- Reconstructing Fame: Sport, Race, and Evolving Reputations
The day after becoming the Republican Party’s candidate for the Senate seat in Kentucky, Rand Paul insisted to Robert Siegel, host of National Public Radio’s “All Things Considered” program, “I’m opposed to institutional racism, and I would’ve, had I been alive at the time, I think, had the courage to march with Martin Luther King to overturn institutional racism.” Amidst the controversy that ensued, Paul’s declaration that he would have stood alongside Dr. King in his fight for racial justice highlights a wide-spread desire to assert the demise of racism in contemporary America. Paul’s endorsement of Dr. King’s struggle offered “proof” that he is not personally racist; by extension, his comment implicitly rejected the notion that racial inequalities persist today, thus absolving the government of any need to act on this issue.
Like Paul, many white Americans stake their own claim to moral righteousness by avowing their respect for once-controversial black historic figures, as the insightful collection of essays edited by David C. Ogden and Joel Nathan Rosen, Reconstructing Fame: Sport, Race, and Evolving Reputations, reveals. Tracing the stories of eight athletes, mostly African-American and all men, the various authors demonstrate the recurrence of a singular theme in twentieth-century sports history: athletes of color who eschewed normative expectations about their behavior faced harsh criticism and even ostracization by the white majority. Their “redemption” occurred only if general acceptance served a greater social purpose.
David J. Leonard, in one of the finest essays of the collection, provides a telling example of one athlete’s evolving reputation. A once-reviled Curt Flood, demonized in his lifetime for exposing the racism in Major League Baseball, experienced in death the restoration of his image. In recent years, Flood has been hailed as a man willing to sacrifice everything on behalf of a cause. By celebrating his actions, the modern media has exploited a [End Page 153] simplified version of Flood’s protest to censure today’s athletes as brash, arrogant, and self-serving. The nostalgic rendering of Flood and others like him strips them of their rightful place in American cultural history by subsuming the controversies and anger that attended their living reputations. It also serves as a foil against which contemporary sports figures have been repeatedly compared. Unable to attain the mythic nobility of their predecessors, today’s athletes endure new forms of condemnation.
At the same time, the resuscitation of formerly-tarnished, or at least controversial, reputations has helped to assuage unsettled consciences about the nation’s history of racism. Collectively, these essays tell a sadly familiar story about exploitation and oppression. The athletes examined in this volume weathered contempt in their own time; their stories are now being manipulated as a means of control over the new crop of black sportsmen. And by embracing a benign version of these athletes’ protests, the majority can absolve itself of past guilt while never directly confronting the racism that provoked the athletes’ outspokenness in the first place.
Various editing problems mar an otherwise worthy volume. With more careful attention to detail, distracting typographical, grammatical, and word choice errors might have been eliminated. And some acknowledgment of athletes who do not so easily fit the redemption model would have offered a valuable counterpoint. For example, how would the story of heavyweight boxer Jack Johnson work within this theoretical framework? Overall, however, this important collection adds depth to our understanding of sports within the greater realm of cultural history.