Writing online for Sports Illustrated this week on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, columnist Dave Zirin reminds readers that Dr. King, while perhaps not the greatest athlete himself, nonetheless embraced sports as an effective and serious platform from which to promote civil rights. “Dr. King,” Zirin writes, “was involved in three of history’s most critical collisions of sports and politics”—Jackie Robinson’s integration of modern baseball in 1947; Muhammad Ali’s struggle against the Vietnam War and the draft board in the late 1960s; and the protests promulgated by Harry Edwards and his Olympic Project for Human Rights at the 1968 Mexico City Summer Olympics.
Dr. King, argues Zirin, embraced a broad view of sports, correctly seeing them as a powerful medium by which to convey his message. Dr. King didn’t see “athletes” as a distinct subset of the population, that is, as mere performers who daily displayed wondrous feats of physical prowess for everyone to enjoy. Rather, athletes were human beings who happened to be involved in sports. In other words, Jackie Robinson and Muhammad Ali drew their principal identities from their humanity, not from their idiosyncratic physical talent. It is a concept that we frequently seem to forget.
Too often today, an athlete’s visibility determines how he will be treated and accepted in society. It was widely speculated, for example, that ex-New York Giant Plaxico Burress received a harsh, two-year prison sentence for attempted weapons possession in the second degree, because New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg wanted to make an example of the Super Bowl XLII hero. Gilbert Arenas, erstwhile All-Star guard for the N.B.A.’s Washington Wizards, is currently embroiled in his own gun-possession brouhaha and some expect the D.C. courts to use his sentence (to be handed down on March 26) as an opportunity to send society a message similar to the one channeled through Burress. Granted, these men did in fact willfully break the law and place themselves in legal jeopardy, and illegally possessing firearms isn’t strictly a basic Second Amendment rights issue. Still, the notion that one’s stardom—and subsequent visibility—as a star athlete makes one’s legal situation more juridically noteworthy—and therefore riper for a harsh punishment—is ludicrous and patently unfair.
Martin Luther King Jr. recognized that a person was a man before he was a sportsman, and Zirin quotes Dr. King’s invocation of Ali to make this point: “Like Muhammad Ali puts it,” he said in 1967, “we are all–Black and Brown and poor–victims of the same system of oppression.” That same venal system of oppression must today be transformed into the “same system of fairness and tolerance” in which one’ status as an athlete doesn’t trump his status as a person. If we are to eliminate prejudice based on (as is commonly cited) “race, color, creed, religion, national origin, citizenship, sex, age, marital status, sexual orientation, disability, or military status,” then we also need to eliminate “fame”-based discrimination as well.
Civil rights—and unbiased jurisprudence—need to apply to everyone equally, not more harshly to others because we think their status as athlete lends more gravitas to their respective case. Last time I checked, Lady Justice wore a robe and carried a scale, not a zebra-suit and a whistle.
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