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Sharon Robinson Discusses Athletes & Activism on Jackie Robinson Day

“Diversity” and “inclusion” are buzzwords often used in contemporary sports and entertainment. Seventy-two years ago today, Jackie Robinson put those words into action and made history as the first Black Major League Baseball (MLB) player. More than just breaking barriers on the baseball field, Robinson used his platform to advocate against injustice and discrimination.

Budweiser teamed up with Spike Lee and the Robinson family to create Impact, a short (three-minute) film and ad to celebrate his MLB debut and the 100th year of Robinson’s birth. Narrated by the MLB legend’s daughter, Sharon Robinson, Impact was inspired by a quote from the baseball star, “A life is not important except in the impact it has on other lives.”

Sharon, an author and educator, recently spoke with EBONY about the short film, her father’s legacy and the social injustices facing athletes today.

Tell EBONY readers how the Impact short film came to be.

My first contact was when Spike called. He has been a longtime friend and supporter of the Jackie Robinson Foundation, so he called to ask me how much money we needed to open the museum and I told him what the shortfall was and he said ‘OK. I’m going to help you do that.’ That’s all he told me on the phone, then we set up a meeting and it was incredible. Spike and his team and Budweiser came in full force and met us at the Jackie Robinson Foundation and read aloud the script that would be in the ad and talked about the concept and presented it fully to us. I told them ‘OK, now I’ve got to take it back to my mother to get her approval.’ So we really signed on to this project because we felt it would have impact and the impact would be across the country. We felt comfortable with Spike Lee sending the message.

How did you end up narrating the ilm??

He asked first if my mother would want to do it; I asked her, and she said “absolutely not.” My mom’s almost 97, and her days of being a spokesperson have passed. So then he asked me if I would do it, and I said “yes, absolutely.” That’s the genesis of the program.

I think what appealed to us most were the ideas that it was going to be so broad and include messages that would be on television, in ballparks and also the visual. The posters would include the values that we so strongly associated with my dad and the fact that it would be associated with Spike Lee. So all of that threw us in; then, of course, Budweiser sweetened it by agreeing to a substantial amount of money so that we could open the Jackie Robinson Museum.

The Jackie Robinson Foundation has been making strides for years. Tell us more about it.

The Jackie Robinson Foundation was founded in 1973 by my mother and a group of small friends, and its purpose was to provide scholarships and leadership development to young people of color, primarily African-Americans. The mission has grown, [as have] the number of scholarships we’ve provided and students we currently support . . . around 220 to 240 scholars each year, and they’re all attending four-year colleges and are provided with a grant for the four years. Over the years, we’ve supported over 1,500 students. We have a very active alumni association, which has given millions in money in grants to scholars.

We’re very proud of how we’re able to support kids who really need support. We know that even if they’re bright and can handle the academics of college life, the social and political sides of college are complicated, complex and have many challenges. They have challenges within their families as they’re becoming adults, so there are lots of ways they need support beyond the academic support. That’s what we try to make sure we cover.

Now that we’re up to date on the latest with the Jackie Robinson Foundation, can you tell us about the Jackie Robinson Museum?

The Jackie Robinson Museum has been in the planning stages and fund-raising for the past 10 years. We went through hard times economically, so there was a [period] when we were not even trying to fund-raise for the museum because we were trying to fund-raise, survive and keep the organization afloat and growing and strong. We [chose] the centennial year as the year we wanted to open. My mom is almost 97; it was her baby, her brainchild, and we wanted to ensure she would be able to enjoy the opening of the museum.

It’s not just a memorial or an institution in memory of Jackie Robinson; it’s really going to be an active socially engaging and educational environment, and that is our goal. To be able to talk about the past and get kids thinking about the present and how they can impact the future.

We’ve seen so much about your father’s historical impact on sports and activism, but can you tell us your favorite moment with Jackie Robinson as a parent?

I feel very blessed that I had a great relationship with my father. He taught me everything [about] politics. We debated the 1960 Kennedy vs. Nixon [presidential election] and why he ultimately supported Nixon over Kennedy. He impacted me on every kind of level imaginable. My favorite moments were when he would take me to New York [for] our father-daughter day. That started when I was about 7. He would announce it to me the night before, and I would get all dressed up the next day, including white gloves. If it was cold weather, I’d wear those furry little muff things on my ears and a pretty dress. It was our day, and we’d head out together and have an adventure.

Your father broke racial barriers in sports and changed the dynamics forever. Now that we have integrated professional leagues, the conversation surrounding race in sports has shifted. From Colin Kaepernick’s collusion case against the NFL to Russell Westbook and DeMarcus Cousins being called racial slurs by NBA fans, what do you think it will take to break down the barriers facing this generation of athletes?

It’s a big problem . . . and now, it’s not just a Black and White world. We’re seeing racism across the board. We’re dealing with sexism in the Me Too movement. We’re dealing with the immigration issues and discrimination [toward] people of color

It’s not just athletes that are feeling it. We’re all feeling it. I’m a children’s book author, so my books always have social content, historical content. It’s my way of helping kids understand the past but what the present situation is and how did we deal with it in the past and how they can life their voices today. That’s been part of my overall mission.

I think everyone has to find their way of way of lifting their voice and fighting against discrimination. That’s why I had such respect for Colin Kaepernick. We understood that it wasn’t just about taking a knee. It was about they had the power and the voice and they were lifting it against injustice and I was so proud of them because at that point it was our Black men who were under attack once again and it took a Black man with some power and some voice to stand up against it and encourage the young men that there are people that are willing to fight for justice in America. I think that athletes have to continue to find ways to use their platform for good and that’s what my father did.

Tell us more about your father’s activism.

He felt it was extremely important that he continue to use his voice against racially inequality, and he did it as a fundraiser. He raised money across the country for the NAACP and the SCLC. We did it at our home by having jazz concerts to raise money. He traveled whenever there was a crisis in the movement. He traveled for voter registration drives. He traveled to march in marches. We as a family traveled to the March on Washington. It was a message I heard about from both my parents from early childhood because they felt we needed to be a part of the Civil Rights Movement and we had a unique role to play.

My dad had a hard time getting [then-]current players to join him in those efforts when he was alive, so I think he would be very proud of the young athletes who are willing to fight against injustice in many ways. Some of them have opened up their own foundations. They’re beginning to understand that they have to have impact on the community that goes beyond the playing field.

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