The documentary Sport in America: Our Defining Stories, a collaboration between Sports Illustrated and HBO Sports, debuts Thursday at 6 p.m. on HBO.
They say -- well, some still do -- that Sam Cunningham had more to do with integrating the south than Abe Lincoln, or Martin Luther King. That's a stretch. Whereas those men carried the hopes and dreams of a better nation, Sam just lugged a football. Still, there's something to the idea that the games we play, and the people that play them, anticipate social change, maybe accelerate it. What we know in this case is that Cunningham and the rest of the USC football team, the first fully integrated team to play in Tuscaloosa, ran roughshod over Alabama and that Bear Bryant, in assessing the institutional damage and possible repair, immediately set about adding color to his Tide, and not just Crimson.
Sport is useful that way, the pursuit of performance bending it inevitably toward justice, taking us along for the ride. Was the Bear looking to redress a centuries-old shame, suddenly alert to basic human fairness? No. When USC rolled into town, not so long ago in 1970, he was coming off a 6-5 season and searching for answers. And Sam Cunningham, in his unmistakable and once-unforgivable blackness, offered him a solution. Weren't there already some black kids in Alabama, some kids very much like Sam Cunningham? The Bear's greater prejudice, like all of the football-loving south, was against losing. The Bear was looking to get into a bowl game.
VIDEO: Watch a preview of the documentary Sport in America
And so we have these pioneers -- black golfers, women tennis players, Jewish pitchers, Chinese basketball players, a 40-year-old heavyweight champion, a 16-year-old jockey, a backward-flopping high jumper -- popping up in every corner of sports, irrepressible, unstoppable, way ahead of their time, gaining entry through one of society's few loopholes, all of them made possible by our appetite for amazement. We didn't always have laws demanding equal access, irrespective of race or gender, you know. But the ability to hit a curve ball might just get you a cultural override.
Most often these pioneers have been accidental change agents, inadvertent provocateurs, their agenda less to change society than knock down a three. Neither Sam Cunningham nor Bear Bryant required much moral courage to go about their business of winning; the sheer necessities of a successful season had made most biases quaint, even by their day. They weren't pioneers, not really. But others, even in the largely tolerant arenas of our sports, needed a persistence against prejudice that was no less an act of bravery for all of that.
Jackie Robinson, Major League Baseball's test case in the move to integrate sports, was magnificent in his loneliness, inspirational beyond anything he did to join races together. Of course, there was that, giving an entire generation hope of a practical equality, at least in sports. But the example of a man, cast into a cauldron of race relations, left to restore a national conscience by himself, no tools but a bat and his own dignity, resonates beyond baseball.
Were there a national decency, Robinson, and hundreds of other worthy players hunkered down in the Negro Leagues, would have played for the Dodgers years before 1947. Nobody doubts that. But if baseball hadn't been so eager for advantage that it could risk a marketing blowback, Robinson might not have come to Brooklyn even in his prime. There is something about a talent pool -- all those players, ours for the asking! -- that is tempting beyond any taboo. The expediency of sports, where nothing is so sacred that it is not vulnerable to the impetus of improvement, turns out to be a fairly magnificent thing.
Obviously, pioneers face a wide range of resistance. It's a kind of insult to lump Robinson and Cunningham together, as if they faced the same challenges, or needed the same bravery. It was no fun for Billie Jean King, staring down male chauvinism, but it probably wasn't ... dangerous. Still, all of them, no matter their level of sacrifice, enjoyed the benefit of sports, one of the safest and most tolerant places for grand experiments. As you know, there is no metric in sports for self-satisfaction; tradition, grand as it is, doesn't get reflected in the won-lost column. Sports -- this is where norms get destroyed, lines crossed, barriers broken. So long, of course, as there's a promise of winning.
What a wonderful up-shot, though. Sports, being such a malleable and proactive institution, give us examples of a necessary integrity, unintended consequence or not. Robinson's quiet strength, demonstrated just how right, how correct this integration idea was. He looms today as an important icon of the civil rights movement. And Billie Jean, drafted as a foil in a comic battle of the sexes, ended up doing more for gender equality than any legislation. Her confidence and charisma turned a generation of young girls into some remarkable athletes. Pioneers give the rest of us permission to explore our dreams.
But forget, for a moment, about sports, about kids newly and fairly franchised. No small thing, but forget about it for a moment. Think what these pioneers did for the rest of us, how they gave us a language to talk about issues that had been simply inexpressible. How they gave us a safe way to address and debate ideas that not even our biggest thinkers could manage. Nothing like a box score to defuse the most important and volatile topic of a generation. That Larry Doby, first black player in the American League -- yeah, I guess he can hit a little. Little by little, using the carefully coded vernacular of our play, we get to speak what's in our hearts.
What's interesting about sports is not that it supports these pioneers, but that it seems to require them. So often, one season's like another. One game, just one among many. So many players, all doing about the same thing. Sports need outliers, breaks in tradition, randomness, unlikely achievements, novelty. If sports is what we talk about when we talk about America, it needs the story of Texas Western, the first school with an all-black starting five, beating Kentucky for the NCAA championship in 1966. It needs Janet Guthrie racing in the grid at Indy. It needs Dick Fosbury, jumping backward, to win an Olympic gold medal.
The media has become increasingly adept, always agnostic, in its search for angles, ways to separate one season from another, one game from others, an athlete out of all those many. No other institution is so eager to accommodate the unorthodox. Pioneers, trend-setters, rousers of all kinds of rabble -- please, come in. Tell us your story. We have papers to sell, ratings to get.
Jeremy Lin's tale, for example, would ordinarily be summarized as follows: California gym rat, scouted poorly, blossoms into back-court presence for the hurtin' Knicks. The story would be exhausted within a few news cycles -- college scouts dragged through the coals, NBA coaches freshly abashed, marketing potential newly appraised. What kind of contract will he get next year? And we move on. But throw in a Chinese heritage, in a sport dominated by black athletes (come a ways, haven't we?), and we have a story with legs. Now there are reports from all Chinese bureaus, estimations of international impact, reevaluations of ethnic stereotyping. Is it a little silly? Of course. On the other hand, how does it hurt to have one more example of the unexpected.
It may seem, to judge from Lin's example, that sports has outstripped our need for enlightenment, that all we have are faux frontiers. Jackie Robinson, the ultimate in grace under pressure, did all the heavy lifting, not only breaking the barrier for black athletes, but pioneers in general. His was the successful, if daunting, template for reform. Anybody who hopes to refresh the national agenda (first gay football player?), just do whatever he did. And likely with far less repercussions.
But sports pioneers, even if they seem to take the shape of oddities these days, their differences more a source of entertainment than any instructional narrative, remain as necessary as ever. It's not particularly important whether basketball becomes a huge pastime in China, millions of kids now working on their crossovers. Opening borders helps, sure, just like baseball and basketball became a better game when a whole 'nother population got access. But if we did have an all-Chinese starting five, would that have addressed some injustice? It would be interesting, but it might not give you goose bumps.
The real point, as it's always been, is that pioneers demonstrate possibility, inspire acts of bravery, small and large, encourage us to act on our passions in arenas far more forgiving than what we think of as real life. Somebody's daughter wants to box? Christy Martin shows the way. Or she wants to drive fast? Thank you, Danica. Or does some Pop Warner kid dream of playing quarterback, no matter how many coaches try to mold him into a wide receiver, like every black Pop Warner kid before him? See, Doug Williams already unlocked that door, long before there was ever a black president.
As far as that goes, wonder if that black president, that Barack Obama -- wonder, when he was a little kid, if he ever watched any sports, learned anything from them.