PASADENA STAR NEWS (Aug. 14, 2020)- Fresh out of the gates, the Rose Bowl Institute has found enduring lessons about race by examining the role athletes of color have played on the field — and the roles they’ve been forced to play off it.

In its inaugural event, the first of a three-part conversation on race and sports, the newly formed think tank brought together two hall of fame athletes, a Pulitzer Prize-winning author and the daughter of famed athlete and civil rights icon Jackie Robinson.

“Sports, because it was an artificial world that valued fairness, were adopted by people who were desperate for fairness in the real world,” according to author Taylor Branch, who’s known for his award-winning account of the civil rights movement and the life of Martin Luther King, Jr.

When Jackie Robinson was breaking into professional baseball — the first Black athlete to do so — the world began to reckon with its views on race, as the public tried to reconcile the world of sports “where Black athletes were clearly excelling and the real world’s racial hierarchy that was really hard for them to succeed in,” Branch said.

Sharon Robinson, daughter of Jackie Robinson, explained that some of her earliest memories of her father were from his post-baseball days.

“Our dinner table conversation centered around the civil rights movement and politics,” she said, explaining that her father’s penchant for fairness and racial equality started long before his baseball career and persisted many years later.

She remembered being at 1963’s March on Washington as a 13-year-old girl, something Hall of Fame footballer Ronnie Lott recalled too.

“Clearly at that time, you knew you were in a situation where people were standing up for something that was bigger than all of us,” Lott said. “What I see today is the (same) volume of people saying this is not right … What that tells you is that it’s not fair. It’s still not fair.”

He recalled first moving to California from Washington D.C. as a young kid playing football, when a coach asked him: “‘Can you play with white kids?’ And I was like, ‘What? I can play with anybody.’ It didn’t dawn on me that it matters. When I was a kid in D.C., no one ever asked me that question.

“At this moment, you still get emotional about it because you’re still trying to understand what he was thinking,” Lott continued. “All I wanted to do was play. So what was he thinking? What was he trying to convey to me?”

Robinson used the point to underscore the importance of instilling self-confidence in kids about everybody being different. But still, it’s not that simple for Black athletes.

“Every Black athlete then, and still now, has different choices to make” about how to fit into the world of sports, where fairness is paramount, and the real world that’s anything but fair, Branch said.

“How do you navigate those two worlds?” he asked.

Hall of Fame soccer player Cobi Jones explained it was a “little bit of a dance,” finding a way to fit in with your team “so you can perform as a unit when needed.”

Teams are like families, he said, “so you make sacrifices for yourself a little bit, for the moment, for the team. But then you also have to figure out who you are outside the team.”

That’s where you make the activist statements, that’s where you can be your own person and “let everyone know this is where you stand,” Jones said.

That’s the value of sports, Branch said. It gives folks a venue for conversations that wouldn’t have otherwise happened.

Robinson believed her father would have been proud of the activism seen in sports today and, when asked if her father would be an activist or an athlete today, she said, “He would find a way, like he did, to do both.”