Saturday, July 1, 2017

In Preparation for our 241st Birthday: Who is the Greatest American Athlete?

My fellow Americans,
at the Smithsonian, this iteration of
the Statue of Liberty is entirely
made of Legos
Sitting in a coffee shop in Capitol Hill (Washington, DC), three people have already said "Happy 4th of July to you" and it's not even 8:00 a.m. This is music to my ears. Independence Day is my favorite holiday. I love summer, a red-white-and blue color scheme, the traditions and what this day honors. Celebrating America hasn't been easy in recent times, but walking through the Smithsonian Museum of American History yesterday, I was reminded there is just too much about us as a people—a nation still emerging and past we are still reconciling—to not light some fireworks, take a slice of the Uncle Sam cake and don your favorite old school NBA jersey for your local 4th of July parade. Odds are you will attend an Independence Day BBQ. As a sign of hospitality perhaps you can bring something other than baked beans or potato salad. Why not bring a topic of conversation, one that kids should hear, teens will enjoy and adults will defend: Who is the greatest American athlete?

The newest exhibit at my favorite of the Smithsonian museums on the National Mall, The Nation We Build Together, may give you an advantage in this conversation. As stated on the Smithsonian website, one display
Many Voices, One Nation, takes visitors on a chronological and thematic journey that maps the cultural geography of the unique and complex stories that animate the Latin emblem on the country’s Great Seal and the national ideal: E pluribus unum, Out of many, one.  
Through almost 200 museum artifacts and about 100 loan objects, this exhibition shows how the many voices of the American people have contributed to and continue to shape the nation and its communities, from its earliest beginnings to the present. Through objects such as a painted elk hide from the Southwest, circa 1693, a Norwegian bowl brought by 19th-century immigrants, a gold miner’s trunk, symbols of union and liberty such as Uncle Sam and Columbia, and a baseball helmet used by Boston Red Sox player Carl Yastrzemski in the 1970s, the exhibition explores the never-ending process of becoming one nation.
I have to admit, I went looking at this exhibit for Colin Kaepernick's jersey. I had heard that the Smithsonian has requested one for posterity: his decision to kneel during the National Anthem throughout the 2016 NFL season offered a new verse to our country's narrative. I came to learn it will be on display in the Smithsonian's Museum of African American history.

Instead, what I found was a multi-media stand that honored the subject of this possible 4th of July conversation. The names and images of each athlete gave me pause to think about their contribution to sport, their personal story and what they reveal about America. You can probably guess who was featured: Billie Jean King, Tiger Woods, Jim Brown, Serena Williams, Mariano Rivera, Mia Hamm, and Carl Lewis among others. I'd like to make a case for Bo Jackson (watch "You Don't Know Bo" my favorite 30 for 30 if you're skeptical).

I made note of how many other exhibits include a reference to sports and was delighted—not disappointed. I gained a deeper appreciation (and hope that my nieces did too) for how sports have served as a vehicle for social and personal change in the USA. Yes, sports are a business (Wow, Steph Curry and 5 years for $201 million) and they are an art form. They allow for self expression and communal representation on stages big and small. They can lead us to to discover our best and worst selves, E pluribus unum.

Last fall, I heard the 2016 Presidential Medal of Freedom recipient Kareem Abdul Jabaar speak at a City Arts and Lecture series about his book, "Writings on the Wall: Searching for a New Equality Beyond Black and White." I leaned much and laughed often. And, one of my favorite moments was when an audience member asked the leading question that delights all sports fans: "Who is the greatest Laker?" Ever serious, Abdul-Jabbar went through the list of who could be number one. He said, "it's a tough question. You can make an argument for Jerry West, Elgin Baylor, Wilt Chamberlain, Magic Johnson...some say me...others Kobe...."  With his pause, there were both cheers and jeers until he said "but this is why they have sports bars! You get a beer and some wings and can debate this question for hours." Amen.

No sports bar necessary on this 4th. Enjoy your BBQ, red, white and blue sparklers, watermelon, and the question Who is the greatest American athlete? Please post your answers here. 

Photo Credits
Yaz's helmet
CK Kneeling

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