I had never felt more than a passing interest in 42: The Jackie Robinson Story because I expected a film biography of Robinson to pale too much against his life. As someone who admires the life and career of Muhammad Ali, I felt the same reservations about Ali.
It seems likely that some people, some lives are simply too big, too grand on their own for recreation.
But the universe can be a funny thing. 42 was on cable the other night so I gave the film a chance. There is much power in the story, and despite the film slipping as many film biographies and movies about sports do, I was glad to have watched since it prompted me to look closer at Robinson’s life.
More importantly, though, I watched this film on Robinson in the context of two other situations—just weeks after the Richard Sherman controversy and just hours before Marcus Smart, an Oklahoma State basketball player, stumbled into the crowd at a game resulting in his pushing a fan who taunted Smart.
As the title of the Robinson film highlights, in sports, numbers mean a great deal.
While exploring how the media and public responded to Sherman, I noted that while Sherman is not Ali, the life and responses to Ali certainly should inform how we recognize racist threads running through calling Sherman a “thug” and attempts to justify Sherman through his academic achievements, such as his GPA. Even as we tried to embrace Sherman, we erased his blackness by honoring codes of his whiteness, codes that blind.
Marcus Smart is no Jackie Robinson; nor will he have that opportunity because Robinson lived in a time of monumental shifts that cannot be recreated.
But the incidents surrounding Sherman and Smart—both talented young African American men—are important moments for America to look in the mirror, and it may be equally important that we make sure pictures of Robinson and Ali hang on the wall behind us so their faces remain in that mirror frame while we pause, look, and reflect.
In 1947, Jackie Robinson was closer to Sherman’s age than Smart’s. Robinson had attended college and served in the military by the time he played baseball in the Negro League before being invited to play minor and then major league baseball for the Brooklyn Dodgers.
But what could prepare a man for standing at the plate to play a baseball game while the manager for the opposing team stood outside the dugout yelling racial slurs?
As I watched the film recreation of Philadelphia Phillies manager Ben Chapman shouting at Robinson, I was enraged. I was enraged, hundreds of levels removed from Robinson by my privilege, my race, my spot in history, my safe couch.
And then I saw Smart stumble into the stands after hustling down the court on defense. I saw him push a fan. I read Smart’s lips as his teammates pushed him away. And I knew Smart had lost in a way that Robinson had been warned about thousands of times.
It is a different type of anger, but I was immediately angry about that fact. I knew Smart would apologize (I was surprised the fan made his admission, though). I expected Smart to be suspended (and he was). I knew Smart would be compelled to express remorse for how he portrayed himself as a potential NBA prospect, as a member of the Oklahoma State team, as a young man.
I suspect there now will be some discussion of just what the fan shouted—as if “piece of crap” somehow lessens the incident.
We can’t have a fan shouting a racial slur but we can have a fan shouting “piece of crap” because we are not going to examine why that fan felt justified in the taunt?
Right, as with the Sherman controversy, it can’t be about race. And if anyone suggests otherwise, the usual “Why does everything have to be about race?” will be trotted out as a defense.
Mostly by white people. Mostly by white males in power who live outside a racist gaze, who are insulated from living every moment on the razor-thin threat of collapse brought about not by the content of one’s character but by the simple fact of one’s skin color.
It is 2014 and there is no longer a race barrier stopping African American males from excelling in professional athletics.
But, if the film 42 is accurate at all, young African American males must live on the same egg shells Robinson did when they are challenged, literally, by a white male.
Smart lost the minute he asserted himself in defense of his own dignity as a human—just a Robinson would have lost if he hadn’t remained at the plate while Chapman harassed him.
You see, civil society wants African American males with numbers on their chests to assert a certain kind of manhood on the court, the field, or the diamond, but those same African American males must not assert their manhood when it is about human dignity. Decades removed from Robinson’s life, codes of knowing one’s place remain.
The public and media gaze for the Smart incident will remain on Smart. He will carry the brunt of responsibility for the entire incident even though he was simply playing the game, even though he stumbled into the crowd, and even though the fan felt justified in shouting at the young man for no other reason than the jersey and number on his chest.
Marcus Smart should never have been placed in that situation, however, and then Smart would not have been the one holding a press conference and apologizing.
And as far as gazes go, let’s not forget that Robinson broke a barrier other people created.
It is 2014, and we need fewer press conferences and more time looking in the mirror.