What if… the Barclays Center Had Been the Jackie Robinson Arena?

What if… the Barclays Center Had Been the Jackie Robinson Arena?
Brooklyn Protest – George Floyd – By Adrian Childress/Bklyner

On June 2, on the fifth day of protests against police brutality, activists hoisted a Black Lives Matter flag up the temporarily-bare flagpole at the intersection of Atlantic and Flatbush avenues near the Barclays Center, on a plaza controlled by the arena.

It supplanted the usual flags representing the United States of America, the Brooklyn Nets, and the New York Islanders. (The Nets and Islanders flags were flapping forlornly near street level on Sunday.)

With the arena as a focal point for protests in Brooklyn, the action suggested that the movement’s message, for now, trumped not just the national symbol but also that of Nets, a “sports entertainment corporation” that can inspire civic pride and attachment.

That flagpole, as a plaque on its base indicates, once stood at the Brooklyn Dodgers’ former home, Ebbets Field. One Brooklynite made a deeper connection on Twitter: famed Dodger Jackie Robinson, first black man in baseball, had said, “I cannot stand and sing the anthem. I cannot salute the flag; I know that I am a black man in a white world.”

Robinson’s words—from his 1972 autobiography, looking back on his World Series debut a quarter-century earlier—were ignored when the flagpole was unveiled in December 2012, ten weeks after the Barclays Center opened.

Still, arena developer Bruce Ratner and Borough President Marty Markowitz aimed to link the long-gone Dodgers to the fledgling Brooklyn Nets—always a stretch–while Sharon Robinson suggested her father would’ve been proud to see major league sports return to Brooklyn.

But Jackie Robinson should inspire not just pride in progress but also profound reflections on American injustice, and how major buildings reflect social priorities.

An arena named for Jackie Robinson?

After all, the Barclays Center, with its prominent corporate logo and Brooklyn Nets slogan “We Go Hard” (and black superstars) backgrounding so many photos of the protests, didn’t have to be named for a British bank.

It could’ve been named for Jackie Robinson.

That was the quixotic crusade of Brooklynite Arthur Piccolo, who, at a May 2004 City Council hearing, cited an “opportunity long overdue to give an appropriate honor to America’s greatest sports hero… who played a unique role in the development of sports in America.”

Similarly, when the 20-year naming rights deal was announced in January 2007, Bergen Record columnist Ian O’Connor suggested, “If Ratner cared to reveal himself as a true philanthropist with Brooklyn’s best interests at heart, he would have named this arena after Jackie Robinson and told Barclays to keep its cash.”

But sports is a business—“Money is America’s God,” Robinson wrote—and most new facilities have a naming rights partner, since such payments defray construction costs. Then again, both the new Yankee Stadium and the expensively renovated Madison Square Garden kept their names.

Okay, those are icons. More relevantly, when the county-owned Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum was renovated by a Ratner-led team, they finessed a pledge to keep the name. It’s now called NYCB Live: Home of the Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum, a reference to sponsor New York Community Bank.

That awkward moniker is, at least, not purely commercial. What if there’d been enough wisdom and pressure for the Brooklyn arena to be named “The Jackie Robinson Center, Presented by Barclays” or even “The Barclays Center: Honoring Jackie Robinson”?

Honoring heroes

Besides honoring veterans, sports venues don’t have to be named for sponsors. Some honor pioneering athletes. The city of Detroit once built and operated a venue called the Joe Louis Arena, named for the black heavyweight boxing champion who became a national hero a decade before Robinson’s debut.

The main U.S. Open tennis matches are played at Arthur Ashe Stadium in Flushing Meadows-Corona Park, named for the only black man to win three Grand Slam singles titles, an activist against apartheid and a distinguished author.

Yes, the stadium, built by the U.S. Tennis Association, did rely on free city land and tax-exempt bonds, while Ratner’s land deal was far more complicated, only partly relying on public subsidies and part of the larger 15-tower Atlantic Yards project.

High hopes for Robinson’s legacy

Others invoked Robinson’s name in expecting social uplift from Atlantic Yards. At a January 2004 event announcing Ratner’s purchase of the (then) New Jersey Nets, Brooklyn Assemblyman Roger Green declared, “No one should down play the historic significance of this moment,” linking it to the “catalyst for progressive change” represented by Robinson and Dodgers’ General Manager Branch Rickey.

Green hoped Atlantic Yards could “establish a new paradigm that will revitalize the borough of Brooklyn for all races, classes, and ethnic groups.” But his support for the project didn’t generate the results he sought.

Green envisioned “Economic Justice for all,” involving, among other things, a pre-apprenticeship program to get construction jobs to “communities that have been historically left behind.” That program was aborted, ending in a bitter lawsuit settled in 2015, long after Green had left office.

Atlantic Yards, he proposed, should “provide housing for working class families.” That became, more murkily, income-restricted “affordable housing,” which—since the project in 2014 was renamed Pacific Park Brooklyn—has gone disproportionately to middle-income households.

Developer Ratner, Green said at the time, “has agreed to work with my office towards the establishment of a Children’s Zone for Brooklyn,” a comprehensive plan—apparently inspired by an anti-poverty program in Harlem—that never emerged.

Green also sought “opportunities for Jackie’s descendants to demonstrate their gifts within the suites and the back offices of this multibillion dollar industry.” He named attorney and businessman Londell McMillan as “representing the interest of these constituencies.”

But McMillan, who did buy a piece of the team, in 2018 said that Atlantic Yards/Pacific Park hadn’t delivered on promises: “It breaks my heart to have been a part of the project.”

The role of symbolism

Few people, however, know of McMillan’s heartbreak. And not enough recognize the folly of placing so much hope in a complex real-estate project whipsawed by economic cycles.

Far more know that hip-hop supernova Jay-Z served as a huge symbol of the Barclays Center and the Nets, despite his tiny share of team ownership. For the much-hyped Brooklyn Nets opener against the New York Knicks, arena managers even planned a “special ceremony” involving Jay-Z and 90-year-old Rachel Robinson. (It was scotched by Superstorm Sandy, which postponed the game.)

Today, that Dodgers connection and Ebbets Field flagpole clearly don’t spark reverence. Recently, when I walked past, the base was marred by graffiti, “Fuck 12,” a reference to the police.

Could an arena named for Jackie Robinson, prompting us to reckon with his pioneering achievements and unfinished struggles, have changed things? We can’t know.

However, at a venue where game attendees routinely—and rotely—stand for the national anthem, it would’ve been easier to foreground Robinson’s defiant lament, ”I cannot stand and sing the anthem” plus the conclusion to his autobiography’s preface, which became the book’s title, “I never had it made.”

Robinson could speak most forcefully long after he took the field. More recently, after star quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s prophetic take-a-knee protests against police brutality got him exiled from the NFL, he echoed Robinson’s words on Twitter.

As now seems clear, a lot more of us should’ve been reflecting on Robinson’s wake-up call.