Great Athletes Break Down Racial Barriers

Posted: May 9, 2013 by John C. Kwasny, Ph.D. in Drama, True Story
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This weekend, the new and much heralded adaptation of The Great Gatsby will hit the theaters.  Even though I have read hundreds of novels over my lifetime, somehow I missed one that is well-known to be the “great American novel.”  I blame my literature teachers in high school!  Thus, with this embarrassing hole in my literary knowledge, I will leave it to someone else to review this novel-based film.  But in honor of The Great Gatsby, I will present two posts that focus on GREATNESS in the movies.  Today, I will use three movies that illustrate the greatness of our sports athletes in the breaking down of the sinful barrier of racism.


42 is the most recent film that chronicles the story of Jackie Robinson, the first African-American to play in Major League Baseball in the modern era.  Robinson broke the baseball color barrier when the Brooklyn Dodgers started him at first base on April 15, 1947.  As the first major league team to play an African-American man since the 1880’s, the Dodgers virtually ended racial segregation that had relegated black players to the Negro leagues for six decades.  The example of Robinson’s character and incredible talent challenged the whole basis of segregation, which then marked many other aspects of American life as well.  Enduring much persecution, he truly broke down the barrier that now enables countless African-American men to play professional baseball.

Glory RoadGlory Road is a 2006 sports drama which is based on the true story of Texas Western College’s remarkable men’s basketball season leading to the winning the 1966 NCAA Men’s Division I Basketball Championship.  First year coach Don Haskins led a team with an all-black starting lineup–a first in NCAA history.  What was even more incredible was that the team beat Adolph Rupp’s Kentucky Wildcats, also known as college basketball royalty.  It was truly a David vs. Goliath.  This majority African-American team had to endure the racism and hatred of the 1960’s, as well as the belief that black players were not intelligent enough to play championship level basketball.  After the historic victory, even the great University of Kentucky recruited its first African-American player, changing the entire face of the sport.

Remember the TitansFinally, Remember the Titans (2000) was another fine sports film based on the true story of African-American high school football coach Harold Boone as he tries to integrate a racially divided team in Alexandria, Virginia in the early 1970’s.  He replaced a long-time hall of fame white coach, as the area high schools were being desegregated.  Conflict broke out repeatedly among the black and white football players until they finally unified under the leadership of two defensive linebackers.  Not surprisingly, this story also includes racial hatred from the board and the community, until the team wins the state championship.

So we have three movies illustrating similar themes in the three major American sports–baseball, basketball, and football.  And, in three separate decades (40’s, 60’s, and 70’s) we have great athletes who in their own ways break down a racial barrier, thereby changing their respective sports and leagues forever.  And, even though the racism of white Americans is clearly on display, all three movies have a white man who also sacrifices for the cause of racial reconciliation: Branch Rickey (GM of the Dodgers), Don Haskins (Head Coach of the Miners) and Bill Yoast (Defensive Head Coach of the Titans).  It can be argued that without these “mediators” and “advocates”, the athletes could not have broken down the racial barriers.

Now before I make the connection to the greatest BARRIER-BREAKER of all time, I’d like to make just one slightly cynical observation.  As much as I love sports, and nearly all sports movies ever made, it’s kind of sad that it takes a winning sports team to make people “less” racist.  In all three situations, many of the white people relaxed their racist sentiments only when the athletes brought them victories.  I guess that’s human nature–the idolatry of racial segregation was just overwhelmed by the idolatry of sports championships.  So, if we are honest, these barriers weren’t broken out of a love for God and for other people of all races, but because of sheer idolatrous pragmatism.

Thankfully, Jesus Christ, the greatest barrier-breaker of all time, broke down the barrier between God and us, and between Jew and Gentile out of perfect love, not to win a meaningless game.  As Paul wrote in Ephesians 2:13-14, “But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ.  For He himself is our peace, who has made us both one and BROKEN down in His flesh the DIVIDING WALL of HOSTILITY…”  As great as it is to see racial barriers come down, how much greater for believers of all tribes and tongues to be unified in Christ Jesus our Lord!   



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