Golden: New exhibit reminds us of sports’ past — and present — struggles

Three steps into the LBJ Presidential Library’s newest exhibition is a step into the past.

And, in some ways, the present.

It’s called “Get in the Game: The Fight for Equality in American Sports” and gives an illustration of the obstacles that athletes in this country have overcome to earn their rightful place in the games they loved.

The exhibit, which opens Saturday and will run into January, was the brainchild of LBJ Foundation President Mark Updegrove back in 2009; it took years to put together, exhibition curator Nikki Diller said.

“We didn’t know then it would be so relevant to our current national dialogue,” Diller said.

It also gives us a needed reminder that many of the athletes we enjoy watching wouldn’t even be here if not for the men and women who fought much larger battles outside the playing arena just for fair treatment.

In a word, this exhibit is amazing.

An old-school radio call emanates from the front of the room as visitors are greeted with a huge video of heavyweight champion Jack Johnson taking out Gentleman James Jeffries in the Fight of the Century of 1910. Imagine a black man in the early 1900s flaunting his love of white women, then beating up a revered, undefeated white champion with 20,000 white folks seated ringside? It happened that day in Reno, Nev.

To the left is a life-size photo of Jim Thorpe in a football uniform. Thorpe is arguably the greatest athlete in our nation’s history and the first Native American to win an Olympic gold medal for the United States. A few steps into the second room and you can catch a glimpse of track and field legend Jesse Owens exchanging a relay baton with Olympic teammate Marty Glickman.

Glickman and fellow Jewish teammate Sam Stoller were pulled out of the relay at the 1936 Berlin Olympics in what what was viewed as a cowardly move by America to avoid offending then-German Chancellor Adolf Hitler, whose notorious anti-Jewish views would soon play out in horrific fashion.

On a nearby flat screen across the room, a young Muhammad Ali is chastising an interviewer who just asked about his opposition to the war in Vietnam: “You my opposer when I want equality. You won’t even stand up for me in America for my religious beliefs, and you want me to go somewhere and fight, but you won’t even stand up for me here at home.”

Walk down the hall and take a right to the sound of Helen Reddy’s “I Am Woman” playing to a video of Billie Jean King’s 1973 Battle of the Sexes victory over Bobby Riggs. It gave little American girls everywhere hope that they could compete with the same privileges enjoyed by American boys.

“The battles for equality have been fought throughout time,” said longtime artifact collector and LBJ Library contributor Gregg Phillipson. He and his wife, Michelle, “collect basically to be able to tell the story of social injustice, for Jewish people, for people of color, for women. … It really covers all the gamuts. We think it’s important that kids understand how we’ve got to where we’re at today, some of the progress we’ve made and, in some cases, maybe not so much progress.”

Al Matthews said his walk through “Get in the Game” was a remembrance of great people who came before him and a reminder of the work that still needs to be done today.

As a young man growing up in East Austin, Darrell Royal’s first African-American coaching hire viewed America through a different lens. Matthews was an NAIA All-American at Texas A&I before playing for the Green Bay Packers, Seattle Seahawks and San Francisco 49ers. The 1960s was a period of unrest. Assassins’ bullets prevented President John F. Kennedy, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Sen. Robert Kennedy from making it out of the decade. The Vietnam War dominated the national airwaves into the next decade.

“Things were changing in the country, but it was a slow change,” Matthews said. “Vietnam was at the forefront. Here at the University of Texas, there was some pressure being put on Coach Royal because they did not have a black coach at the time.”

Back in those days, playing in the NFL wasn’t the lottery ticket it is today. After the season ended, players would return to their hometowns and take up offseason jobs. Matthews was substitute teaching at Johnston High one day in 1972 when Glen Swenson — his track coach at Austin High — brought in a visitor by the name of Darrell Royal. The Texas coach invited him over to his Gregory Gym office to talk football the next day, then hired him as an offensive assistant soon after.

Over the next three years, Matthews would miss most of Texas’ seasons because he was still playing in the NFL, but he would return for the bowl game and spring football. He left after signing a long-term NFL contract, and Royal signed another African-American, Prenis Williams, as UT’s receivers coach.

Matthews, now 70, is so appreciative of Royal for giving him a chance and is thankful for those who made his career possible.

“You see these pictures on these walls and you see sacrifice,” he said. “They made Al Matthews. They paved that road, that path. So you’re forever grateful to those guys. That’s when you look at the guys right now who are currently in the NFL. They don’t really give us the respect that we deserve. They don’t take time to know their history. We made this possible for you. We lived that era. Now today it’s mostly about the money.”

Much work remains.

One final turn reveals a photo of former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick taking a knee during the national anthem while former Texas Longhorn/Green Beret Nate Boyer stands nearby with a hand over his heart.

Sacrifice comes in many forms, not all of them popular.

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