The Content of Our Character

“I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”  Martin L. King, Jr., 1963

Well, Dr. King, as we approach the 5oth anniversary of your expression of this dream, I hope you would agree that we have made some progress toward its fulfillment.  Certainly we have not eliminated racism in our country, but perhaps even you would not have dreamed that on the very day that we celebrate what would have been your 84th year on earth we also celebrate the second inauguration of another African-American visionary – one who is the same age as one of your sons – as the 44th President of the United States.  Indeed, the color of his skin was seldom mentioned as an issue in either campaign, certainly not as much as the location of his birth or the nature of his religion.  As to the content of his character, that was roundly debated, as it is for all who seek the nation’s highest office, and the court of public opinion returned its verdicts by electing him twice by comfortable margins.  That is certainly progress toward eliminating race as an issue in politics.  Further, in a message that echoes your insistence 50 years ago to “let freedom ring!”, President Obama will reportedly quote today from his immediate predecessor, George W. Bush, who declared in support of his doctrine of seeking liberty wherever citizens cry out for it:  “There can be no human rights without human liberty.”

More progress is evident in the world of sport where perhaps more than any other arena the color of the athlete’s skin has diminished in significance.  In baseball at least, but probably in every sport, that evolution is largely due to the character shown by Jackie Robinson in enduring the challenge of integrating MLB in 1947. (See the trailer for the new movie, “42” where Branch Rickey demands of Robinson: “I want a man with the guts NOT to fight back!”)   To his and Rickey’s credit,  Jackie Robinson proved to be such a man, and so did many others who came swiftly after him.  While there are still tensions among players in every baseball clubhouse today, I believe those players would admit that this is caused much more by the character on display than the visible skin color.  Which, however, brings us to the enduring problem:  character, or lack thereof, is color-blind.

In my previous post (“HOF Vote Gets an F,” 1/9/13) I reflected on the reality that all the frailties of men are on display in MLB, even among the game’s all-time greatest players and regardless of ethnicity.  Sadly, these character deficiencies are prevalent in almost any athletic competition today – whether it is baseball, college football, cycling or even Olympic badminton. This might not be surprising to Dr. King since as an ordained minister he understood the true nature of man, but the revelations of this past week that took sports figures from the sports pages to the front page and the talk-show confessional chair, challenge even an ardent Calvinist’s view of mankind.  They certainly make me wonder about my own commitment to unconditional forgiveness. Even with the inherent difficulty of judging the “integrity, sportsmanship and character” of an athlete, these stories leave little room for sympathy.

How does one forgive Lance Armstrong’s astonishing lack of integrity, sportsmanship and character?  Not only did he cheat to obtain every success that he achieved in sport- or at least those on which he built his reputation and fortune – he also systematically lied about it and aggressively undermined and forcefully intimidated all those who questioned him.  The short answer is that I don’t think anyone has forgiven him, yet.  And actually he didn’t seem principally concerned with immediate forgiveness, but rather just the possibility of future forgiveness.  His superficial and undetailed acknowlegment of his cheating appeared to me to be the first step in a journey that he hopes will eventually restore to him some form of honor in society.  And speaking of honor…

How does one believe Manti Te’o when he says he had no part in fabricating the existence of his “girlfriend?” Just asking that question makes me wince.  How do you have a “girlfriend” that you’ve never met?  How do you proclaim to the national media repeatedly that you feel deeply about – even love – someone you’ve never met?  And even if you reach that level of commitment through cyberspace, how do you not then follow up on it to meet this person after she got hit by a drunk driver and then died of leukemia, or at least attend her funeral afterward?  The questions just keep coming, multiplied by Te’o’s pitiful effort to answer them.  Just read the Sports Illustrated interview with Pete Thamel in September and compare it to his interview with ESPN‘s Jeremy Schapp last week.  Notre Dame’s AD may declare that this story has not shaken his faith in Te’o one iota, but I think I know what Dr. King would say.

In his effort to lead African-Americans to racial equality in our country, which included a passionate defense of civil disobedience – or what he called “direct action” – Dr. King always reminded himself and his followers that they must maintain their integrity.  “We must forever conduct our struggle on the high plane of dignity and discipline,” he decreed.  As a general rule, athletes today seem never to reach such a high plane, let alone maintain a presence there.  One could argue that Armstrong was very disciplined in carrying out his scam, but he could hardly be said to have done so with dignity.  A similar assessment could be made of the performances of Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens, even without the assumption that they knowingly used PED’s. Likewise, there is nothing disciplined or dignified in the relationship between Manti Te’o and Lennay Kukua, real or imagined.

On a personal note, we have taught our children the simple principle of letting your “yes be yes” and your “no be no.”  The purpose behind this principle is that by always saying what you mean and meaning what you say you will become so recognized as a truthful person that no one will ever question your character.   In addition to being the right way to act, you never know when or how such a reputation for honesty will benefit you.   If nothing else, it will expand the scope of your eulogy when you die, even if you were one of the greatest baseball players of all time.  (See “Stan Musial, The epitome of good hitting and good sportsmanship,” Washington Post, 1/21/13).  I have no illusion that my children have perfected this approach, and neither have I, but I am encouraged that they at least understand it at a much earlier age than I did.

Jackie Robinson is said to have lived by the motto, “A life is not important except for the impact it has on others’ lives.”   Surely he had a profound impact on many African-Americans’ lives who longed for equal opportunity on and off the athletic field.  Yet, his influence is even felt by all of us who simply love the game of baseball.  We are blessed today to be able to watch all of the best players in the world compete in the Major Leagues because of Jackie Robinson’s ability and courage, dignity and discipline.  He endured so much not just for himself but because he accepted the premise expressed by his friend in the movie when he admitted he might not be able to continue:  “You are not the only one with something at stake here.”  He persevered and we can judge him by that content of his character, and find him worthy.

Dr. King accepted the same responsibility and showed the same strength of character. On the very  night before he was assassinated in Memphis in 1968, as he drew to a close his speech in support of the striking Memphis sanitation workers, he asked everyone in attendance to sacrifice their time in support of others.  “The question is not, ‘If I stop to help this man in need, what will happen to me?’  ‘If I do not stop to help the sanitation workers, what will happen to them?’ That’s the question.”

In a nutshell, I think that is what character is: not considering the cost to ourselves but rather the benefit to others, individually or collectively.  As President Kennedy challenged us on this day 52 years ago: “Ask not what your country can do for you.  Ask what you can do for your country!”  The very attraction of the Te’o hoax was grounded in his reputaton for caring and supposedly hers:  “She was always thinking of others,” he insisted to SI‘s Thamel.  Well, Manti, that’s a true sentiment, but I would prefer to know what you were thinking when you expressed it, and whether you now think there might have been a better way to spread the message.

These disappointing personal stories from sport this week and others in recent years all seem grounded in selfishness, seeking personal gain rather than the benefit of others.  That is not the foundation of the type of character Dr. King showed in these closing words from his speech in Memphis:

“Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult  days ahead. But it doesn’t matter with me now. Because I’ve been to the  mountaintop. And I don’t mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long  life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I  just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the  mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the promised land. I may  not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a  people, will get to the promised land. And I’m happy, tonight. I’m not  worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the  glory of the coming of the Lord.”

Less than 24 hours later, MLK was dead, having given the “last full measure of devotion” for the cause he believed in and forever establishing an example to be considered in measuring the content of our character.

3 thoughts on “The Content of Our Character”

  1. This is an excellent post. I just saw the trailer for ’42’ today and the line by Branch Rickey is particularly impactful in wedding the virtue of courage with the principle Paul puts forward when he commanded “repay no one evil for evil.”

  2. This is an excellent post. I just saw the trailer for ’42’ today and Branch Rickey’s comment is particularly impactful in attaching the virtue of courage to the principle that Paul commanded when he said “Repay no one evil for evil.”

  3. Great thoughts, SR. The crucible of sports often displays the character of those who play it At the spotlight of the highest levels, the athlete’s flaws–or strengths– are most evident.

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