Hall of Shame
|art credit: Ken Garduno|
A South African activist has a lesson for U.S. sports.
On Dec. 5, amid lavish ceremony, famed anti-apartheid activist and 83-year-old poet
Dennis Brutus publicly turned down induction to the South African Sports Hall of Fame.
The 1,000 people in attendance at Johannesburg’s Emperor’s Palace were surprised—some
even scandalized—but none was truly shocked.
Sports Illustrated once called Brutus (who was prominent in the
campaign to isolate apartheid-era South Africa from the world sporting community) as the
“dark genius of dissent,” but Dennis Brutus is ominous only if you believe sports should
be an unchallenged playground for racism and reaction.
SI particularly objected to the way Brutus used the 1976 Summer
Olympics as a platform to protest apartheid. By then the South African poet and
sportsman had certainly earned their backhanded respect.
Brutus was founder of the South African Non-Racial Olympic Committee (SAN-ROC), and
spent decades fighting apartheid—earning a bullet in his stomach and captivity in Robben
Island Prison for his troubles. It was there he wasted the hours breaking stones with a
former boxer named Nelson Mandela.
For Brutus, apartheid’s fall wasn’t a finish line, but merely a mark along the trail.
The man has never stopped fighting or using sports to force us to think.
This was the case last month, with Brutus’ unprecedented snub of an honorific many
would give an assortment of body parts to receive. Brutus said in a prepared speech to
the 1,000 onlookers: “Being inducted to a sports hall of fame is an honor under most
circumstances. In my case the honor is for helping rid South African sport of racism,
making it open to all. So I cannot be party to an event where unapologetic racists are
also honored, or to join a hall of fame alongside those who flourished under racist
sport. Their inclusion is a deception because of their unfair advantage, as so many
talented black athletes were excluded from sport opportunities.
“Moreover, this hall ignores the fact that some sportspersons and administrators
defended, supported and legitimized apartheid. There are indeed some famous South
Africans who still belong in a sports hall of infamy. They still think they are sports
heroes, without understanding and making amends for the context in which they became so
heroic, namely a crime against humanity.
“So, case closed. It is incompatible to have those who championed racist sport
alongside its genuine victims. It’s time—indeed long past time—for sports truth,
apologies and reconciliation.”
Brutus’ stand received zero attention from a U.S. press that treats international
sporting news the way Mike Huckabee treats the Enlightenment: They just close their eyes
and repeat that it didn’t happen. Even in Pennsylvania this was the case despite the
fact that the “dark genius” is a professor emeritus at the University of Pittsburgh.
And yet this story intrigues because few institutions in American sports suffer less
scrutiny than our own halls of fame. In the game of baseball, Brutus’ words ring with a
truth that crosses oceans. Debates rage about whether all-time hits leader Pete Rose
deserves entry. And now in the wake of the Mitchell Report on steroids—headed by the
slave-labor lobby’s great friend in Washington, George Mitchell—sports radio’s yipping
heads wonder whether Roger Clemens has jeopardized his chances at Cooperstown. We’ve
been subjected to endless speculation about whether Barry Bonds—the seven-time MVP and
all-time home run king—has seen his hall of fame chances sacrificed on the altar of the
Often we as sports fans see the Hall of Fame like a palace on a hill where wise men,
true of heart, are arbiters of historic greatness. But this is hardly the case. The Hall
is located in Cooperstown because of a myth that it was the site of the game’s origins.
Many of the Hall’s residents are no less fraudulent.
It’s a sanctuary for people like 19th-century star Adrian “Cap” Anson, instrumental in
establishing the color ban in Major League Baseball. It’s also the sporting mausoleum
for Rogers Hornsby and Tris Speaker, both tremendous players, both allegedly members of
the Ku Klux Klan.
Then there’s former commissioner Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis, who made his bones
deporting labor radicals like Big Bill Haywood and imprisoning boxing champion Jack
Johnson on white slavery charges. He used his position as baseball’s top boss to keep
the sport whiter than the U.S. Senate.
This past year the Hall’s veteran’s committee chose to enshrine late commissioner
Bowie Kuhn and reject the man who made Kuhn roll over and yip at every negotiation,
union leader Marvin Miller. As former commissioner Fay Vincent wrote in The
New York Times about their decision, “These are old men trying to turn
back time, to reverse what has happened. Theirs is an act of ignorance and bias. I am
ashamed for them. I am ashamed that they represent our game.”
And then there are all the players who excelled before 1947. To repeat Brutus’ own
words, “Their inclusion is a deception because of their unfair advantage, as so many
talented black athletes were excluded from sport opportunities.”
The point is that you took everyone out of Cooperstown with a severed ear or two in
the backyard, it would be emptier than Mardi Gras in Riyadh.
It would be very fitting for a player of pluck to pull a Brutus on the day of
enshrinement. Just imagine a bucolic day in Cooperstown, and someone with the sincerity
to match the stats stepping to the podium to tell the throngs in attendance that they
could never in good conscience adorn the halls of an building that would celebrate Kuhn
and reject Miller, or be feted by an organization that would so gladly celebrate throngs
of men who dabbled in the dark arts of white supremacy, union busting and repression of
even the most meager dissent.
Thank you, Dennis Brutus, for reminding us that we have free will to practice
resistance, even in the world of sports. And even when the powers that be dangle the
Thorazine-laced carrot of immortality.