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Opinion: The Greatest Athletes Know That The Children Are Watching

A Milwaukee Brewers player wears a Black Lives Matter shirt before a game with the Chicago White Sox earlier this month in Chicago.
Zach Bolinger/Icon Sportswire
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A Milwaukee Brewers player wears a Black Lives Matter shirt before a game with the Chicago White Sox earlier this month in Chicago.

The greatest athletes know: Children are watching. They see them in the stands and on the streets, wearing small versions of their jerseys. They hear them shouting their names. They know from their own lives how children can see sports figures as heroes — and imitate how they play, walk and talk — and what they do.

I once spent some time going through the Jackie Robinson archives in New York. The man who broke Major League Baseball's color barrier got letters from all over America and replied by hand, often at length, on hotel stationary from cities where the Brooklyn Dodgers traveled. Many of the letters were from youngsters. Some asked questions about baseball. But many asked questions like: "How do you be so brave when pitchers throw at you?" and "How can we have a better world?"

Like a lot of successful athletes, Jackie Robinson had concentrated more on his playing career than on history or politics. But seeing how important his achievements, courage and story had become in the lives of so many galvanized his own life. Jackie Robinson became an inspired and tireless voice for civil rights and social justice, who marched with Martin Luther King Jr. on the National Mall, 57 years ago.

"Life is not a spectator sport," Jackie Robinson once wrote. "If you're going to spend your whole life in the grandstand just watching what goes on, in my opinion you're escaping your life."

Today's pro athletes play sports for a living — often quite a rewarding living — in a world made possible by the breakthroughs of Jackie Robinson, Bill Russell, Larry Doby, Satchel Paige, Roberto Clemente, Althea Gibson, Hank Greenberg, Billie Jean King, Curt Flood, Martina Navratilova and many more. They broke barriers, endured bigotry, excelled under enormous pressure and embodied grace.

This week, young people are seeing the athletes they idolize stop the games that are so important to them; or walk off the field after 42 seconds of silence, as at this week's Mets-Marlins game, on the eve of Jackie Robinson Day; and stand together in solidarity for something more important than games. That may say more clearly, than just another game on a summer's night ever could, that Black Lives Matter.

It may make the names of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Jacob Blake at least briefly as well-known as LeBron James, Mookie Betts and Serena Williams. Stopping games may show children — and all sports fans — that some things shouldn't go on as usual.

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Corrected: August 28, 2020 at 11:00 PM CDT
A previous version of this story, both in the audio and on the Web, incorrectly stated that Jackie Robinson marched with Martin Luther King Jr. 50 years ago on the National Mall. Robinson and King marched together 57 years ago.
Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.