Jock Talk: Courage
in numbers: 42, 93
by Roger Brigham
One man is celebrated for having the courage not to respond to malice, the other for having the courage to respond. One man's drama was played out publicly before the entire world; the other's drama unfolded in a small compartment with a handful of now-dead witnesses in a rural area and is known to us only through the pieced-together bits of fragmentary recordings. The stories of these two iconic athletes, Jackie Robinson and Mark Bingham, are inspirational tales told compellingly this spring by two wonderful but very different movies.
Robinson we celebrate as the man who broke the color barrier in professional baseball in 1948 when he was Rookie of the Year for the Brooklyn Dodgers, wearing the uniform number 42. Bingham we celebrate as the gay rugby player who fatally helped thwart terrorists' attempts to smash United Flight 93 into a strategic Washington, D.C. target on 9/11. Neither Robinson nor Bingham acted alone, and their success depended on the actions of others, but the drama 42 and the documentary The Rugby Player do credible jobs of showing why the public memory of them is so strong and loving. Each of us owes a debt to both men on a very personal level.
After Robinson's historic breakthrough the number of African American players slowly grew over the next year before climaxing at around 25 percent in the mid-1970s. In that first year, he endured endless threats and epithets at a time when behind such words, violent actions such as lynchings and burnings were frequent.
The hurtful actions and words he was asked to endure without response were bad enough. Just as harmful were the hands not shaken, the congratulations not offered. The best teams have a supportive family dynamic that is often as strong or stronger than the biological family. Robinson was treated by his peers like he was an eccentric aunt locked in the attic when polite company came around.
I was born in 1953 and was 3 years old when Robinson retired from baseball. I went to my first game at Forbes Field in Pittsburgh, with Roberto Clemente patrolling right field. I grew up never knowing a racial barrier in baseball, but I was constantly bombarded by racism and racial divides in my everyday life throughout my childhood.
I remember waiting in traffic for a Shriners parade and seeing a drunken derelict in an adjacent alleyway, holding a scribbled sign telling folks to "get them n---s out of the hotels." I remember noticing the only black people I saw in the suburbs were maids getting off the buses but that downtown seemed to be filled with black men. I grew up hearing people questioning whether blacks had the courage or the intelligence to be starting pitchers in baseball and quarterbacks in football. On vacation at a resort in South Carolina I saw all of the white locals jump out of the pool the moment a black person got in.
And though my parents taught us growing up that all forms of prejudice were wrong, their teachings were always put to the test by the ubiquitous racism, whether callous or casual, that seemed to permeate every aspect of life.
It was that racism, more than the symbolic barrier he broke, that Robinson was fighting.
Similarly, Bingham found himself confronted not just by the handful of terrorists mingled in with his fellow passengers on Flight 93, but rather the army and history of hate teeming inside them. He had just minutes to say final farewells to his mother, then seconds to join his comrades in their suicidal mission to crash the jet short of its intended target.
The symbolism of Bingham's actions is based on its timing. In 2001, the military's "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" exclusion of gays and lesbians was alive and well, propped up by the assertion that gays lacked the courage to fight and that straights lacked the willingness to fight alongside them. Suddenly, in the most dramatic event in recent years, one followed devotedly by virtually every breathing person in the country, we had a big gay athlete in the thick of the fighting, disproving both DADT assertions at the most critical time. The family bonds that it took a year for Robinson to forge on the Dodgers occurred in the time it took to crash the United jet into the farm fields of Pennsylvania.
The film 24 has been playing in major theaters; The Rugby Player is currently making its way through film festivals and just was named best documentary by the audience in Miami. So far it has not been scheduled for San Francisco's LGBT film festival, but there is one fundraising screening scheduled for Wednesday, May 22, at Delancey Screening Room, 600 Embarcadero Street. Tickets for the event start at $35 and are available through the event's Facebook page, https://www.facebook.com/events/148545195317316/. Proceeds will help finish the project.