Sports Often Upstream from Popular Culture

Sports Often Upstream from Popular Culture

The late Andrew Breitbart, a lifelong Los Angeles Dodger fanatic who founded the Breitbart News Network, marveled at the unifying potential of sports, especially baseball.

He emphasized that culture was upstream from politics. But in many ways, sports has always been upstream from culture. What happens on the playing field often precedes and shapes the very culture that eventually influences the country’s politics.

In 1936, Jesse Owens, the black American Olympian, won a then-unprecedented four track-and-field gold medals in front of Adolf Hitler in Germany at an Olympics Hitler intended to use to validate his theory of Aryan superiority. 

In 1947, decades before the Civil Rights movement, Jackie Robinson desegregated Major League Baseball by crossing the all-white lines, as the late historian Jules Tygiel so aptly wrote. 

At Crosley Field in Cincinnati during the first part of the season, Dodger shortstop Pee Wee Reese, a white Southerner, went to first base, where Robinson played, and put his arm around Robinson as fans were taunting and heckling Major League Baseball’s first black ballplayer. 

Roger Kahn, the legendary baseball author, wrote that though “Reese did not say a word,” his “look shamed the racists into silence.”

“After Pee Wee came over like that, I never felt alone on a baseball field again,” Robinson told Kahn.

Twenty-seven years after Robinson first put on the Brooklyn Dodger uniform, Hank Aaron broke Babe Ruth’s career home run record while playing for a team (Atlanta Braves) in the Deep South. On the night he hit his historic 715th career home run, legendary Dodger play-by-play broadcaster Vin Scully poetically observed that “a black man is getting a standing ovation in the Deep South for breaking a record of an all-time baseball idol”: 

“What a marvelous moment for baseball; what a marvelous moment for Atlanta and the state of Georgia; what a marvelous moment for the country and the world. A black man is getting a standing ovation in the Deep South for breaking a record of an all-time baseball idol. And it is a great moment for all of us, and particularly for Henry Aaron …”

At the turn of the century, Notre Dame used football to combat anti-Catholic bigotry while Alabama’s football team ensured Southern football would never again be disrespected while giving a region a sense of pride.  

When an integrated USC team defeated an all-white Alabama football team in 1970, that game may have done as much to fully integrate the South as the civil rights movement. When Texas Western, with five black starters, defeated Adolph Rupp’s Kentucky team for college basketball’s national championship in 1966, it hastened integration in college basketball. 

In the 1965 World Series, Los Angeles Dodger lefty Sandy Koufax refused to pitch in the first game to observe Yom Kippur.

Reporter Alan Siegel would later write “there are three things any self-respecting Jewish boy should want to grow up to be: a doctor, a lawyer, or Sandy Koufax” and noted that Jane Leavy, in Sandy Koufax: A Lefty’s Legacy, wrote that “by refusing to pitch that day, Koufax became inextricably linked with the American Jewish experience.”

In the 1980s, Los Angeles Dodger lefty Fernando Valenzuela helped assimilate Mexican-Americans into the broader culture. He also united Mexican-Americans and Mexican nationals living in California and “opened the borders” for Major League Baseball. Valenzuela is one of the main reasons baseball teams actively began to recruit Hispanic players. 

In the 1992 Summer Olympics, the NBA players — like Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, and Michael Jordan — who became known as the “Dream Team” inspired Europeans to play basketball. Because of them, players like Dirk Nowitzki took up the game and star in the NBA today. After Se-Ri Pak won the 1998 U.S. Women’s Open at Blackwolf Run, she inspired young girls in South Korea to start playing golf. South Koreans now make up a large part of the LPGA tour.  

When Tiger Woods won the 1997 Masters by 12 strokes and started chasing Jack Nicklaus’s record of 18 majors, he changed the face of golf and some believe set the stage for President Barack Obama’s eventual ascendancy. 

NFL quarterback Tim Tebow has inspired Evangelicals by being open about his faith and has spurred heated discussions and debates often unrelated to football.

Last year, Jeremy Lin and “Linsanity” captivated the nation as Lin, an undrafted, American-born (most Asian athletes on sports’ biggest stage have been foreigners) athlete of Asian descent who played collegiate basketball at Harvard, single-handedly resuscitated the Knicks while playing at Madison Square Garden, which is described as the mecca of basketball. 

President Barack Obama and Sarah Palin, the two political figures who have the most popular culture fluency and crossover appeal, immediately praised the then-New York Knick point guard and his “underdog,” meritocratic, and “all-American story.”

American presidents have always embraced and appreciated the awesome power of sports. Ronald Reagan was a sportscaster and became the first president to attend a NASCAR race when he went to the Firecracker 400 at Daytona in 1984. Richard “The King” Petty would win his last NASCAR race on that day. Today, NASCAR fans still hold up three fingers to honor the late Dale Earnhardt, who embodied the NASCAR ethos. 

George H.W. Bush was a rabid golf fan. Bill Clinton was often seen rooting for Nolan Richardon’s “40 minutes of hell” Arkansas Razorbacks college basketball teams. George W. Bush owned the Texas Rangers baseball team. And even though President Barack Obama’s knowledge of the Chicago White Sox and pitching abilities remain suspect, he fills out college basketball brackets with ease and speaks fluently about his beloved Chicago Bulls. 

And when politicians flub sports references, they come across as being out of touch in the minds of the public. 

That is what happened when Massachusetts Democrat John Kerry referred to Lambeau Field as “Lambert Field” during the 2004 presidential campaign, Democrat Martha Coakley, while running for a Senate seat against Scott Brown, claimed Curt Schilling was a Yankee fan, and Boston Mayor Thomas Menino referred to Rajon Rondo and Kevin Garnett as “Hondo” and “KJ,” respectively.

Some of the most patriotic moments have occurred on the playing fields. 

At Dodger Stadium in 1976, Rick Monday, then playing for the Chicago Cubs, prevented two fans from burning the American flag on the field. Monday ran toward them and took the American flag away from the would-be desecrators. His actions came at a time when the country, after a decade in which leftists often used anti-Vietnam War protests to denigrate the United States and acts of patriotism, was thirsting for and looking to embrace patriotism again.

“What they were doing was wrong then, in 1976. In my mind, it’s wrong now, in 2006,” Monday said on the 30th anniversary of the iconic moment. “It’s the way I was raised. My thoughts were reinforced with my six years in the Marine Corp Reserves. It was also reinforced by a lot of friends who lost their lives protecting the rights and freedoms that flag represented.”

Four years after Monday’s patriotic display, the “Miracle On Ice” United States Olympic hockey team defeated the all-mighty Soviet Union national hockey team at the Lake Placid games, inspiring a nation trying to get out of the malaise President Jimmy Carter had left. 

Because of mass media, Americans listen to different music, watch different television shows and at different times, read different books, and get their news from a variety of outlets. 

But sports remains a common culture, as it has always been. And in many instances, it is becoming more so in an age of fragmented media. 

What occurs in the popular culture shapes the nation’s politics. Look no further than sports, though, to see what will influence the dominant culture.