The natural tendency, during times like the commemoration of an event as significant as Jackie Robinson's cracking of baseball's color line, is to take stock of where we are, what has changed and how things are likely to look. And you've no doubt heard a lot in the past few weeks about how far sports and our society have come since April 15, 1947, the day Robinson took a tremendous leap of courage, the first of many he took.
But the distance we've traveled and the places we're likely to go are limited by the fact that most of the African-American athletes who have followed in Robinson's footsteps haven't built on his example of bravery.
In one sense, it's not a crime to come up short in comparison with Robinson.
His willingness to endure the worst humiliations that America could dish out was much more than most people, in or out of athletics, could take.
But his desire to see America live up to the meaning of its creed, and his ability to have his actions match his desire, were more than his modern-day successors are willing to attempt.
Where Robinson adopted important causes and spoke out on issues of the day, often taking unpopular stances, today's athlete keeps his mouth closed to society's problems, but his eyes open to every endorsement opportunity.
If Deion Sanders - who has taken to wearing his socks high and his sleeves short like Robinson - really wanted to be like him, shouldn't Sanders tell us what he thinks of the racist prattlings of Cincinnati Reds owner Marge Schott, who just happens to sign one of his many checks?
When Charles Barkley says he's interested in running for governor of Alabama, is it because he wants to improve the state's education system, or because he wants to lower his own taxes?
And is there an African-American athlete alive who wears Nike - be it Scottie Pippen or Ken Griffey Jr. or Sheryl Swoopes or Jerry Rice or, yes, Michael Jordan - who protests the Big Swoosh's policy of operating Asian sweatshops or the company's decision to put its latest shoe on sale during a school day, thereby encouraging kids to cut class to get it?
The answers to all of the above questions are easy. With few exceptions, the modern African-American athlete has swallowed whatever courage he or she might have possessed for the love of money. It wasn't always that way. Robinson was an active and outspoken member of the NAACP in the '50s and '60s and came out for then-Vice President Richard Nixon in the 1960 presidential election because he perceived Nixon to be superior on civil rights to John F. Kennedy, hardly a popular stance.
The modern player takes his cue from Jordan, who had a chance to do the right thing in 1990, when North Carolina Sen. Jesse Helms, in a tough re-election fight with Harvey Gantt, the black former mayor of Charlotte, played the race card with a vicious ad ampaign. Jordan, who loves his home state so much that he wears Tar Heels practice shorts under his uniform, stood silently as Helms got away with it.
Unfortunately, the watchword for today's athlete - white or African-American - has become "Show me the money." Perhaps, as we find out what men like Jackie Robinson were really all about, his athletic offspring will become more interested in showing us the courage.
Milton Kent covers the media.
! Pub Date: 4/15/97