Arthur Ashe, Barry Bonds, Bruce Jenner, Caitlyn Jenner, Cris Cyborg, Cristiane Justino, Ernie Davis, Fallon Fox, Gabrielle Ludwig, Hank Greenberg, Jackie Robinson, Jesse Owens, Jim Thorpe, Jonathan Martin, Lawrence Phillips, Martina Navratilova, Miami Dolphins, Michael Sam, Richie Incognito, Ronda Rousey, Wilma Rudolph
Sports has been the backdrop for social change. There are people that are not fans of any sport that try to minimize its importance in society, but that’s not a realistic opinion. Sports have had important pioneers in every context, and by having those people as examples meaningful dialogue happened.
But this is the first generation of athletes that made me realize how fortunate we’ve been so far. Our previous pioneers usually understood how important they were, and they handled things with grace and patience. They were typically exceptional athletes that deserved to be where they were. And there was a clarity to their impact, we were definitely better off for having them exist and change their sport.
We had Wilma Rudolph, Jesse Owens, Jim Thorpe, Arthur Ashe, Martina Navratilova, Ernie Davis, Jackie Robinson, Hank Greenberg, Christy Martin, Gina Carano and the list could go on for some time. But they were special.
Can you imagine if the first notable baseball player of color wasn’t Jackie Robinson, but was Barry Bonds? How bad of a setback would that have been? What if football had gotten Lawrence Phillips instead of Ernie Davis winning the Heisman? It would have been tricky after that, right?
Because that’s what’s been happening lately.
Michael Sam was the first openly gay football player. As a pioneer, he was in a tough spot. He wasn’t the biggest or the fastest guy, although its hard for me to say a 6″2 265lb guy can’t be a defensive end in the NFL when they play smaller guys at that position right now. (Sidebar: there was no excuse for a guy that light to run a 4.91 40. That was just pure laziness.)
He had a good motor and he got to the quarterback, which was his job. I think he could have made an impact in the NFL. But rookies are expected to keep their mouth shut and their head down. There might not be a bigger jump in sports than the disparity between college football and pro football.
Sam liked attention.
He was arranging a reality show with Oprah, the most tone-deaf move he could have possibly done the moment after he got drafted. After that, it was one misstep after another as it took time for him to realize that he did more for gay people by being good at his job, than getting awards and appearing in specials.
He washed out of the league quickly. The Commissioner had to call around the league and beg an owner to take him, even briefly. He was on the practice squad for the Dallas Cowboys for a month, after that he joined Dancing With the Stars which immediately killed any hopes of the NFL. He could have restarted his career in Canada, but it quickly imploded because a breakup with his fiancee caused him to flee training camp for a month without telling him team. Honestly, gay people deserve a better pioneer than this.
The Miami Dolphins fully expected Jonathan Martin to a be a future team captain. He was smart, articulate, but a little undersized and not particularly tough. But they thought they could mold him. Coaches set locker room pit bull Richie Incognito on him to mentor him and toughen him up a little, after some very disappointing play at right and left tackle.
Martin responded by collapsing, and making a formal complaint of bullying that tore his franchise apart. Modern sensibilities about how the locker room should resemble other workplaces came about because of Jonathan Martin.
Let me be very clear, there was some offensive stuff happening that came to light, and at a certain point Incognito went too far. But what the media and the public didn’t understand is that you can’t apply politically correct office standards to football.
As an offensive lineman, Martin had one of the most brutal jobs in sports. He was going to have to basically grapple some of the largest, fastest, strongest humans on Earth. And on the line of scrimmage, they say anything to get you off your game. Richie Incognito made sexual jokes about his sister because he knew that defensive lineman will probe till they find a sore spot and then exploit it verbally all game.
After this story broke, Jonathan Martin was facing a career of people talking about his family to get into his head.
Martin wasn’t tough enough. He got another shot with the 49ers who realized that he wasn’t strong enough, which is pretty much the most fixable problem an athlete can have. Then he bounced to the Panthers where he got injured and retired in frustration at 25, having accomplished utterly nothing.
Finally legendary swimmer Bruce Jenner announced that he was transgender, and changed his name and persona to Caitlyn Jenner. That is an intensely personal decision, and it apparently inspired a lot of people that had similar emotions. I can’t criticize that. But the effect it had on sports wasn’t a feelgood moment…it was confusion.
What about transgender athletes?
Fallon Fox was born a man, got gender reassignment surgery and wants to fight Ronda Rousey. No one knows what to do. Does being born a man give you a physical advantage against a woman of the same weight? Obviously it depends on the people in question, but basic questions like advantages in bone density and muscle structure are being hotly debated scientifically. And when you look at transgender athletes like Gabrielle Ludwig, you can see that there are times when previously being a man is a clear advantage.
Maybe Fallon Fox is a fair fight, but its an up or down vote. Would we be exposing female athlete to unfair competition by admitting transgender athletes? Is it unfair to transgender athletes to not let them compete? To say, ‘hey you’re female…but you’re not REALLY female?’
Its not Caitlyn’s fault, but the aftermath of her publicity is mostly uncertainty. And that’s where Ronda Rousey comes in. I heard about her a couple years ago, and it was from guys that didn’t talk about female fighters. They were genuinely excited to see someone aggressive like her.
And then, at some point, the female didn’t matter. She was a fighter. And Cris Cyborg is no slouch either.
I want to see Ronda Rousey and Cristiane “Cris Cyborg” Justino fight because its the next big superfight out there. It does not concern me that they are women, in fact, its irrelevant. And isn’t that the goal of feminism (if there is a goal in third wave feminism)? To not be marginalized? To viewed and respected as much as men are in their fields?
Is there any other circumstance where there were pretty equally matched women (who SHOULD fight at 140) in a male-dominated combat sport that drew this much interest? (I do not count Laila Ali and poor Christy Martin, because Martin was outmatched, and Gina Carano looked like her heart was in Hollywood even before Cris Cyborg ended her career.) This is a pioneering event that is coming together before our eyes.
And that’s why this fight is so important. Not because of what it is, which to be honest is two people messily damaging themselves, but because of what it means – that women can enter things thought to be utterly masculine and redefine them completely.
And unlike the examples I used earlier, its a clear win.
When these two step in the ring, they will likely eclipse the miserable contest between Manny Pacquiao and Floyd Mayweather. They will be the superfight of the moment, and from what I’ve seen of these two, this will be a barnburner. And no one can take that away from them or tear it down. To succeed when everything is against you – to change the perception of how millions of people view women – well that kind of goes beyond sports.