David Sirota over at Salon.com recently addressed the controversy Bob Costas caused when he spoke out about gun control during the halftime of an NFL game. Costas was responding to the tragic murder-suicide of Kansas City Chiefs player Jovan Belcher. His comments raised some ire from those who argued that a football game was no place for “political” commentary, especially from a man whose role was to be a sportscaster. Sirota’s main argument is that in a democracy, those entitled to express an opinion should not be decided on the basis of so-called “expert” status. He also touches briefly on the interconnected roles of sports and politics in our society.
This immediately brought to my mind Agate Midway’s upcoming March 2013 release, Ramblers, which focuses on the 1963 Loyola Chicago Ramblers basketball team and the NCAA men’s basketball championship tournament. The Ramblers fielded what was then an extremely progressive lineup of four African-American starters, and their opponent in the championship game, Cincinnati, had three African-American starters. This was at a time when opportunities for African-Americans in sports (and elsewhere, of course) were extremely limited. Indeed, one of Loyola's opponents in the NCAA tournament, the Mississippi State Bulldogs, had to sneak out of town just to participate due to a longstanding "unwritten rule" forbidding Mississippi teams from playing against integrated teams.
Author Michael Lenehan does an excellent job of painting the political and social pressures these teams faced while trying to play their game. Sports are one arena where talent always wins out, regardless of race, class, or creed. Ability earns respect, challenging assumptions about supposed inferiority. In 1963, the Loyola Chicago Ramblers were quite simply the best, and their success, as well as the success of other integrated teams, would go on to break down preconceptions about African Americans and their abilities.
Ramblers includes a wonderful anecdote that illustrates the power of sports to change people’s prejudices. In 1944, there was a game between the all-black North Carolina College Eagles basketball team and the all-white Duke University Medical School intramural team, which that year was reportedly better than the Duke varsity team. The game had to be carried out in absolute secrecy to avoid conflict in racially segregated Durham, North Carolina. The Eagles demolished the med students 88–44. Then the teams switched up and played a mixed game for fun, and afterward went back to the Eagles players’ dorm for refreshments. One of the Duke players wrote a letter to his parents a few days later:
Oh, I wonder if I told you that we played basketball against a Negro college team. Well, we did and we sure had fun and I especially had a good time, for most of the fellows playing with me were Southerners…. And when the evening was over, most of them had changed their views quite a lot.