This centennial anniversary is a great opportunity to reflect on the legacy of civil rights in the United States and the life and career of the man who broke the color barrier in professional sports.
Jackie Robinson and Branch Rickey, the general manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers at the time, knew that they were going to face resistance.
I’m sure that they had many conversations about the ramifications of their decisions and came to the conclusion that Robinson needed to be as perfect and saint-like as possible.
Any small incident could have been the end of his career and any social progress that the two were trying to make.
Professional athletes have a lot to worry about just in the confines of the sport that they play. Contract negotiations, public persona and performing your part well for the team are overwhelming in and of themselves. Add to that the public perception of an entire group of people and you can understand how Jackie Robinson was always hyper-aware of what was at stake.
I view Robinson’s story as a look into a certain type of social privilege. Many People of Color didn’t have any room for people to see them angry.
One of my favorite scenes in any movie I have seen is in the biopic 42, when Jackie Robinson and Rickey meet after a public outburst of anger by Robinson.
Rickey says to him, “Don’t ever let people see you mad.”
According to accounts, Robinson only expressed anger around people he knew he could trust after that moment.
Personally, I have had a similar experience. When I was in middle school playing hockey, I used to get extremely and outwardly enraged whenever I let a goal in.
I ended up writing the number 42 on the end of my hockey stick to remind me that I needed to remain calm so the other team couldn’t see that they were getting to me.
The sad truth is that some people have a privilege to anger where others do not.
For many People of Color, women and those of other marginalized identities, being assertive and letting people know when they violate your boundaries — or even your dignity as a person — is always going to be perceived as irrational and simple-minded.
In contrast, a White person, especially a White male, is usually going to be perceived as assertive and willing to “say it how it is.”
A lot of people don’t let others see them angry and push down how they really feel so they can advance in society and the workplace.
The fact that a select group of people in this country don’t have the privilege of self-expression and others do is simply wrong, but that is just how it is.
Even today, public athletes receive backlash when they express their personal experiences and views of the racial climate.
Just recently, Colin Kaepernick was blacklisted from the NFL when executives at the front offices deemed him to be a “liability” for exercising his First Amendment right. LeBron James was instructed to “shut up and dribble” by a White Fox News anchor when he tried to say something about the racial inequality in our society.
I also see a mentality in many sports fans that says “be grateful” to professional athletes, implying that they are making a lot of money being entertainers despite being viewed as uneducated and inarticulate.
The struggle of tolerating all the racial abuse and balancing his public image is the most definitive and touching part of Robinson’s legacy in my eyes.
He had every imaginable reason to give up his career in the MLB and lash out at the horrible acts of racism that he had to endure from coaches, players, fans and even his own teammates.
Despite all that, he endured. He put on a face of poise and stoicism because he understood that his cause was bigger than just himself.
I hope that Robinson can remind us of all the progress we have made while also letting us know how much work we still have ahead of us in the future.
Originally published on February, 13 2019 in the Sports Section by Joseph Cotton, Education and Enrichment Coordinator