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Breaking Barriers

020612-1 Football—both American football and soccer—were big news last week. In world news, 74 people died during riots that followed an Egyptian soccer match on Wednesday, February 1, 2012. Fans of the winning home team, Port Said’s Al-Masry, rioted in the stadium. Some victims were stabbed; others suffocated during a stampede to leave the locked stadium.  Security forces are accused of standing idly by.

American football fans across the country crowded around televisions on Sunday, February 5, 2012 to watch the final game of the season. Super Bowl XLVI (that translates to 46) pitted two East Coast teams against each other—the New York Giants versus the New England Patriots. This game was a grudge match; the two teams, same quarterbacks and same head coaches, faced off in 2008 for Super Bowl XLII. In that game, the underdog Giants prevailed with a fourth quarter touchdown with merely 35 seconds remaining. This year, the dynastic Patriots set a new record as Tom Brady and Bill Belichick became the first quarter back head coach team to play in the Super Bowl more than four times. In the end, the New York Giants attained victory. However, Super Bowl XLVI was about more than taking home the Vince Lombardi trophy and being crowned the season’s best team. It was about pride, redemption, and identity.

020612-2 Sometimes sporting events are about the game and appreciating the skill of the athletes, or the dramatic unfolding of the event. Other times, long-standing emotional rivalries between cities or countries are played out on the field. Those games have the power to unite members of a community. They become a source of pride and help to create a common identity. Occasionally, sports become part of a cultural struggle: Joe Louis versus Max Schmeling, the 1980 American Olympic hockey team versus the Russian team, Roberto Clemente. These moments are recorded in history books. These athletes are heroes who represent a people, break cultural barriers, challenge stereotypes, and create new possibilities. 

This week you will explore some barriers broken by athletes, and look more closely at several barrier-breaking athletes who set athletic records, and altered American history and culture.

The Smithsonian Exhibit

Which athletes do you consider the best to have played their sport? Which of those challenged stereotypes? Who overcame obstacles in order to play? Who would you nominate to a list of sports heroes and why? Consider ESPN’s list of greatest sports heroes of all time. What common characteristics are noted? What causes did they champion and challenges did they face? If you are interested, view a list of reader’s heroes. What overlap was there between your list and these two?

The Smithsonian Museum hosts an online exhibit about the influence of sports on culture, and athletes who have championed a cause. Begin your tour of the exhibit with the Introduction. The first room of the exhibit explores six athletes who were First. Read the list of names. With which are you familiar? Do you know what makes each a first? What would be challenging about being first? Why would it be a momentous occasion? Read about each athlete. Advance to the chapter titled, More than Champions, and read how these six athletes fought for wins on the court and changes in society. 

020612-4 When you think of people who use sports to open doors for others, what (or who) comes to mind? How might an inventor help break barriers? Read the section on Barrier Breakers for a new perspective and five more examples. Finally, if you are interested, read about Olympians, Game Makers, and Superstars who set new standards of athleticism, sportsmanship, and charisma.

After you have visited the exhibit, try playing a few games. Just for fun, face off against The Greatest, Muhammad Ali, in the memory game. Can you find matching sports memorabilia before the round ends? Find out how thoroughly you explored the exhibit by stepping up and answering sports trivia questions.

If you are interested in learning more about a particular athlete, visit the References page. Here you will find additional resources for each athlete including a bibliography, a kids’ reading list, and a list of films.

Three Sports Heroes

The Smithsonian exhibit investigated the role of sports in culture and introduced you to athletes who used their prominence to champion a cause, and bring about change. Joe Louis and Roberto Clemente were two such men. They humbly accepted the prominence that came with their athletic prowess and quietly contributed to improving conditions for themselves and others. Both endured discrimination, challenged racial stereotypes, and opened the door to future minority athletes. Visit two PBS sites and familiar with their legacies.

020612-3 Joe Louis was one of America’s greatest heavyweight fighters. He also participated in some of the most culturally significant sporting events. In matches against white boxers, Louis represented African Americans in their struggle for equal rights. In his two matches with German Max Schmeling, he represented America and symbolically fought against Hitler’s Nazi party and the philosophy of Aryan superiority.  To appreciate the historical context of his times, read Black Boxers and the Idea of the ‘Great White Hope.’  If you are interested, listen to the radio broadcast of his two matches with Schmeling. Then, read Louis and Schmeling’s memories of the rematch. Finally, consider a tribute to Joe Louis.

Roberto Clemente played baseball with the Pittsburgh Pirates for eighteen seasons. He was the first Hispanic baseball star and a dedicated humanitarian. The PBS video Roberto Clemente is no longer streaming, but the show’s other links are still active. To “meet” Clemente, read the introduction  and interviews with his family and with Orlando Cepeda. To appreciate what makes him a hero, and not only a great athlete, read tributes to Clemente printed in newspapers after his death.

What do Roberto Clemente and Joe Louis have in common? What makes them sports heroes? What contemporary athletes live by their examples?