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When colleges first started recruiting black athletes, you would often hear such comments from whites (sometimes from coaches) as, "That Indian boy of ours gets whiter the closer he gets to the goal line," or "My colored boy can beat your nigger." Today, black athletes are viewed by some white coaches and fans as a necessary evil one must endure to stay competitive. It was one thing when the white boy next door could be squeezed into State U because he could throw a football, even if he couldn't quite get the knack of algebra. That was family. Some old alum would look out for the boy and make sure he got a job when he was done playing. The attitude toward black athletes tends to be more cynical. To many white alumni and boosters, the alma mater is represented by mercenaries, black supermen who can leap and run but who really aren't much like us. A band of black Hessians carries the banner for the university, while not really being a part of it.
It is no accident that the commercial explosion of intercollegiate sports has coincided with the increase in the number of black athletes. Cynical alumni, boosters, administrators and coaches are able to justify the preponderance of blacks in school uniforms so long as those players help turn a buck for the institution. In racial terms, that is what revenue sports have come to mean.
Where we make our mistake in dealing with the evils of college sports is to constantly speak of de-emphasis. We might as well try to remove sex and violence from television. You can't put the genie back in the bottle. College sports have been overemphasized for nearly a century, ever since Walter Camp made Yale our first football factory. It is a uniquely American phenomenon, the spoonful of sugar that makes the educational medicine go down. Indeed, it is even possible to argue that the high visibility and continuing popularity of school sports in America have been vital in building our educational system. What should concern us is the growing perception that college sports are a pox on all college education, that they are a spreading infection, poisoning anything they touch. Most of us now routinely assume that any college president must be either a fool or a knave.
Still, we are not really bereft of heroes in sports today. What we are missing is something to be heroic about. You can't become a hero the same way you can become a Dallas Maverick or a Cincinnati Bengal, merely by putting on a new uniform. The athletes who attained the status of hero in the past represented something more than just themselves.
For example, in the first couple of decades of this century, before the Great War, before we grew up, the closest thing to a true sports idol may have been Christy Mathewson, the well-mannered college boy who showed he could go to Gotham and mow down the toughs at their own game. Perhaps an even more timely hero was Hobey Baker of Princeton, Frank Merriwell incarnate, gentleman sportsman, superstar in two sports, intrepid air cavalier over France, the embodiment of all that sports was supposed to mean.
They were followed by the Roaring '20s, America on a toot, bestride the world—and above everyone there loomed the irrepressible Babe Ruth, Lindbergh in pinstripes. And there were the other largers-than-life: the Manassa Mauler and the Galloping Ghost, the patrician Mr. Bobby Jones and Man o' War. After World War II, never was there a better representative of the times than Jackie Robinson. Then the '50s, prosperity and babies and suburbs: Unitas, who symbolized the crystallization of the NFL; Bill Russell, who changed his whole sport; Sir Edmund Hillary, who climbed the highest mountain; Arnold Palmer, who charged unafraid—peacetime generals all of them, solidly in command. And after them, the '60s: Muhammad Ali and Billie Jean King (and, to a lesser extent, Broadway Joe)—antiheroes in a time that sought that sort of model.
Curiously, until now, only the woeful '30s lacked a symbol in sports. There were Joe Louis and Jesse Owens, of course, but mainly for their kind. They were a bit too soon. And so was Babe Didrikson. In fact, if there was one sports hero for the Depression, it was probably Sonja Henie, a forerunner of other Olympians, the one who first showed that you could cash in a gold medal at the bank.
But today? Does anyone in sports stand above the crowd? Not likely. Whatever heroism can put up with, it can't suffer parity. And sports has been taken over, merged, blurred and homogenized into everything else. In the past the whole idea of sports was that they were good precisely because they were different from all the other cultural flotsam. Sports were idiosyncratic and unashamed that they were peculiar. They had their own rules. And they were full of clearcut winners and losers. The rewards for success weren't just monetary, and sometimes not monetary at all. Loyalty was unambiguous.
It was only as sports expanded to accommodate a larger portion of society that society decided it had to impose on them its own dubious regulations. In many respects this was necessary and good, but in the process, a great deal was lost. Many Americans are still wandering about, vaguely lost, at this strange point where sentiment and cynicism intersect, not quite knowing where they are or what it is they miss. For a long time now, the effort has been made to incorporate sports into the larger, imperfect world. Wouldn't it be nice if, somehow, sports could separate themselves and become something unique again, something that improves the world, rather than something that is soiled by the world?