Georgia Bulletin

The Newspaper of the Catholic Archdiocese of Atlanta

The role of sports in the struggle

By ARCHBISHOP WILTON D. GREGORY, Commentary | Published January 24, 2019  | En Español

It hardly seems possible, but he would have turned 90 this year and long since have entered the rarified status of a senior wisdom figure. He died a young man at 39, but by then had already accorded a leadership status that few of any age will ever realize. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. has become an icon of social justice for the entire world and particularly for our nation. Atlanta is justifiably proud of her native son.

Dr. King’s memorial this year coincided with Super Bowl hype. As most everyone knows, Atlanta will host the Super Bowl on Feb. 3. Championship sports events bring much excitement to a community as the country’s attention is focused on the teams and the title. Dr. King’s memorial day this year seems to have been overshadowed somewhat by Super Bowl mania. The enduring principles of justice, righteousness and spiritual integrity that Dr. King epitomizes are still far more important than the final score of any game.

Dr. King was the foremost spokesperson for civil rights, but many athletes have used their God-given gifts to advance the cause of equality and justice. We need only to think of Jesse Owens, Jackie Robinson, Althea Gibson, Muhammed Ali and a long line of other champions who helped to advance the place of minorities in our nation and beyond. Dr. King eloquently articulated the struggle; athletes often provided the physical examples to spur the conscience of our nation.

Tommie Smith and John Carlos stood on the winners’ platform at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics with their clenched fists raised to bring human rights issues in the United States to the attention of the world. They were not warmly applauded at the time by many. Other controversial stances continue to find expression in the NFL today. Athletics have often been the place where social justice issues find a home.

Sports have also been the occasion where extraordinary white courage has taken a powerful stance, as Branch Rickey exhibited in signing Jackie Robinson as the first African-American major league baseball player. So, while Super Bowl LIII captures a lot of attention here in Atlanta during the weeks surrounding Dr. King’s memorial holiday, sports themselves have played no small part in the struggle for civil rights in the past and even today.

Our kids can learn very important life lessons from playing sports—fairness, honesty, teamwork and civility. They can also learn important lessons from the athletic heroes of the past and today. Dr. King spoke powerfully about justice and equality. Many sports heroes have given physical expression to those same principles—occasionally at a high personal cost.

The Vatican itself has recently authorized a team to compete in some local sports, though I’m not sure we should expect to see them wearing the gold and white colors of the Holy See in the next Olympic games!

Pope Francis is quite a sports enthusiast and repeatedly has welcomed many athletes to papal events. When I met Pope Francis a couple of years ago and was introduced to him as the Archbishop of Atlanta, he chuckled out loud since Atlanta is the name of the Buenos Aires Jewish soccer team. The Holy Father knows about the values that sports can inspire in young and old alike. I’m sure that Dr. King would be proud to know that his hometown will soon be hosting Super Bowl LIII, especially if it both brings us joy and underscores important values to our community.