortstop, simply went to his teammate and put his arm around Robinson. Simple, yet powerful.

Legend says the incident happened in 1947, Robinson's first year as a big leaguer. Some say it most likely actually happened in 1948. Really, that doesn't matter. The message, “We are brothers,” is all that does.

Locally, I think of Anderson County's only state championship team at the high school level. Back in 1964, a group of young ladies, including two African-Americans, took the first girls' state track meet. The athletic accomplishments are often forgotten as the Kentucky High School Athletic Association did not take over the meet until two years later.

The lessons they learned were branded in their memory. The girls were confronted with the dilemma of eating in a restaurant where two teammates were not welcome because of the color of their skin. They chose to go hungry.

As one member of that team told me in an interview for a series nine years ago, “We were color blind.”

I am not naïve enough to think all people who participate in sports nearly 50 years later are color blind yet. For years, there was the ridiculous stereotype that an African-American male did not have what it takes to lead a team to a Super Bowl title. Thank you, Doug Williams for proving that wrong on the field. Thank you, Tony Dungy, for proving it wrong from the sidelines.

For years, a basketball player who can't jump has been said to have “White Man's Disease.” There are countless other racial stereotypes in sport and in life. All are wrong.

But more importantly, sports provide us with real teaching moments.

I know of no coach who fills out a lineup based on what color a player is. Produce and play within the framework of the team and you will play.

When someone goes to the line with the game tied and two seconds left, the only thing that matters is if someone can shoot free throws.

When a quarterback goes to make a handoff, all he cares about is getting the ball to the right man. When he's looking for a receiver in the end zone, he's not looking at the color of the hands that will cradle the touchdown pass.

Those are some real-life lessons of sport. In the game, the only color that matters is the hue of the jerseys. In real life, all that should matter is the clothing of one’s character.

In the games, players sweat together. They celebrate and cry with each other.

And people of all races need to learn sport's greatest lesson of all: When players bleed, it's all the same color.

 

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