Spartan Football Student-Athletes Inspired By Jesse Owens
MSU Athletics celebrates Black History Month with an exclusive prescreening of the movie “Race.”
By Steve Grinczel, MSUSpartans.com Online Columnist | @GrinzOnGreen
EAST LANSING, Mich. – While watching an exclusive prescreening of the movie “Race,” 50 Michigan State student-athletes gained a greater appreciation for the role sports play in affecting social change.
The biopic, which opened in theaters nationwide on Friday, depicts the racial struggles Jesse Owens overcame to become the greatest track-and-field athlete in the world.
The story begins with Owens’ emergence as an All-American at Ohio State despite dealing with discrimination on a daily basis. It culminates with his unprecedented performance at the 1936 Olympics in Nazi Germany. Owens single-handedly crippled Adolph Hitler’s plans to use the Berlin Games as a propaganda tool designed to prove his theory of Aryan superiority by becoming the first American to win four Olympic gold medals.
“It was inspiring to see one man break so many racial barriers,” said Spartan football offensive tackle Dennis Finley, who watched the movie with teammates last week at Wells Hall. While Owens returned from the Olympics to a hero’s welcome, he continued to face indignities, such as not being allowed to enter through the front door of a New York hotel where he was being honored.
“Although it still took time for him to be acknowledged in his own country, it was very touching to see the way he made history,” Finley said. “I recommend it to everyone. Before this movie, I didn’t really know much about him, but after seeing it, he really did make a difference in the world with the ground-breaking things he accomplished.
“I do think he blazed a path, but I definitely think there is still a lot more work to do. It’s good to learn something about the past to help make for a better future.”
Michigan State was the only college to preview “Race.” The showing was made possible by the joint efforts of MSU’s Multicultural Program of Student-Athlete Support Services and the Ross Initiative in Sports for Equality (RISE), a fledgling, New York-based nonprofit organization created to “harness the unifying power of sport to advance race relations and drive social progress,” according to its promotional literature.
Founded by Detroit native and Miami Dolphins owner Stephen M. Ross, RISE went public in October and selected Michigan as its debut state for national education initiatives. It has formed strategic relationships with MSU and the University of Michigan and is conducting an eight-week leadership program at three high schools: Saline, Jalen Rose Leadership Academy in Detroit and West Bloomfield.
“RISE is geared towards getting student-athletes to take a pledge to not discriminate, to practice inclusive activities and to also make sure students are becoming more culturally competent,” said Kristia Worthy, academic and tutorial coordinator for MSU Student-Athlete Support Services. “Once our partnership with RISE was set in place, they wanted to come in and do some diversity programming for our student-athletes.
“The pilot event was the showing of the movie ‘Race.’ With this being Black History Month, we thought it would be a great way to kick off this event.”
A notice to view the movie was sent to Michigan State’s entire student-athlete population, and invitations were extended on a first-come, first-served basis.
“Our goal was to have our athletes gain some history of what it was like to be the shoes of previous athletes during that timeframe,” Worthy said. “We wanted them to gain knowledge of someone who had to endure being an athlete while dealing with societal issues. We wanted to open their minds.”
RISE’s board of directors includes the commissioners of every major professional league in America, the heads of other national sports enterprises, NCAA President Mark Emmert, Anita DeFrantz of the International Olympic Committee and leaders of national amateur athletics governing bodies and broadcasting networks.
Golden State Warriors standout Draymond Green, who played for Michigan State from 2008-12, is a member of RISE’s Advisory Board.
“Never before have so many heavy hitters like that all come together for one issue, and that issue is race,” said RISE executive director Ndidi Massay, a former All-America softball player at Northwestern University. “Sport is such a unifying part of our society, why can’t we view that as an example of our best parts of society?”
RISE arranged the preview through a connection between its board and Focus Features, which produced “Race.”
“This is our introduction to Michigan State as a new partner,” said Massay. “Everything we stand for is to show athletes how they can use sport as a vehicle for social change, and their power as role models to really make a difference in something they believe in.
“We hope to teach, to empower, to inspire young student-athletes.”
Owens’ story resonated with defensive lineman Enoch Smith Jr. in a modern sense.
“Looking back through history you can see that a lot has changed, but seeing the milestones Jesse Owens set for African-Americans, such as myself, makes you want to exceed expectations not only for ourselves but for our families and the university we represent,” Smith said. “I wouldn’t say I was shocked by what he went through because I’ve experienced some of those things as well. “I actually liked the way it was presented. It was spectacular and I enjoyed every moment of the movie because it showed how Jesse Owens handled adversity in every situation that was presented to him. The way he was able to block out everything and focus on one task was amazing.”
Wide receiver Cam Chambers, who enrolled at MSU last month as a member of the Spartans’ 2016 recruiting class, left the movie feeling positive.
“Jesse Owens was a great, influential member of the African-American community, just providing hope and motivation for the many who followed him,” Chambers said. “The movie was just another stepping stone giving me an idea of what to look forward to when I start my Big Ten career in the fall.
“I know I’m not going to have to deal with any type of adversity he faced at a couple of meets the movie showed. Then he went over to Berlin and had to deal with a whole bunch of negativity, and he overcame it all. But I think more awareness to the racial tension still going on in America will help bring good perspective to people because the better people understand how both sides view things, the better their outlook and thought-process will be.”
Finley’s newfound admiration notwithstanding, there are some things the movie just couldn’t change, however.
“He’s probably the only Buckeye I could ever root for,” Finley said.