Yesterday, Chicago laid to rest “Mr. Cub” — Ernie Banks, the first African-American player for the Chicago Cubs who brought warmth and passion to the sport, both on the field and off.
What did he bring the most of to baseball (and sports in general)? Class.
Granted, I wasn’t around during his 19-year career with the Chicago Cubs. But my father was and tells stories about Banks showing up after the game to greet the kids, sign autographs and generally exude happiness. “There’s sunshine, fresh air, and the team’s behind us. Let’s play two,” was his famous line — he didn’t care about winning, but he loved playing.
“Let’s play two.”
Counter that with this week’s Super Bowl coverage. On the east side, New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady can’t blame enough people for “Deflategate,” a scandal that’s gotten more attention than former player Aaron Hernandez’s murder trial. Truth be told, I think Giselle Bundchen might have purposefully done it with her supermodel laser vision, a la Cyclops.*
*Note that I respect Ms. Bundchen for this capability — but with great super(model)power comes great responsibility.
And on the west coast, there’s Marshawn Lynch, self-groper extraordinaire, flaunting to the media that the only reason he showed up for press day is so he doesn’t get fined. Not because he loves the game; not because he loves his team. Because he can’t stand to see a few grand knocked off his $30 million paycheck.
If Banks hadn’t been such an easy-going guy, I’d say he was rolling around in his coffin even before being put in his grave.
But these two incidents of NFL nonsense are simply the spark to a powder keg loaded up all season by the league’s marginalization of Ray Rice’s domestic violence and Adrian Peterson’s child abuse cases.
And its penalization of Husain Abdullah’s Muslim prayer in the end zone.
And its passing around of Michael Sam, former Mizzou player and SEC defensive player of 2013 — repeat, defensive player of the year in the Southeastern Conference, which also includes Alabama — from the St. Louis Rams to the Dallas Cowboys to no team at all. Note that Sam announced he was gay right before heading into the draft. I’m sure that’s just a coincidence.
Back to Banks. He not only blazed a baseline-trail for African-American rights as the first black player on the Cubs, but also discussed poverty with Nelson Mandela and was the first former pro-athlete to win the Nobel Peace Prize. The Nobel freaking Peace Prize.
“(Banks) stood up for gay rights and asked the Cubs to have a float in the Gay Pride Parade, which he rode during the parade,” family attorney Mark Bogen told the Chicago Tribune. “The Cubs were the first major sports team to put a float in that parade.”
Yep. This guy was born in 1931 and was more forward-thinking than former NFL coach Tony Dungy, born 1955, who said he wouldn’t have Michael Sam on his team because he “wouldn’t want to deal with all of it” — meaning whatever locker room shenanigans he believes would occur because of Sam’s sexuality.
I don’t know where I was going with all of this, other than explain why the NFL is a cluster-football right now. Not having me tune in for the biggest TV event of the year isn’t going to be noticed, and unfortunately I’ll never get enough people on my side to make a difference to the Super Bowl’s ratings or revenue.
Those who read my blog know that I never end a complaint-laden post like this without a glimmer of light. Here’s the best thing that’s happening because of today’s Super Bowl XLIX: Seahawks fan Chris Pratt (Guardians of the Galaxy’s Peter “Star Lord” Quill) and Patriots fan Chris Evans (Captain America) have made a bet that whoever’s team loses has to go to the opposite city’s children’s hospital dressed as his respective character. No matter the outcome, it’s a pretty fair guess that they’ll both do it anyway.
Banks, Pratt, Evans — they all recognize their pull and are using it to benefit others. That’s not to say that NFL players don’t donate or do charity work, as most of them do commendable things both in front of and away from the cameras. But for some reason, philanthropic players like Texans defensive end J.J. Watt are simply good-feeling sidebars on NBC Nightly News while Lynch commands the attention of everyone for generally unsportsmanlike conduct and, frankly, deplorable behavior.
It’s time to be more like Banks and less like Belichick. It’s time to acknowledge that love of the game trumps talent for the game — and that with the right passion, great things can be accomplished off the field. Recognizing that means that no longer will little kids be aspiring to be as good at passing a (squishy) football as Tom Brady, but rather looking to make a difference in the world like Ernie Banks.
People at Banks’ memorial service in Daley Plaza last week commended him for his spirit off the field — how he was always interested in how you were doing, even if he didn’t know you. When we remember Marshawn Lynch — if we remember — decades down the road, I can’t imagine it being for much more than the crotch grab seen ’round the world.
A lot of writers have pointed to Banks’ legacy as a reason to “love what you do,” including this excellent memoir-post by Marc Zarefsky. I’ve decided to pull something else from the story. Treat notoriety as a tool for doing good, not as an excuse for doing or ignoring evil. Even if you don’t have notoriety, use life to the advantage of everyone around you, anyway.
In the edited words of Banks, “Let’s play, too.”