Since MLK Day, the last week ended up becoming a meditation on iconic Black athletes for me. It began by watching a documentary on Willie O’Ree, the first Black hockey player to play in the NHL. He courageously withstood verbal taunting and physical abuse while becoming “the Jackie Robinson of ice hockey.”
When Mr. O’Ree was young, he met Mr. Robinson, who ended up serving as the former Boston Bruins’ inspiration to cross the NHL color barrier. Then I watched the terrific 2-part HBO doc on Tiger Woods.
Because of the color of his skin, this extraordinarily gifted golfer, arguably the greatest ever to play, wouldn’t have been allowed to play on many of the courses at which he won pro tournaments as a teenage phenom. Although multiracial, Tiger was labeled Black and carried the mighty weight of being “the great Black hope” to make golf accessible and appealing to people who look like him. Imperfect and flawed like the rest of us, he still carries that burden heroically. Then Hank Aaron died.
I was 9 when my grandfather made me watch Mr. Aaron break the home run record in 1974. What I didn’t know or wouldn’t have understood at the time is that as Mr. Aaron approached breaking the record, he received threats of violence and death from people (racists) who wanted that prestigious baseball record to continue being held by a white player. Mr. Aaron still hold the major league records for most RBIs, total bases and extra-base hits.
As we approach Black History Month, it’s important to take time to reflect upon and honor the role Black athletes have played in sports history as well as the role they play today.