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Zidane - You Are No Jackie Robinson

By Seth Swirsky

Frenchman Zinedine Zidane, the 34-year-old superstar of international soccer, claims to have been goaded into the vicious head-butt of his opponent's sternum because of insults his Italian foe leveled at his mother.

His impulsive act - which disbarred him from the closing minutes of a tied game - probably cost his team the World Cup, his country a degree of pride absent for years, and the chance to heal the racial divide that recently saw various communities in France rioting in the streets. In short, Zidane could have healed that divide by uniting France under the banner of a world championship, but he blew it. It was no isolated incident: Zidane had been kicked out of a Champion's League match for head-butting another player in 2001, as well as stamping an opponent in the 1998 World Cup in response to an "insult". Altogether, he's been kicked out of 14 games in his career.

Zidane's immature and extremely violent reaction to the words - mere words - of his opponents recalls another world-class athlete and his very different response to provocations far worse than anything the pampered, multimillionaire European soccer star faced last week.

Jackie Robinson, as everyone knows, was Major League Baseball's first black player and, unlike Zidane, a man of great integrity. Robinson, by dint of his character, refused to be goaded into losing his head, even as he faced indignities and provocations that were far more egregious than those Zidane ever encountered. In fact, Robinson, against all odds, kept his eye on the prize, i.e., his country, his race and his sense of personal dignity.

Today, sadly, "the prize" seems to be - Zidane is a good example - utter self-interest. Robinson didn't lose his head because he appreciated that not only did his Brooklyn Dodger teammates need his talents to help them get to the World Series (which they played in 6 times in Robinson's 10-year career) but that millions of black Americans depended on him to help forge a new future for them in the United States. Jackie knew that their hopes depended on his behavior.

One can only imagine Mr. Robinson laughing an ironic laugh at the excuse Zidane offered: "You mean someone said something mean about his mother? That would have been a good day for me!"

And, of course, it would have been, for a couple of not nice words were the least of what Jackie Robinson faced every day he put on his Dodgers uniform -- words so vile that today we only describe them with their first letter (the "n" word).

But Robinson faced more than mere words. More than once, opposing managers ordered their pitchers to throw 100-mile-per-hour fastballs at his head. Many players slid into second base, cleats high, in order to injure or intimidate him. Death threats were not uncommon.

But Jackie Robinson, unlike Zidane, was an uncommon man. In spite of treatment never endured to that extent - before or since - by any other major sports figure, he persevered, winning Baseball's highest honors: the Rookie of the Year award in 1947, the Most Valuable Player award in 1949, a world's championship in 1955 and election to the Hall of Fame in 1962. All this while winning the hearts and minds of Americans and changing the world in doing so.

Jackie Robinson once said that an individual life is not important, except in its impact on the lives of others. If only Zidane had understood these words before he chose to resort to violence in front of a billion people, many millions of them children who considered him a hero.

Zidane chose to hit the man who taunted him. Jackie Robinson chose to ignore the men who taunted him. Instead, he hit a baseball.

Seth Swirsky is a hit songwriter and best selling author. He can be reached through his site,

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