Of the many things going on in Seattle to honor Martin Luther King Day, basketball fans have every reason to be excited about the King Holiday Hoopfest at Hec Edmundson Pavilion, featuring an 8 p.m. showdown between Washington commits Tony Wroten (Garfield High School) and Hikeem Stewart (Rainier Beach).
The thing that came out of that was why not have a basketball tournament on Martin Luther King day. We thought it was a good way to take the state of Washington basketball and maybe take some interstate teams against a suburban team like Mercer vs. Garfield or something like that. I think it’s worked out really well to where it’s become a fun thing for the high school teams. The teams that play in the tournament seem to get fired up for it. I hear it’s on TV back there now. I think it really has turned out to be a great thing. Even though I started it I really shouldn’t get the credit for it because the guys that fulfilled are still doing their job.
However, while a lot of people talk about how playing basketball in this tournament somehow honors Dr. King's memory there are others who might consider it a day to "stay at home...read a book and think about what that man tried to do." And I certainly won't roll an eye at anyone who chooses to spend their day that way - reading, reflection, and mental activity are all good things that people could probably stand to do more often.
On the other hand, I'd also suggest there's more to it than that, which I'm sure you'll contemplate deeply while watching your favorite high school or pro team play today.
Unfortunately, I'm not out to justify your decision to watch basketball if that's what you decide to do with your holiday.
To the contrary, I'd just suggest that it would be sort of absurd for anyone to claim the moral high ground for marching or cleaning up a park while you head to Hec Ed to watch basketball - anyone that truly thinks King's dream was about being nice to each other and doing service for a day either missed the point or has only listened to sound bytes about people holding hands. Making yourself feel good while watering down and misrepresenting history through service is not necessarily any more righteous than just ignoring it and can, in fact, be harmful.
In Bethlehem Shoals' meditation on this matter at FreeDarko.com, he also makes a point about the opposite extreme: that it would be ridiculous for someone to claim that there's "no more appropriate way to celebrate the life and legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr. than to play and watch basketball". Yet he also notes that there is some symbolic value to holding a local tournament that brings people in different walks of life together in a city that was segregated for a much longer time than most people are willing to acknowledge.
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...on the local level, where basketball can work as a proxy for, or an extension of, community, I don't see what's wrong with it. The problem seems to come when the NBA, which traffics in blatant consumerism, tries to get in on the spirit. Then again, this is a league that makes teams play on Christmas and New Year's Eve. It's a federal and state holiday, which means people of all colors and creeds will have the day off, and be looking for things to do. Now, would the world be a better place if everyone -- after all, MLK Day isn't just about African-Americans doing right by themselves -- took the day off to volunteer, go to speeches and rallies, and otherwise carry on the tradition of the man whose name the date bears? Obviously. The truth is, though, that it's hard to get people to spend their day off doing things like that, no matter who they are. They want leisure, and the NBA gives them more product than usual to kick back with, or attend in person.
However, beyond just representing a coming together of community - which is, of course, important - there is something else fundamentally historically significant about black athletes playing on this day that is far less contrived than it might first seem.
And leave it to UConn's Maya Moore to articulate that.
Moore, who embodies the notion of a NCAA "student-athlete" as well as anyone ever has while also being the most skilled player in college basketball, will be playing North Carolina on ESPN2 at 4 p.m PST. As posted on SBN's women's basketball site Swish Appeal, she explained why she considers playing on MLK Day as "a privilege and an opportunity."
"I see it as a privilege and an opportunity to play on stage that when he wasn't alive wasn't there for not only female athletes, but black female athletes," said Moore. "So I see it as a celebration of where are country has come. And a big reason is because of his passion and his selflessness of investing his life for human rights. So if you think of it that way, it's pretty cool to be able to celebrate that."
Let's be clear - King had no direct impact on either Brown vs Board of Education (which desegregated schools in 1954 when King was still studying to earn his doctorate) or Title IX (which required gender equity in every educational institution that receives federal funding in 1972, about four years after King's assasination).
But even a quick glance at the Wikipedia entry for Title IX illustrates that King's work with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference - a major player in the passing of the Civil Rights Acts of 1964 - did in fact influence the passage of Title IX that made Moore's participation in collegiate sports possible.
Although the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was originally written in order to end discrimination based on color, the act tremendously helped to energize the Women’s Rights movement of the 1970s which had somewhat slowed after women’s suffrage in 1920.
Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 says that any institution receiving federal funding may not discriminate against anyone based on gender. This act was passed in 1971 as a result of combining acts VI and VII of the Civil Rights Act.
So Moore's commentary serves to make a much larger point worthy of reflection - King's aim wasn't so narrow to exclude things such as school desegregation or gender equity but situated in a longer historical progression of challenging every element of systemic injustice that would have kept black schools from playing white schools or women from playing at all.
More importantly, the link to legislation King really had little to do with further represents that the Civil Rights movement - contrary to how it's taught in far too many schools in the U.S. - was not a one man show. The progress we made as a society involved collective grassroots action by a whole lot of people on a number of fronts before any of these legislative victories occurred. And just as thousands of people involved in reaching those legislative milestones have remained anonymous, the struggles to enforce those legislative victories has been even longer and involved participation from more people across generations.
Shoals is definitely right that it's complicated to equate a professional sports league with what King fought for. But at its core, the Hoopfest represents a concrete outcome of the spirit of the ongoing struggle to remove barriers that maintained injustice.
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I ran some summer camps in Seattle and had fun with some of the high school coaches. They kind of told me the nightmares they had with high school basketball about getting kids ready to earn themselves scholarships and getting themselves into situations where they didn’t even understand they could get $150,000 dollars worth of scholarship, but they had to get a 2.0 GPA. They had to get a certain number on their SAT’s or the ACT’s. They didn’t even understand the system. Their parents didn’t even understand the system sometimes.
As small as that may seem compared the magnitude of King's legacy, it's the series of small acts that has led us to where we are today.