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The Legacy of Joe Louis
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The Legacy of Joe Louis

The Legacy of Joe Louis

The Legacy of Joe Louis
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Commentator Frank Deford offers his take on the history of racism in sports, including an appreciation for legendary boxer Joe Louis.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Among the issues that makes the reported rape such a heated topic in Durham, is race. The woman who says she was raped is black, the men who she says raped her are white. For commentator Frank Deford, focusing on race in the Duke incident, is just one example of missing the point.

FRANK DEFORD reporting:

Aside from the fact that it is evil in and of itself, racism is so pernicious that it can often obscure or distort other important issues. We can, I believe, see that in a couple of current sports controversies.

In the matter first, of the Duke Lacrosse team. Because of the accompanying accusations of racism, we've missed the broader point: the illustration, once again, of how our scholarship college teams across the country so often feel entitled and arrogant.

The Duke Lacrosse players may not be guilty of the horrendous crime and cover-up they were so publicly saddled with, but what came out was the team's regular, haughty misbehavior--just one more glaring example of recruited student athletes who isolate themselves, then feel impervious, and act badly.

I also find it so revealing that the Duke president cancelled the lacrosse season. Mmm, I wonder if any university president at any big-time athletic school would dare cancel a football or basketball season, simply because of unsubstantiated accusations of a scandal involving the players. So-called revenue sports get a little more leeway, don't they now?

Then there are the desperate defenders of Barry Bonds who are trying to make a martyr out of their hero, claiming that the well-documented charges of his illegal drug use are founded in racism. White fans are supposed to be unable to tolerate that he will soon pass Babe Ruth's homerun title of 714.

Please! Once the Babe's record was eclipsed, it was lost as a totem. There is only one homerun career record that matters anymore, and that is held by the man who passed Ruth, Henry Aaron. The estimable Mr. Aaron is a black man. He is moreover, a decent and gracious gentleman. The reason good people do not wish Barry Bonds to become the homerun champion, has nothing to do with race. It has to do with honor.

Those who would, as the dreadful expression goes, play the race card in sports, would be better advised to pay tribute to another black athlete long gone. Today at Arlington National Cemetery, just down from the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, the 25th anniversary of his death, a wreath will be laid upon the grave of Joe Louis.

Racism? Louis was born in segregated Alabama, raised in the Negro ghetto of Detroit. Even when he was champion of the world, there was much of America where he would not be served a meal, nor allowed to stay the night. Before there was Jackie Robinson, there was Joe Louis. Before there was Martin Luther King, Jr., there was Joe Louis.

Of course, racism remains in sport. We didn't the Duke Lacrosse team to remind us of that. Of course, Barry Bonds and all African-American celebrities get hate mail. But beyond the lunatic fringe, where there was once only one Brown Bomber, now there are black athletes in every sport, black coaches, and executives.

Both those who practice racism and those who exploit it in sport, are descending--and the fresh wreath that lays upon Joe Louis's grave today, speaks as much for his legacy, as for his memory.

MONTAGNE: The comments of Frank Deford. His latest book, The Old Ballgame, is out in paperback. He joins us each Wednesday from member station WSHU in Fairfield, Connecticut.

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

INSKEEP: And I'm Steve Inskeep.

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