Sports World Closest to MLK's Dream

Martin Luther King Jr. Day provides a chance to highlight equal opportunities in athletics.

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Kobe Bryant (Jeff Gross/Getty Images)

The Los Angeles Lakers and Dallas Mavericks capped an 11-game schedule on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, which has become a sacred day on the NBA calendar.

Home teams prepare special MLK tributes to be played in their arenas. The Indiana Pacers did a collaborative reading of King's "I Have a Dream" speech. The Washington Wizards went with a couple of players sharing their thoughts -- as Steve Wonder played in the background -- interspersed with clips from the March on Washington.

ESPN got into the spirit with a weeklong series of original programming entitled Content of Character. It included a roundtable of journalists, scholars and former athletes discussing King's legacy and how it affects sports. Among the stories examined were the familiar -- former home run king Hank Aaron's rise from Mobile, Ala., to the Hall of Fame -- and the unfamiliar: Kareem Rosser's rise from inner-city Philadelphia to a national polo championship and scholarship to Cornell.

King was still working on his bachelor's degree at Morehouse College when Jackie Robinson integrated Major League Baseball in 1947, which was a year after four black players, including Marion Motley, integrated the modern NFL. When the NBA finally integrated, in the 1950-1951 season, King was finishing his divinity degree from Crozer Theological Seminary.

But his role as a civil rights pioneer has always resonated with black athletes, who are among the nation's most prominent African Americans. Though their numbers were initially scarce, the presence of blacks in the major sports leagues helped highlight the possibilities -- and limited opportunities -- in other fields.

King clearly realized the power of sports and their potential to effect change. He embraced Cassius Clay in the 1960s, before the boxer became Muhammad Ali, and the two appeared together in a demonstration for fair housing in Louisville, Ky. King also supported track stars Tommie Smith, Lee Evans and John Carlos in 1967 as they organized the Olympic Project for Human Rights. And Jackie Robinson became a much requested speaker on the civil rights circuit.

Black athletes are pervasive nowadays but aren't as bold and outspoken, rarely taking a stand on social or political issues. That would be a better way to honor King's legacy, using their platform and prestige for more than commercial purposes. Fighting for more opportunities in the front office would be a good place to start.

But there's plenty of work to be done behind the scenes, too. If King's spirit isn't a driving force for many athletes out front, it can certainly motivate some athletes behind closed doors.

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