Progress is slow to ar­rive

From Con­fed­er­ate flags to equal rights, Kevin Black­i­stone writes change comes slowly in sports.

The Washington Post Sunday - - SPORTS - Kevin B. Black­i­stone sports@wash­post.com Kevin B. Black­i­stone, ESPN pan­elist and vis­it­ing pro­fes­sor at the Philip Mer­rill Col­lege of Jour­nal­ism at the Univer­sity of Mary­land, writes sports com­men­tary for The Post.

For four years, Josh New­man, now a pro­fes­sor of sport man­age­ment at Florida State, vis­ited NASCAR races all over the coun­try for a book he was writ­ing on con­sumerism and the multi­bil­lion-dol­lar stock­car cir­cuit. And he was struck by how NASCAR couldn’t help but speak out of both sides of its mouth.

On one hand, it stated — as it re­it­er­ated Tues­day in the wake of the ar­rest of a Con­fed­er­ate flag-wav­ing white man for the mas­sacre of nine black Charleston, S.C., parish­ioners in their church — that it “disal­low[ed] the use of the Con­fed­er­ate flag sym­bol in any of­fi­cial NASCAR ca­pac­ity.”

On the other hand, New­man said he and his co-au­thor, another Florida State pro­fes­sor, Michael Giar­dina, “kept see­ing these ven­dors that still were selling some pretty aw­ful things in terms of racial pol­i­tics. These are peo­ple who buy the space to vend from NASCAR . . . selling all these Con­fed­er­ate flags. So it’s in­ter­est­ing that [NASCAR takes] a po­si­tion like that, but if you look at where a lot of their money comes from, it comes from these mer­chan­dis­ers.”

It was a re­minder to me of some­thing I’ve long thought, since sup­port­ing move­ments to ban the Con­fed­er­ate flags at Texas high schools in the ’90s when I lived and worked there: There may not be a cor­ner of our so­ci­ety that has done more to pop­u­lar­ize, and some­how nor­mal­ize, through mar­ket­ing and com­modi­ti­za­tion, the public dis­play­ing of the Con­fed­er­ate flag and its sub­se­quent im­agery than the world of sports. Sports all but granted sanc­tu­ary to this af­front to sen­si­bil­ity.

“There’s no place where the fo­cus is so cen­trally lo­cated on the body [as sports], so what you see is this abil­ity of cer­tain sports en­ti­ties to draw these strong con­nec­tions be­tween these sym­bols — Con­fed­er­ate flags and bod­ies — whether the bod­ies are in the stands or . . . on the mid­dle of the field,” said New­man, whose book “Sport, Spec­ta­cle, and NASCAR Na­tion: Con­sump­tion and the Cul­tural Pol­i­tics of Ne­olib­er­al­ism” was pub­lished in 2011.

And it isn’t just sports most pop­u­lar in the Bi­ble Belt, such as NASCAR or South­east­ern Con­fer­ence col­lege football, where the Con­fed­er­acy was killed 150 years ago and the apartheid Amer­ica it birthed was ex­ter­mi­nated by law half a cen­tury back.

There’s a high school on the shores of Lake Erie in LeBron James’s north­east Ohio — Wil­loughby South — whose mas­cot is a rebel soldier and whose ath­letes, WEWS Chan­nel 5 in Cleve­land re­ported Thurs­day, some­times sport the Con­fed­er­ate flag em­broi­dered on their let­ter­man jack­ets even though they are not al­lowed to wear the ban­ner in school.

The flag is on the Gen­eral Lee (as in Con­fed­er­ate Gen­eral Robert E.) car from the old TV show “The Dukes of Hazzard” that golfer Bubba Wat­son, a two-time Mas­ters win­ner, drove

to the 2012 Phoenix Open shortly af­ter buy­ing it at a car auc­tion that Jan­uary. He ex­hibits it around the coun­try, though NASCAR told him don’t bring it to its events. Just the good ol’ boys; never meanin’ no harm . . .

All of this is a re­minder that many of us sports jour­nal­ists have con­structed a mythol­ogy about the games we love: that they’ve been in the vanguard of so­cial change in this coun­try.

Last year, Michael Sam’s com­ing out be­fore the NFL draft was hailed by some as a land­mark mo­ment. But the rest of so­ci­ety had elected, ap­pointed as cor­po­rate ex­ec­u­tives and gov­ern­ment of­fi­cials or worked and lived with gay and les­bian peo­ple for gen­er­a­tions.

And there is the big­gest myth of all: that Jackie Robin­son’s ac­cep­tance of Ma­jor League Base­ball’s in­vi­ta­tion to rein­te­grate its di­a­monds (Fleet­wood Walker was the first black ma­jor lea­guer be­tween May and Septem­ber 1884) was a sem­i­nal mo­ment in the Civil Rights move­ment. Truth is, Robin­son was part of a con­tin­uum in the 1940s. He was pre­ceded by Pres­i­dent Roo­sevelt’s ex­ec­u­tive or­der in 1941 that pro­hib­ited racial dis­crim­i­na­tion by fed­eral de­fense con­trac­tors, a Supreme Court de­ci­sion in 1944 that out­lawed all-white pri­maries and a Supreme Court rul­ing in 1946 that ruled seg­re­gated seat­ing on in­ter­state buses was un­con­sti­tu­tional.

The power of sports could have been a leader against the ugly im­agery of the Con­fed­er­ate flag long ago. It could have moved to erad­i­cate it.

But the NCAA, that gov­ern­ing body for in­sti­tu­tions of higher learn­ing, didn’t take ac­tion against South Carolina’s fly­ing of the Con­fed­er­ate flag un­til shamed into do­ing so in 2001 af­ter the NAACP ap­proved a tourism boy­cott against South Carolina un­til the state stopped fly­ing the flag on its Capi­tol.

In 1982, Ole Miss could have sup­ported its first black cheer­leader, who re­fused the tra­di­tion of tot­ing the Con­fed­er­ate flag at games, but in­stead the school gave into pres­sure from alums, fans and the KKK and con­tin­ued the tra­di­tion for years af­ter­ward. John Hawkins, the cheer­leader, de­cided not to try out for the squad af­ter that one sea­son.

The public school dis­trict that over­sees Hays High School in cen­tral Texas didn’t have to wait un­til 2012, four years af­ter the coun­try elected its first African Amer­i­can as pres­i­dent, to ban the Con­fed­er­ate flag from school prop­erty and events.

But sports haven’t been the so­ci­etal trend­set­ter some among us have made them out to be. They’ve of­ten been lag­gards, as with this Con­fed­er­ate flag mis­take, and du­plic­i­tously so.

ROB CARR/AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

In this 2007 photo, a Con­fed­er­ate flag flies at Tal­ladega. NASCAR rules pro­hibit the flag from be­ing used in an of­fi­cial ca­pac­ity.

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