Sports in the modern age have been an avenue to hero status for America’s racial minorities. The non-white athlete who can outperform white folks at their own games... that evokes a special kind of pride.
Jack Johnson, Jesse Owens and Jackie Robinson are damn-near mythic. Roberto Clemente, among Puerto Ricans, is a saint. Chicano musicians wrote songs about Fernando Valenzuela.
It applies to Jews as well; check out the Hank Greenberg documentary.
And when American Indian activist Dennis Banks organized a long-distance “protest run,” he named it after Olympic champion Jim Thorpe.
So you can understand the feelings aroused last year when Jenna Plumley – a 5-foot-4 freshman point guard – became a rising star on the University of Oklahoma women’s basketball team, one of the nation’s top squads.
“this girls a great role model & inspiration 4 native youth,” wrote one Jenna Plumley fan on an American Indian message board.
Watch the video clip below for a TV news report about Jenna’s status in the Indian community.
Jenna Plumley is a pure- blooded Native with Pueblo, Comanche, Otoe and Pawnee roots.
She was raised in Red Rock, Okla., and became one of that state’s best girl players ever. She led her high-school team to two state championships.
Becoming a Lady Sooner at OU made Jenna a rare Indian competing in Division I athletics. “It feels really good” being a role model, she says in the clip below, “especially since when I was a child I never really had a female role model to look up to.”
Alas, Jenna Plumley’s story took a dark turn this summer. She was arrested and charged with shoplifting from a Wal-Mart. Her coach suspended her for the 2008-2009 season.
Jenna left Oklahoma and now attends Lamar University in Beaumont, Texas. She’ll be eligible to continue with basketball next fall.
“Attempting to turn Indian high school and college students into social heroes is a dangerous business,” wrote Cedric Sunray in the Native American Times. “When they don’t pan out it only serves to cause further disappointment and marginalization for Indian youth.”
The lesson here is: Sports hero or not, we’re all just human beings.