America's black stars win their stripes the hard way

Weeks of an inimitably American sporting love-in came to a climax last night with President Bill Clinton's appearance at Shea stadium, in New York, to honour the memory of a national hero with a difference.

It was 50 years to the day since Jackie Robinson took the field for the Dodgers in Brooklyn and became the first black player admitted to Major League baseball, and Mr Clinton, ever attuned to the public mood, was there to pay the nation's tribute.

Already a big event, the anniversary was given special point at the weekend when Tiger Woods, at 21, became the first black American to win the US Masters golf tournament. It was a victory that smashed all records: Woods won by the biggest margin, with the highest under-par score - at the "whitest" golf club in the United States.

Young black golfers across the country spoke of being inspired to "go out and practise" each time they recalled Woods's victory.

Middle-class parents and grandparents - white, but especially black - delighted in the dignified comportment and linguistic sophistication of their new hero.

Some even hazarded, perhaps from an inadequate appreciation of the historical context, that Woods's achievement - victory in a sport that is predominantly 'white" - could prove even greater than Robinson's, opening the door to "colour-blindness" in all sports.

But the celebration of Jackie Robinson and Tiger Woods has not been unalloyed. Woods himself helped to puncture the bubble of euphoria by declining President Clinton's invitation to be his personal guest at Shea stadium last night. He stuck to plans to go on holiday. Whether he feared elevation to the icon status of Robinson or simply did not want to detract from the Robinson anniversary, can only be a matter for speculation.

Even before Woods's decision to go on holiday, however, the Robinson anniversary had provided the occasion for some awkward questioning about the baseball player's real legacy and about the position of blacks in US sport today.

One aspect, thrown into relief by Woods's golfing success, is the continued segregation of sport, and sports. It is not just golf that remains a largely white sport. Even professional baseball, where Robinson supposedly broke the path for blacks, boasts only 17 per cent of players who are black, and the proportion is declining. This contrasts with basketball and American football, where players are predominantly - 80 and 67 per cent respectively - black. The athletics field, and particularly the running track, is similarly dominated by blacks.

Some explain this discrepancy as a matter of class and economics rather than colour. Club and green fees, they say, are just too high for many blacks; a pair of boots and a ball are affordable. They note that new golf courses are springing up in black middle-class areas - but without concluding that the existence of "white" and "black" courses may perpetuate segregation. Nor does affordability explain the relatively small number of blacks in the highly lucrative sport of baseball.

But the anniversary has also spawned a more profound question that goes well beyond the world of sport. In its starkest form, this asks whether Jackie Robinson might unwittingly be to blame for the failure of many (especially male) blacks in American society and their low expectations.

Robinson's elevation to black icon, proponents of this view say, meant many young blacks saw sport, and only sport, as their passport to wealth and success. They cite the succession of black sporting heroes - the latest, before Tiger Woods, being the basketball player Michael Jordan - as giving blacks too narrow a field of role models, and whites an excuse to believe blacks were succeeding in American society.

Such critics support their view with reference to a recent survey, according to which two-thirds of young black men "expected" to become professional sportsmen, yet only one in 10,000 would ever achieve that goal. They are thus left with the worst of two worlds: they have an aspiration which diverts them from academic study and other professional ambitions and which is also unattainable.

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