(The Root) — Thanks to the film 42, new generations are being introduced to one of America’s greatest legends, baseball pioneer Jackie Robinson. But though billed as a sports biopic, 42 has also introduced filmgoers to one of America’s greatest love stories.
While much of the film focuses on baseball executive Branch Rickey’s unwavering, crucial support for Robinson during his tumultuous first year in the major leagues, it becomes clear in watching the film that Robinson never would have been able to make history without the support of his lifelong teammate: his wife, Rachel.
Today the term “baller wife” carries with it few positive connotations. It usually invokes images of a woman defined by her desire and ability to marry a wealthy man. The fact that he plays sports for a living is almost secondary.
The term is more about summarizing a lifestyle the woman is perceived to have aspired to and, thanks to having married him (or become pregnant by him), now gets to enjoy — filled with high living, designer clothes, the world’s most expensive weaves and most likely no day job to speak of besides being a rich man’s wife or girlfriend. Of course, this stereotype is not entirely fair. There are basketball wives and girlfriends accomplished in their own right, with singers Monica, Tamia and actress Gabrielle Union being some high-profile examples.
But thanks to shows like Basketball Wives, the stereotype of the gold-digging athlete groupie whose long-term goal and retirement plan is to finagle a ring out of a high-profile man, or at least manage to finagle a few child-support checks, has become the predominant image.
These shows have unfortunately glamorized the groupie game to such an extent that among some young girls, marrying and/or becoming pregnant by an athlete has likely surpassed winning the lottery as one of the greatest aspirational fantasies. Worse, they glamorize a sense of entitlement among these women that translates into their belief that bullying, swearing and physical assault are appropriate ways of settling disagreements in adulthood.
42 reminds us that it wasn’t always this way.
Rachel Robinson was much more than a “baller wife.” She served as her husband’s biggest cheerleader, sounding board, protector and conscience. Given how she endured endless death threats alongside him as he tried to make history — long before the days of multimillion-dollar contracts — it’s hard not to wonder how quickly many modern-day athletes’ wives would have turned on their stilettos and made a run for it had they faced death threats for standing by their man.
In addition to being a model of courage along with her husband, Robinson forged her own independent professional identity. A practicing nurse, she eventually became an assistant professor at the Yale School of Nursing. But her greatest legacy, besides being instrumental in helping her husband make history, will be the foundation she established in his memory. Instead of devoting her family’s fortune to living the “baller life,” she has helped the Jackie Robinson Foundation raise and spend millions providing scholarships to students in need.