I had hoped to be writing more about tennis with the US Open underway. I had hoped to be resting from my labors on Labor Day.
But as Eleanor Roosevelt said of World War II, “This is no ordinary time.” With challenges and crisis on the home front and abroad, the time demands we go within to reach out, that we roll up our sleeves intellectually, physically and spiritually and use pleasure as it was always meant to be used – as a dessert rather than a meal.
Perhaps, however, it is still possible for me to write about tennis while also writing about character. Both are subjects of a new book by James Blake (with Carol Taylor), “Ways of Grace: Stories of Activism, Adversity and How Sports Can Bring Us Together” (Amistad/HarperCollins Publishers, $26.99, 240 pages). I’m not going to review the book here as I haven’t read enough of it, except that I will say what little I’ve read left me wanting more – more depth and more stories in what is essentially an athletic “Profiles in Courage.” Yet I kept coming back to it as I also read with increasing despair about the uncertain future of DACA, the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program – known informally as the “Dreamers” program – begun under President Barack Obama, which allows children who came to the United States illegally with their parents to remain here. That program – affecting some 800,000 people, many of whom are now working adults and have never known any homeland but America – could end today when President Donald J. Trump announces his decision about it. The president, who has given out mixed signals on DACA in the past, is said to be weighing an option that would end the program but only after Congress is given a six-month window to come up with an alternative.
Such a subject would be meat to James Blake. Raised in Yonkers, N.Y. and Connecticut, Blake left Harvard University in 1999 to join the professional tennis circuit. He was a golden guy – a former star and chairman of the United States Tennis Association (USTA) Foundation – on his way to the Open on Sept. 9, 2015 when he was arrested and manhandled by New York City Police outside Grand Central Terminal in a case of mistaken identity and racial profiling that became an international incident.
“I wanted to use my voice and my role as an athlete to make a difference, to turn this unfortunate incident into a catalyst for change,” he writes in the book. “But for many months I wondered….Why would anyone care about what I have to say off the tennis court?”
Blake turned for inspiration to another tennis star, Arthur Ashe (1943-93), who contracted AIDS from a contaminated blood transfusion he received during heart bypass surgery in the 1980s. A civil rights activist as well as a pioneering player – the first black man to be part of the U.S. Davis Cup Team and the only one to win Wimbledon, the US Open and the Australian Open – the elegant, formidable Ashe turned ghastly misfortune into a quest for AIDS research. He helped make it the chronic disease it is today instead of the death sentence it once was.
Ashe called his memoir “Days of Grace.” It became the inspiration for Blake’s “Ways of Grace,” about athletes who have fought for gay and women’s rights (Billie Jean King, Martina Navratilova), racial justice (Colin Kaepernick) and a more peaceful world for children (Ana Ivanovic and Novak Djokovic), among others.
DACA offers us another “way of grace.” We talk much about the word “grace.” It can, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, mean seamless physical elegance, courtesy, good will and “the free and unmerited favor of God.” Roman Catholics pray the “Hail, Mary” to the mother of Jesus, beginning with the words “Hail, Mary, full of grace.” But grace is in short supply these days. Tearing these young people, who came to America through no fault of their own, from the only life they have ever known is an act of cruelty. From a selfish, pragmatic standpoint, it will leave a hole in the economy that will not be filled by others who have neither the skill nor the will. And for what? So that we can say we upheld the law even as Trump pardoned civil rights-abusing former sheriff Joe Arpaio for breaking it? Or is this really all about keeping America as white as possible in the face of the race’s inevitable decline as a majority?
On Twitter, Sen. Christopher S. Murphy, Democrat of Connecticut, spoke of the kind of grace that demonstrates generosity of spirit and a willingness to absorb loss. He urged Republicans to seize the day by preserving DACA. “Every Democrat will join you,” he wrote. “Show the courage and grace to save these children, and our nation.”
I like to think the president showed courage and grace when he kissed those children displaced by Hurricane Harvey in Houston, when he told an audience in Missouri that the hurricane victims would “live in our hearts forever.”
Were those just words said in the moment for effect or emblems of action?
Blake’s book is dedicated “To anyone who has ever chosen to take a stand for something greater than themselves.”
It’s time to take that stand in any way you can. It’s time for courage and grace.
It’s time to be greater than we are.