- A Level Playing Field: African American Athletes and the Republic of Sports
Often dust covers are chosen primarily to sell books. Whether this was the motivation of the marketing department at the Harvard University Press cannot be said for certain. Suffice it to say that the photos of Donovan McNabb and Rush Limbaugh are featured on the dust cover of this book, the substance and significance of which transcends these two football and media antagonists.
Gerald L. Early has written extensively on American history and sport history and, as is demonstrated in this volume, on the subject of sport and race. The essays collected in this small volume represent his interest in the latter subject as well as the former. The collection is divided into two sections: “Leveling the Playing Field,” and “Heroism and the Republic of Sports.” Each section contains three essays.
The three essays in “Leveling the Playing Field” were first presented as the Alain Locke Lectures in 2004 at the Du Bois Institute at Harvard. The first is centered on the contrasting roles played by Paul Robeson and Jackie Robinson in the post-World War II desegregation of American society. The second essay is built around Curt Flood’s challenge to the reserve clause and comes to focus upon the notion of the African-American athlete as a slave, this despite the success achieved in the field of sport. The third focuses upon the controversy created when Rush Limbaugh, appearing as an analyst on ESPN’s NFL Sunday Countdown, said that Philadelphia Eagle quarterback Donovan McNabb was overrated by a white liberal press that wanted him to succeed as a “Black Quarterback.”
In “Heroism and the Republic of Sports” the first essay examines the many sides, subtleties, and uses of Jackie Robinson’s role as hero and ex-hero in American society. The second starts from Robinson and moves to Ali then offers comparisons and contrasts amongst the white and black elite athletes and heroes and ends with a look at the featherweight boxing champion Prince Naseem Hammed of England. The third essay in this section is a very short piece first published in The Nation commenting on the question of why there has been a decline in the numbers of African Americans in Major League Baseball since the highpoint of the post-Robinson surge.
Each essay in this collection has something to offer both scholars and those interested in the substantive issues that surround sport and its role in the transmission of culture. The way in which the athlete is treated at any given point in American history tells us as much about the culture as it does about the athlete or the sport. In the case of these particular essays the perpetual issues of race in American life cascade across the pages, while Gerald Early’s views and questions punctuate each of these thoughtful meditations. In fact it is the questions raised by Early that may be the most important parts of each essay, demonstrating once again that when dealing with ideas, it is the questions that far exceed the answers in significance. [End Page 342]
For those interested in the issue of race in America, Early again raises the telling questions rather than providing conclusions. He is not the bearer of truth, but rather he offers a means to approach and analyze what seems to be true. He reverses fields, throws up mirrors, redirects the mind, constantly demanding of his readers that they clarify their thoughts and take into account views and interpretations not previously entertained.
For example when he addresses the oft lamented decline of the numbers of African Americans playing Major League Baseball, or baseball at any level, Early raises some rather simple and retroactively obvious points. Maybe baseball was never all that popular in the African-American community. Maybe African Americans have found other more interesting or appealing outlets to pursue, especially now that some of the racial barriers in American society have been lowered. Or, why...