There is lately some movement toward erecting a statue in Bill Russell's honor, per the words of our own President Obama.
First, let's understand that Mr. Obama's opinion is that of one man. It should in no way be construed as reflecting the opinions of the American people, certainly not in this matter.
Second, I object strongly to the building of any statue for any living human being. I cannot think of a circumstance where that would be appropriate, or even excusable. It is simply Too Much, smacking as it does of hero worship, overstatement and overweening ego.
And besides... Bill Russell was not that great a man.
Oh... heresy? Let's take a closer look...
The Medal of Freedom Russell just got implies that he has done things greater than his accomplishments on the basketball court. It seems he's being lauded now for his role in the struggle for racial justice in America. Otherwise, giving the Medal to a guy whose only accomplishment was winning basketball games would be a travesty against the Medal itself. We should agree about that.* (*Per the comments, this is not true. The "highest civilian award in the land" is, apparently, regularly given out to people just for being good athletes. Something about a "cultural" contribution. Hey, I just live here. Personally, I'd much rather they handed it out to a lot fewer people, but for much better/more special reasons.)
If Russell's role in the racial justice movement had been truly substantial, and meaningful, it would be an excellent reason to give him that Medal of Freedom (and later, statues too). The problem is: it was neither substantial nor meaningful. It seems it was barely significant, and arguably even negative.
It is true that Russell rejected and rebelled against racism. But he did so mostly when it directly impacted him. He did refuse to play a couple of exhibition games in cities where he had experienced racism, and for that he deserves credit. But many observers believe he had little to no impact on the larger struggle for civil rights in this country.
It is arguable, in fact, that his input was a net negative. Where Red Auerbach -- a true racial justice pioneer -- actually DID things in that fight (like hire Russell in the first place, for top dollar), Bill Russell's input was to perceive racial insults where none existed, and hurl hateful statements at all white people, including his own fans. His overreactions on several occasions served to FUEL the fires of the opponents of racial equality, instead of the other way around. (Source: The Rivalry: Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain, and the Golden Age of Basketball, by Taylor, John (2005))
Though Russell was helped by many key white people in his life, from high school on, he never, during his career, expressed any appreciation for their help. (ibid)
His most infamous quote was: "I dislike most white people because they are people... I like most blacks because I am black," in which his view that only blacks, for the most part, were worthy of approbation was made crystal clear. Russell never could make the leap from guys like Red to other white people whose intentions were just as honorable, though outside of his small sphere of personal experience. In that sense, Bill Russell was, in his prime, a man of little vision, and plenty of hate.
He was in many ways the opposite of the great men and women who fought and sometimes died in the name of racial justice.
It was probably for that reason that he steadfastly refused to sign autographs for (mostly white) kids throughout his career, saying once: "You owe the public the same it owes you, nothing. I refuse to smile and be nice to the kiddies." And why, on his retirement, Russell described the Boston media as corrupt and racist... whereupon some in that profession opined that it was Bill Russell who was more racist than most other Bostonians.
In recent years, Russell's attitudes have apparently changed, though there is reason to believe some of that was a careful orchestrated marketing campaign. He now seems to appreciate the city of Boston, and understands, presumably, that not all white people are evil and out to get him.
But that understanding comes now much, much too late. Bill Russell should be judged by the totality of what he did, what he said, what he accomplished... especially when he was onstage. Though the mists of memory leave a glossy film on all things best forgotten, the truth should always remain the truth.
There's one more thing that bothers me about this whole affair. If Bill Russell's relatively small and controversial input in the area of racial justice is truly worthy of the Medal of Freedom, what does that say about the ones who really did fight and ultimately win that battle? Men and women, black and white, whose input in that area far, far eclipsed Russell's: President Lyndon B. Johnson, President John F. Kennedy, Thurgood Marshall, Rosa Parks, Marcus Garvey, Booker T. Washington, Amzie Moore, Aaron Henry, James Meredith, The Freedom Riders, Martin Luther King, Jr., and many, many others.
Oh... but none of them could dunk a basketball.
Could it be that the President chose Bill Russell because Obama is himself a black man who loves basketball, and not for what most of us would consider valid reasons? I think so. And I mark that as one of the perks of being the President. Fine for him, and any that agree with him.
But let's not make the mistake of taking all that too seriously.
If you want to build a statue for a great sports figure, fine, no problem. We have plenty of those, and Bill Russell was unquestionably a surpassingly great sports figure. But don't do it because of the Medal of Freedom.
It's not "racist" to deny Russell his statue. It's arguably hypocritical to build it. I say: wait. Think about this before you do it. Look at ALL the facts, then make the right call. Do not let the haze of time obscure the reality of the man Bill Russell was. Do not make the same mistake President Obama just made.
A word, please: I realize that you may disagree with (at least some of) the above. I don't expect to change your mind, or any minds for that matter. I've written the truth as I found it, with basic references. If you have a different version of these events, please enlighten everyone by explaining it and proving me wrong. I ask only that you back up your version of reality, and keep the invective to a minimum.