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 anabolic.
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.
[Dave Zirin is the author of the new book "Welcome to the Terrordome:" with an intro by Chuck D (Haymarket). You can receive his column Edge of Sports, every week by emailing [email protected] Contact him at [email protected]]