You could only feel inadequate, insignificant, in the presence of Willie Mays, Billie Jean King, Harry Bellafonte and Andrew Young. 

That’s how nearly 1,200 of us felt Saturday afternoon at the Beacon of Light Luncheon, part of Major League Baseball’s Civil Right Game weekend in Cincinnati.

As I listened to Billie Jean King, I could only reflect on how what she lived and fought for made it possible for my daughter to be an NCAA scholarship athlete.  Before King, before Title IX, before Bobby Riggs, my daughter’s chances would have been more limited.  After King and because of her my daughter’s world – all of our world – is bigger and better.

When Willie Mays reflected on the hardship he faced as a black player coming up in a white man’s game, he said, “the more they knocked me down, the farther I hit the ball.”  So simple yet so profound. So heroic and so right.  My memories of Mays are the grainy black-and-white film clip of him chasing the fly ball in center field of the polo grounds and spinning and sending it back to the inflield before he falls.  A truly great athlete who transcended his sport.

Harry Bellafonte was the bigger-than-life movie star.  Handsome, poised, poignant.  He turned great talent and fame into social activism, at a dangerous time and at his own peril.

Ambassador Andrew Young was the keynote.  He reflected on the role that sports can play in breaking down barriers – between people, between races and between countries.  He reflected on the most memorable moment for him in the 1996 Atlanta Olympic Games during the Opening Ceremonies when the young athletes from Israel, Iran and Iraq entered the stadium together.  “Only in sport..,” he said, “only in sport.”

I offer these reflections as a witness, a participant, in a great event featuring great people who did great things. 

Of course, the common thread through all of their accomplishments (besides exceptional talent and skill combined with passion and purpose) was how they used celebrity and platforms for communication to affect change.  Their relationships – based on what they communicated, to whom and when – were their instruments of change.  As a professional communicator, this fact was not lost on me.

They may or may not have realized all this when they were living through it.  It didn’t matter.  What mattered was that they knew the more they did what they did better than any one else enabled them to change our society in ways that we all benefit from today.

Post by Nick Vehr – 5.16.10