The anniversary of Martin Luther King's birthday has become an annual occasion to stop and take stock of race relations in America, to assess the progress and status of African-Americans as a group. This is only natural, given the way King fought to achieve the basic civil rights for black people that we now, thankfully, can almost take for granted.
But King wasn't concerned exclusively about African-Americans. He wanted to achieve true equality in every corner of our culture, including the sports world, and he would have been encouraged by many of the changes he would have seen in sports had he lived to celebrate his 82nd birthday today. They are changes that show we're coming closer to equal opportunity for everyone in the games we play and watch. He would have appreciated sports as the closest thing to a meritocracy that our society has, a system in which athletes, with few exceptions, are judged not by the color of their skin, but by their 40-yard dash time, or the velocity of their fastball, or the height of their vertical leap.
King wanted to see that principle applied to all people, and so while he would have been thrilled to know that African-Americans like Willie Randolph, Cito Gaston, Ron Washington, Tony Dungy and Lovie Smith have broken through the glass ceiling to become baseball managers and football head coaches, he would have been equally proud to see that Latinos like Felipe Alou, Fredi Gonzalez and Ozzie Guillen have been given the chance to prove themselves capable managers, and that Ron Rivera became the third Hispanic head coach in NFL history when the Carolina Panthers hired him last week. He would have been glad to see the NBA and Major League Baseball welcoming foreign born players from Europe and Asia.
In baseball, the influx of Latin and Asian players has been accompanied by declining numbers of African-Americans. That has been seen as a worrisome trend in some corners, but he might not have been as troubled by it. His goal was to achieve equality of treatment and opportunity, and there is nothing to indicate that black athletes aren't getting the same chances to play baseball as everyone else. If they are choosing other pursuits, like basketball and football, or better yet, like medicine, law or education, King might not have found that objectionable at all. He cared more about a level playing field than about the racial distribution of the players on it.
When King died in 1968 there was not a single African-American quarterback in the NFL. Now they are common enough that we can rattle names off the top of our heads: Donovan McNabb, Michael Vick, David Garrard, Josh Freeman, Jason Campbell, to name a few. He would have been gratified to know that the sight of a black man calling signals and leading a team hardly raises any eyebrows anymore.
But he would not have been thrilled to know that the stereotypes that black QBs once faced are the same ones that white running backs now struggle to overcome. When the Cleveland Browns installed Peyton Hillis as their lead runner and the New England Patriots began handing the ball off to Danny Woodhead on a regular basis this season, the teams were essentially taking the conventional wisdom that said Caucasian athletes weren't suited to play the position and throwing it in the trash. Believe it or not, that's doing King's work.
There's no question that attitudes in sports have changed for the better in the 43 years since King's death, that the system is more inclusive these days. And although he would have been gratified by that, King would have also seen a great deal that still needs fixing. It's not hard to imagine how, as one of the most famous proponents of non-violence the world has ever known, he would have reacted to the gun-related foolishness of Gilbert Arenas and Plaxico Burress, for example. And he undoubtedly would have had much to say about the dearth of minority members among team owners and in front office positions.
It is often assumed that King would have been disappointed in African-American athletes for not showing more social consciousness. It's true that there are few sports figures -- of any race -- who speak out on issues that are even remotely controversial, in fact, the list may begin and end with Charles Barkley. The criticisms of major stars like Michael Jordan and Tiger Woods for choosing to make money over pushing for social change are old and familiar. But King was a wise enough man to realize that not every athlete has to be as outspoken as Muhammad Ali and Jackie Robinson were in his day to make a difference.
There are plenty of athletes who may not shout from the mountain tops with an opinion on every hot button topic, but do good deeds in the world nonetheless. They finance schools, like David Robinson and Carlos Beltran. They help disadvantaged families find housing, like Warrick Dunn. They use their wealth to help their countrymen, like Dikembe Mutombo and Manute Bol. King might have tried to spur more athletes to action, but he also might have warned us about our misguided tendency to paint all athletes as self-absorbed.
King wasn't interested in sports only as a microcosm of society. He was a weekend athlete and a serious fan, according to Andrew Young, the former mayor of Atlanta and one of his lieutenants in the Civil Rights Era. Young has described him as an undersized point guard who used to surprise opponents with a hard-to-stop fallaway jumper in pickup games. You get the feeling that King appreciated what has always been one of the greatest things about athletics -- that talent, effort and character are the qualities that define a winner, and race has nothing to do with it. The best way to honor him is to keep working toward the day when that can be said not just about sport, but society.