(Ed. note: Cleveland Hall of Fame offensive lineman Gene Hickerson has died today (Monday, Oct. 20, 2008). He was part of one of the most touching moments in modern NFL history during his HOF induction back in 2007, when his former teammates, including Jim Brown, wheeled the sickly Hickerson out on the stage. We discussed this moment, and last talked about Hickerson, in August 2008 during our politically incorrect look at race in sports.)
By Kerry J. Byrne
Cold, Hard Football Facts Irish-German-Slavic-Native-American publisher
It's no secret that the Cold, Hard Football Facts hold up the great American game as a unique expression of a unique culture.
It's also no secret that the Cold, Hard Football Facts have made a habit of wiping conventional wisdom off the battlefield of debate with the overwhelming force of evidence.
So it is that today, on the heels of Pro Football Hall of Fame induction weekend, we step off the gridiron ever so briefly to take on the larger topics of American culture and its greatest, most divisive issue: the issue of race.
Conventional wisdom in many segments of society tells us that this is a racist country. In fact, many people make a living off of perpetuating this idea. Believe what you want.
But know this: the Hall of Fame ceremony this weekend, not to mention others before it, tell quite a different story. These stories speak of an America of profound racial interaction and – gasp! – even harmony.
These ceremonies speak of an America where grown men step up on stage during the crowning moment of their lives and openly profess their love for other men and women – be they black, white or yellow, Christian, Muslim or Jew, city slicker or country bumpkin.
During these ceremonies we see grown men hug and kiss other men who helped them reach this moment in their lives, regardless of the color of their skin or the condition of their backgrounds. We also see families of profound racial diversity. About half the inductees over the last two years were from multi-racial families.
Of course, the stories of these Hall of Famers should come as no surprise. After all, sports is just a microcosm of society. And millions of Americans, including you in all likelihood, live these same kinds of lives of daily and harmonious interaction with friends, relations and colleagues from all walks of life.
The Hall of Fame ceremony simply puts these rich, complex multi-cultural tapestries on display for all of us to see.
If you've never seen the Hall of Fame ceremony, here's how it works. The Hall of Famer is introduced by someone very near and dear to them. This person says glowing things about their relationship with the Hall of Famer. The word "love," along with hugs and even kisses, are often exchanged between the two men. Often times they're persons of different races. Jerry Jones introduced Michael Irvin last year, for example. Some players are introduced by their children, often products of inter-racial marriages.
Then the Hall of Famer lists all the people who helped them reach this shining moment of their lives. It's a list of people from all walks of life, the black coach, the white teammate, the Asian teacher, the wife or cousins of a different skin color, whoever.
Humbled by the moment, these biggest and strongest of athletes usually break down and weep and declare their love for their fellow man and for the people who loved and guided them through the years – regardless of race, ethnicity or religion.
To put it another way: these Hall of Famers are telling us that they don't get there alone. They're telling us that people from every background have banded together at various moments in time to help them reach this platform of ultimate achievement. Humans helping humans each and every day, regardless of background. Who'd have known it happens so often?
Andre Tippett, the poor black kid from Alabama, stepped on stage Saturday night to give his Hall of Fame acceptance speech and openly expressed his love for the Krafts – the rich white Jewish family that owns the Patriots. In fact, he was introduced by the team's owner, Robert Kraft.
Tippett symbolized the rich cultural, racial and ethnic tapestry of this country as well as anyone. He was born in the Bible Belt South, moved to Newark as a child and converted to Judaism as an adult. He's married to a white woman. And, obviously, he has multi-racial children. There also seems to be a strong Asian influence through his life: he's a martial arts expert, and two of his beautiful children are named Kobe and Asia.
That sounds like a fairly rich cultural background to us – and one that's typically American. Just look at your own family background or that of your friends.
The most touching moment of the 2007 Hall of Fame ceremony was when former Cleveland offensive lineman Gene Hickerson, a white guy and confined to a wheelchair, was wheeled out onto the stage by the three Hall of Fame players he helped pave the way for in his playing days: Jim Brown, Leroy Kelly and Bobby Mitchell. All three are black. It was hard to see anything but racial harmony in the moment.
Look, folks, we know there's racism out there. We know the history. We don't need the e-mails about it. We know society's never been perfect, we know it's not perfect today and we know it never will be perfect. (Good luck finding any society throughout history where race relations were perfect. You won't.)
But we also know this: it's easy for the cultural flamethrowers to fire off explosive charges of racism any time a white guy and a black guy get into a fight. But the real story is far more complex than these cultural flamethrowers want you to believe. Perhaps it's too complex for them to comprehend. Every day people from all walks of life in this country work together, live together and love together.
At the end of the day, we can choose to be defined by the minority of ignorant, hateful racists. Or we can choose to be defined by the great silent majority who lead lives of profound interaction with people of all colors, backgrounds and ethnicities. We can choose to be defined by people like you, in other words.
It's easy to cite the racism that Jackie Robinson endured with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947 and throughout his career. And we don't dispute that he did and we're embarrassed by it. But you can also look at the fact that, everyday, thousands of people of all races and ethnicities filled the stands of Ebbets Field to cheer for him and that white reporters voted him Rookie of the Year. The supporters outnumbered the racists.
It's easy to cite the racism that Hank Aaron endured as he chased Babe Ruth's home run record. And we don't dispute that he did and we're embarrassed by it. But you can also look at the fact that thousands of white southerners in the stands cheered wildly as he smashed home run No. 715 over the head of Bill Buckner and that two young white men chased him around the field to literally pat him in the back as he rounded third base. The supporters outnumbered the racists.
You can choose to look at the Jim Crow laws of the past. Or you can choose to look at the fact that African-Americans play dominant roles in every single last segment of American culture, be it sports, business, media or politics. Lest we forget, the greatest golfer, the last two secretaries of state (the face of American diplomacy), the richest woman, the most conservative Supreme Court justice and the leading presidential candidate all come from African-American or multi-racial families.
You can choose to look at the embarrassing history of slavery in this country (and in every other country in the world). We're all angered by the history. But you can also look at the 300,000 agents of the Union army, from every ethnicity and every walk of life, who marched to their death in the war that ended slavery – the soldiers who sang in the Battle Hymn of the Republic, "let us die to make men free."
And you can choose to look at the Pro Football Hall of Fame induction ceremonies each year and see a nation where millions of people – the overwhelming majority of people – look past skin color and into the hearts of their fellow man and find love, solidarity and, in many cases, the foundations of their greatest achievements.