You see, the way the black athlete has evolved in the public mind has made him something of a precursor for African-Americans in other visible fields. Originally, in fact, blacks in sport were confined strictly to the arena. Many of the biggest stars -- Jim Brown, Bill Russell, Muhammad Ali -- seemed downright threatening. They only underscored the image of African-American leaders as confrontational. For so long, endorsements invariably went to lesser white athletes, because advertisers simply assumed that a product's association with even a non-controversial black star must be off-putting to white consumers.
But, my -- as well we know -- how that changed.
By the 1990s, Michael Jordan was accepted as the most prominent pitchman on the planet, and he has been primarily succeeded by Tiger Woods. Moreover, outspoken and even prickly black sportsmen like Charles Barkley or Shaquille O'Neal are accepted, and even admired, for their candor.
From a cultural point of view, this sea change in attitude signalled that race did not constitute that much of a perceptual difference in public figures . . . which, ultimately, of course, leads us from the playing field to entertainment to politics to, at last, the presidential race and Barack Obama.
In that vein, I particularly believe that the recent ascendancy of black movie stars -- notably Denzel Washington and Will Smith -- can be largely accounted for by the prior acceptance of the personable black athlete. Whereas Washington and Smith usually are viewed as the heirs to Sidney Poitier, he was really something of an anomaly -- a distant one-off separated by so many years. But the celebrated African-American athletes were, in effect, leading men themselves. So, an audience that grew up with the likes of Jordan and -- just as important -- all the black stars who were local heroes for teams, could so much more easily accept the same sort of Hollywood cross-over.
It's also true that just as the black superstar was for so long denied the chance to be a personality, so was the smart black player denied the opportunity to lead. Now, we don't get the chance to see most decision-makers in action. Neither boardrooms nor smoke-filled rooms are live on network TV. A-ha, but we can watch coaches and managers pull the strings and settle strategy on the sidelines. Surely it was influential to be able to see black men dispensing judgment in those visible positions and to see that black coaches were, as a group, just as smart and just as dumb as white coaches. Vivid equality.
Look, maybe Obama would be the Democratic nominee if there had never been a Frank Robinson and a Jordan and a Tony Dungy and a Derek Jeter. But I really don't think so. I think the black athlete has, ultimately, made a deep, if subconscious, impression on whites. He's been heroic, of course. But beyond that, it's he who's had the chance to show whites that he can be congenial -- just folks, just like the white guy next door -- and that he can demonstrably lead people, yea, even to championships. This evolving comfort factor for fans must have eased the path for Obama with voters.
As a closing fillip, it's always said that Obama is different from the African-American politicians who proceeded him. I agree.
He reminds me more of Arthur Ashe than anyone in his own business.