Columnist George Will must have been eavesdropping on recent conversations among African- Americans comparing the disproportionately large numbers of blacks in the military and sports. In his Newsweek column of Feb. 11, he ended his comments by saying: "Military life aspires to resemble professional sports in one particular -- concentration on performance."
The inference -- my inference -- is that Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Colin Powell and Chicago Bulls guard Michael Jordan, for example, made it to the very pinnacle of their professions on merit -- on performance. They are good, very good.
While Will accurately speaks of resemblance of military life and professional sports, there are dangers in comparing the two, even in a narrow sense. More appropriately, professional sports should aspire to be more like the military than the other way around. For instance, the seven-figure incomes of some black athletes in boxing, basketball and football give the very mistaken impression to many that they have power and influence commensurate with their bank statements and on-court performance. Not so. In fact, in no other endeavor do performers who make so much have so little influence.
The Jan. 7 issue of the Sporting News had a cover story on the 100 most powerful people in sports worldwide. Only three blacks were listed: boxing promoter Don King was ninth, Anita DeFrantz, one of the two Americans on the International Olympic Committee, was 31st, and Michael Jordan was 79th.
And herein lies the decisive issue for black aspirants to the NBA and NFL -- and the Army. Unless there is opportunity for advancement and empowerment beyond the role of player/soldier, the position offers an incomplete and misleading image. That is one reason why so many young blacks make a mess of it as athletes. Besides Jordan, the only other athletes in the top 100 were golfers Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer.
A much-posed question during this current Black History Month is: "Who is a better role model, Colin Powell or Michael Jordan?" Colin Powell, like Jordan, is on magazine covers. His picture is on the front page of newspapers, he is part of the lead stories from the Gulf on nightly newscasts.
But Powell is more accurately to be compared with NBA Commissioner David Stern or Bulls team owner Jerry Reinsdorf than with Jordan.
Powell is, at present, the most powerful black person on earth. His salary is $137,500 -- or what Jordan earns in one week.
At Richard Bailey Middle School in White Plains, N.Y., last Monday, I addressed the student body on black heroes. While selecting them from occupational categories at random, they were very aware of black contributors in each one -- Powell included. But when sports came up, every child in the auditorium raised his hand. Jordan was known by everyone, regardless of ethnic origin or length of time in America.
Asked whether they would rather be Powell or Jordan, 11- and 12-year-old black boys picked Jordan hands down. It wasn't even close. Jordan, thankfully, is a wonderful role model and from that George Will can take comfort. I will feel better, though, when these same young boys say they would rather own an NBA team than play for one. That would make Black History Month special indeed.