Travelers Championship

TPC River Highlands


It's A Jackie Robinson Moment

By Ron Sirak Photos by Getty Images
November 09, 2008

Tiger Woods and President elect Barack Obama

In many ways, sport is the laboratory for our society, the testing ground of our culture, the place where the future gets a preview. Change comes to the games we play before it takes root in the way we live.

No matter what your political persuasion, the election of Barack Obama is a remarkable tribute to the access of opportunity afforded by our society. And sports played a major role in this transformation, from Joe Louis and Jackie Robinson to Charlie Sifford, Muhammad Ali and Tiger Woods.

As I was driving to work the morning after the election I heard a man-on-the street interview with a guy who referred to the election as "a Jackie Robinson moment." He hit the nail right on the head. All it took was 61 years for the political system to catch up to baseball.

Think about that: Major League Baseball was integrated in 1947, seven years before the U.S. Supreme Court's landmark Brown vs. The Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas ruling that struck down separate but equal schooling, which everyone knew was definitely separate but hardly equal.

Robinson played his first game for the Brooklyn Dodgers 10 years before Central High School was integrated in Little Rock, Ark., and 17 years before the Voting Rights Act was passed. Equality of the races was tested in baseball before it was enacted in the culture.

The fact that more than 52 percent of those who voted on Nov. 4, 2008 -- a date that will surely be taught in history classes as a watershed moment for our country as long as there is a United States of America -- cast their ballot for a man of color was proof positive that the majority of Americans were able to look at Obama and see not a black man but a smart man, a capable man.

This election was a strong indication that the country had taken a major step toward realizing the vision so eloquently articulated by Dr. Martin Luther King in his "I have A Dream" speech 45 years ago when he said he longed for a day when his children "will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character."

I have no idea who Woods voted for, or even if he voted. But the existence of Tiger had as much to do with making Obama possible as Robinson did in easing the country along toward Brown vs. Board and full integration of our society.

When a 10-year-old child looks at Tiger he or she doesn't see a black man, but a man who is one of the greatest ever to perform in his chosen field. Woods is judged by the more complete criteria of accomplishment and character rather than color.

One of the things made clear by exit polling is the generational change that has taken place. The overwhelming support for Obama by voters under the age of 30 is an indication of the impact cultural figures -- including athletes -- have had.

Those children who grew up admiring Michael Jordan are now adults who admire Obama. And even those who do not agree with Obama's politics are capable of respecting him. They are able to get past the color of his skin and into the content of his character.

When this change began is more easily identified than pinpointing when it was completed. In fact, the road to full equality remains an unwinding and perhaps unending trail. But the journey began in earnest when the boxer Louis became the face of America in 1938 when he defeated Max Schmeling, the poster boy for Adolf Hitler's Germany.

As the comedian Dick Gregory later said: "It was probably the first and only time in history that a black man could end up being a white hope." Louis was the heavyweight champion for a dozen years. And there is interesting irony in the fact his son, Joe Louis Barrow, Jr. is head of The First Tee, the program designed to bring golf and the life skills it teaches to young people.

Louis and Robinson opened doors many in America wished to have remained closed. As admired and as successful as Bill Russell was when he played basketball for the Boston Celtics in the 1960s he was nonetheless a victim of racist venom by fans of the team.

Ali was as hated as he as admired and really did not pass into the realm of complete cultural icon until after his retirement and well into his illness, the true transitional moment coming when he lit the torch to open the 1996 Atlanta Olympic Games.

That is a perfect reference point for where we are today. It was in 1996 that Tiger won his third consecutive U.S. Amateur, turned pro and held his "Hello World" news conference. That was in August. By the next April, when at the age of 21 he won the Masters by 12 strokes at Augusta National -- a club that only five years earlier admitted its first black member -- he already was the unquestioned best player in the world. As impactful moments, it was as if Robinson had broken the color barrier in baseball and Babe Ruth's home run record in the same season.

Yes, there were racist threats directed at Woods, and likely some of those remain. But in an extremely quiet and classy way Tiger has followed in the footsteps of Louis, Robinson, Russell, Ali, Jordan and Magic Johnson in making American sports fans color blind.

Would American have been ready to elect a black man -- in fact, a man of mixed race, something that was once illegal in many states -- if not for sports? Eventually, but not as quickly. Change started in the toy department.

Woods is a social activist in the most quiet of manners, letting the admirable work of the Tiger Woods Foundation speak for him. But the fact that, in addition to his accomplishments on the golf course he has done nothing off the course to tarnish his image, has contributed greatly to the American conversation about race.

On Jan. 20, 2009 a new era in America will begin. And as much as it was made possible by people like Rosa Parks, who did not give up her seat on a Birmingham bus, and Dr. King it was also made possible by Sifford who, in 1961, became the first black man to become a member of the PGA Tour. It was made possible by Woods and Jordan who, like Obama, transcend race.

They say these are only games, and they are right. But they are also a microcosm of who we are as a nation. Do not underestimate the importance of the fact that the greatest golfer of all time is a man of color. It was part of the puzzle that made it possible for a man of color to be President of the United States.

Ron Sirak is Executive Editor of Golf World.