MUHAMMAD: On Playing, and Winning … and Winning

Askia Muhammad | 4/2/2014, 3 p.m.
Athletic competition has a lot in common with military combat.
Askia Muhammad

Athletic competition has a lot in common with military combat. For one thing they are both absolute meritocracies – that is there is no favor given to a competitor’s skin color, or religion, or even gender. Another similarity is that in either sports or combat, it’s generally always preferable to win.

I prefer athletic competition over war, because in most sports, no one has to die in order to determine the winner. Despite the meritocracy, I attended predominantly Black schools and all of my athlete friends just happen to be Black.

Throughout my educational career I’ve had the good fortune of always being around champion athletes. Even at John Muir Jr. High School in Los Angeles, I remember playing with the great Paul Blair. Blair went on to play for the Baltimore Orioles and his name is among other immortals in the team’s “Ring of Fame.”

At John C. Fremont Sr. High School I often experienced the sweet taste of victory. I also felt the great agony of defeat. I was not myself an athlete. I was a team manager (water-boy), and later a sports journalist.

When I was manager of the basketball team we were undefeated City Champions. Then one day we went to play arch rival Thomas Jefferson High School and they beat us, 78-77. We did not lose another game that season and went on to repeat as City Champs, but I still remember that somber heartbreak we all felt coming home after that loss to Jeff.

Our football teams were equally invincible, as was our track team, City Champs in both sports. Our quarterback Ricky Harris went on and eventually had a successful career as a defensive back for the Washington NFL franchise. My friend and classmate Richard Stebbins went on to win a Gold Medal in the 4x100 relay at the 1964 Olympics in Tokyo.

My friends Tommy Smith and John Carlos won the 200 meter Gold and Bronze medals at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City, and they earned immortality in another way, off the field, when they raised a black-gloved, fisted salute during the playing of the Star Spangled Banner as they stood on the medal stand. Their rare immortality went beyond their triumph during the meritocracy of the competition.

In high school I also learned a bitter lesson about the foolishness of having to win at all costs. Just winning is not the ultimate victory. At Fremont, our motto became: “If we don’t win in the Fourth Quarter, we’ll win in the Fifth Quarter.” And so it was.

Once in a football game our invincible lads were expected to win, we were crushed in a home game against an integrated team from cross-town league-rival Los Angeles High School. Late in the fourth quarter when it was clear we could not win, I could see from my journalist look-out on the playing field that some of our students had begun drifting into the other side of the stadium where the mostly White students from L.A. High were celebrating, enjoying their victory.