John Feinstein Blog: The Changing Face Of Society And Sports

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EARTH CITY, MO - MAY 13: St. Louis Rams draft pick Michael Sam addresses the media during a press conference at Rams Park on May 13, 2014 in Earth City, Missouri.

Michael Sam (Credit: Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images)

There are certain moments in your life that etch memories on your brain, that are so vivid you feel as if you are reliving them any time they flash through your mind.

For me, one of them took place on the morning of November 4th, 2008. I was standing in line at Potomac Elementary School waiting to vote. I had voted at the school for many years, usually mid-morning after the pre-work rush was over. I had never before had to wait to cast my ballot.

This though, was different. When I parked my car I saw people lined up out the door of the school. I understood. There had never been an Election Day like this one in the history of our country. I didn’t mind the wait.

The line moved along and no one seemed impatient. People shared cookies and donuts and stories. I had gotten inside the door and wasn’t far from the check-in desk when I saw two African-American women on their way out. They had just voted. One was younger, the other older. I guessed a mother and daughter.

They were walking slowly, and the younger woman had her arm around her mother’s shoulder. The older woman was weeping, shaking her head and trying to calm herself.

She kept saying the same thing again and again: “Never, never did I think I would live to see this day. Never.”

We all stared for a moment and then someone started to clap. We all picked up on it quickly. We all understood. Most of us were white and, I’d guess a majority of us were Democrats. But one of my neighbors, who I’d been talking to while waiting, is a dyed-in-the-wool Republican. He was there to vote for John McCain. He was clapping too. Everyone got it.

Barack Obama was elected President of the United States that day. Four years later, in spite of the political mistakes he and the people around him made; in spite of all the health care controversies; in spite of his battles with a Republican House of Representatives beginning in 2010, he was re-elected.

I bring all this up because it is worth remembering that we live in a country that has twice elected an African-American President in the last six years. Not once, twice.

We also live in a country where men like Donald Sterling have money and power and make horrific racist statements and think that a non-apology/apology 16 days after the fact should be enough. We live in a country where some people are outraged at the notion of two men kissing one another on television.

One radio talk show host described the kiss between Michael Sam and his partner last Saturday as, “disgusting,” and then added, “Throw in the fact that Sam has a white partner and he’s got all sorts of issues going on.”

Actually it’s the HOST who has all sorts of issues going on.

The progress made in this country — to the point where we have twice elected an African-American president; to the point where gay athletes now feel they can come out and be accepted in a locker room — is certainly encouraging. It wasn’t THAT long ago that the notion that schools could and should be integrated seemed impossible.

Obama’s elections are tangible proof that a majority of Americans — at least among those who vote — have reached the point where they judge others on who they are not what color they are; what their religion is or what their sexuality might be.

But there is also a distinct and vocal minority who feel the need to categorize people. A large chunk of Americans — most of them white men — simply will not accept the notion of an African-American president. They don’t just disagree with President Obama’s policies they can’t stand the fact that he is in The White House.

Which is why there were people actually claiming that Donald Sterling had the first amendment ‘right’ to say what he said to his girlfriend about Magic Johnson and African-Americans. Those people are correct — legally he has the right to say those things. He can’t be put in jail or prosecuted by the government for saying those things. But the first amendment give us the right to Freedom of Speech — with consequences. If you embarrass your employer by saying something stupid or inaccurate publicly you can’t go to jail but you can be fired.

The NBA, for all intents and purposes, is Sterling’s employer since he agreed to abide by the rules of the league when he bought the Clippers. That means if he embarrasses the league and — perhaps more importantly — jeopardizes the league’s ability to make money or even function (a player boycott would have made it tough to function), the league has the right to fire him.

Which is what Commissioner Adam Silver did. Case closed. See you in court — which is where Sterling will no doubt go in an attempt to prove that Silver and the owners forcing him to sell his team is somehow unfair.

As for those who can’t deal with the notion of two men kissing one another, well, they need to get over it. There are a lot of things to worry about exposing your kids to that are far more frightening than two people — regardless of sex or sexual orientation — showing affection for one another.

Of course the sad thing, as Cyd Zeigler of pointed out earlier this week, is that he and his partner of 11 years still can’t marry legally in 33 states. Why in the world anyone would care about who is marrying whom is well beyond my understanding. There’s also the (now) old joke about why gay couples should be allowed to marry: Why in the world shouldn’t they suffer like the rest of us?

The world is a very different place now than it was 10 years ago when a gay athlete couldn’t possibly think about coming out, or 20 years ago when African-American ownership of a major sports franchise was unheard of or 30 years ago when it was still considered a novelty for an African American to play quarterback. Forty years ago white people protested against black students being bussed in to go to school with their children.

If you think about all that, there’s no doubt we have made progress. But then think about this: there are a lot of people reading this column TODAY who are furious that two men can now kiss on TV; that more and more African Americans are gaining power in sports AND in the world at large; that THEIR school has so many African-American players and that their kids have to go to school with minorities. Why do you think private schools have flourished in so many places in recent years?

Ten years from now a gay professional athlete will be a blip on the radar. There will have been a woman president — perhaps in a lot less than 10 years — and men who think like Donald Sterling will be disappearing from the planet.

Racism and sexism and homophobia will continue to diminish as time goes on. But they’ll never go away completely. Why? Because, sadly, ignorance is something that never dies.

Which is why it’s up to all of us to bury it whenever we see it. Shaking our heads and saying, ‘gee that’s too bad,’ isn’t enough. We not only need to talk about it, we need to shout it down.

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