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Steinberg: Tradition of athletes speaking out on race

Sometimes two seemingly separate news stories can shed unexpected light on each other.

A week ago Saturday, Bulls point guard Derrick Rose wore a black “I Can’t Breathe” T-shirt during warm-ups before a game against the Golden State Warriors.

And three days later, former heavyweight boxing champion Ernie Terrell died.

What’s the connection?

Rose and other pro athletes took flak for joining protests against police violence in the wake of killings of unarmed black men in Ferguson, Cleveland and New York. (Doesn’t that topic seem like old history already, pushed aside by North Korea and Cuba? A reminder that, for all the self-drama of protests, bending the status quo into something new is really hard, and society keeps sproinging back into its old shape).

I admired Rose for making his silent statement, remembering Michael Jordan and his deep reluctance to take any kind of stand on any issue that might divert even a few drops of the mighty Jordan River of money flowing over him. We know who’s the greater athlete, but who’s the better man?

Other commentators sneered at Rose.

“I just wish @drose could talk, or really understands what he’s doing,” CBS sports radio host Dan Bernstein scoffed in a tweet. “I don’t think he does.”

Despite such criticism, protests spread, mostly among black athletes, while some whites expressed white-guy befuddlement.

“You know there’s a time and place to make your statements,” sniffed New York Giants quarterback Eli Manning. “I don’t know if it’s always during a game.”

That’s timid sportspeak for: “I believe it’s never during a game.”

Which is where Terrell comes in.

When he died, both the obituary in the Sun-Times by our own Maureen O’Donnell, and the Tribune’s obit, detailed Terrell’s main claim to fame: the 1967 championship match at the Houston Astrodome where Muhammad Ali pummeled him, demanding, “What’s my name?” Before the bout, Terrell had refused to call him by his Muslim name, “Muhammad Ali” and instead used “Cassius Clay,” Ali’s name given at birth in Kentucky in 1942.

The obituaries quote Terrell saying he did so as the usual pre-bout taunting, sidestepping the huge controversy about Ali’s name.

The day after Ali won his first championship, defeating mob thug Sonny Liston in 1964, he announced he was now a member of the Nation of Islam, and that his name was Cassius X. Two months later he changed it again to Muhammad Ali.

“I don’t have to be what you want me to be,” Ali said. “I’m free to be who I want.”

As with Rose, the press jeered him.

But that was nothing compared to what came two years later when, on March 17, 1966, Ali appeared before his draft board to request exemption from the draft.

“My conscience won’t let me go shoot my brother, or some darker people, or some poor hungry people in the mud for big powerful America,” Ali explained after the hearing. “And shoot them for what? They never called me n—–, they never lynched me.”

He was denounced in Congress (“a complete and total disgrace,” said a representative from Pennsylvania). He was scheduled to face Terrell at Chicago’s International Amphitheatre in less than two weeks: March 29, 1966. Press releases had been sent out.

Richard J. Daley was aghast. Gov. Otto Kerner asked the commission to cancel the Chicago fight in view of Ali’s “unpatriotic” and “disgusting” statements. The Tribune editorial board demanded the Illinois State Athletic Commission revoke its sanction of the fight. Illinois Attorney General William Clark claimed the match violated state law, since by signing “Muhammad Ali,” one contestant had not signed his correct name. They didn’t meet in the ring until a year later in Houston.

I’m not putting Rose’s fashion choice on the same level as Ali’s impact. Both are situated on the same continuum, where pro sports and race relations nudge each other forward, a process that goes back at least to Jack Johnson knocking out Jim Jeffries, “The Great White Hope,” in 1910. With its huge popularity and emphasis on performance, sports showed the lie of bigotry long before the country was ready to see it. Rather than racial politics not belonging, pro sports have been an engine of racial progress. Major league baseball integrated in 1947. Truman’s order abolishing racial discrimination in the Army was signed in 1948. Those two events are also not unrelated. Whites who insist sports are distinct from racial politics are really saying they aren’t comfortable with the racial politics sports are expressing. They never are.