African American athletes might be richly rewarded and valued for their athletic skills, but they still pay a price if they speak out on social, cultural and political issues.
By Anthony D. Greene
“This stand wasn’t because I feel like I’m being put down in any kind of way. This is because I’m seeing things happen to people that don’t have a voice: people that don’t have a platform to talk and have their voices heard and affect change. So, I’m in the position where I can do that, and I’m going to do that for people that can’t.” – Colin Kaepernick
Of the highest revenue-earning professional and collegiate sports (e.g., football and basketball), it can’t go unnoticed that the athletes participating in these sports are overwhelmingly black/African American. Black athletes make up approximately 70 percent of the NFL and 74 percent of the NBA. We place a significant value on their athletic prowess, but often collectively devalue their social and cultural influences, and their political views. Most recently, an array of black athletes have made public indictments against social issues such as domestic violence, lack of minority ownership in professional sports, racism, politics, environmental issues and religion. As fans, many people want to regulate what athletes should or should not discuss outside of their respective sport. Too often, fans, sports reporters and journalists alike take a position that athletes should simply “shut up and play.” Just recently, Fox News host Laura Ingraham stated that LeBron James and Kevin Durant should just “shut up and dribble” as a response to their opinions about the current presidential administration.
These sentiments are not new or original. Since the turn of the 20th century, black athletes have utilized sports as venues to challenge racism and raise awareness of other social issues, most often at the expense and costs of their livelihood. Black athletes such as Jack Johnson, Joe Louis, Larry Doby, Paul Robeson, Marion Motely, Bill Willis, Kenny Washington, Curt Flood and Woody Strode all participated in the tradition of activism. Many early black athletes’ struggles were for legitimacy. As the mid-20th century emerged, the struggle was for access, respectability and recognition.
When Jackie Robinson was signed by the Brooklyn Dodgers, he was told that he could not fight back, speak out or challenge teammates, opposing teams and/or fans who were going to degrade, belittle and sometimes purposely try to harm him. President Franklin Roosevelt refused to acknowledge Jesse Owens’ athletic accomplishments in the 1936 Olympics. Owens is noted as saying, “Hitler didn’t snub me; it was our president who snubbed me … The president didn’t even send a telegram.” His post-Olympic life included re-entering a system of segregation where he was often refused service at restaurants and could not enter the front door of hotels – reminders of blacks’ second-class citizenship in America. Muhammad Ali’s refusal to be inducted into the Vietnam War in 1967 and the 1968 Mexico Olympic protests by Tommie Smith and John Carlos are two of the most well-known demonstrations of black athletes using their sporting platforms to protest. Their challenges of the systematic structures of oppression are celebrated today, but during the 1960s, they were vilified for their actions.
There are similar occurrences that took place in the 1990s. NBA stars Craig Hodges, who wrote an open letter to then President Bush regarding poverty and poor quality education while visiting the White House as a part of the Michael Jordan–led Chicago Bulls, and Denver Nuggets’ guard Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf, who refused to acknowledge the American flag and national anthem due to religious beliefs, were two athletes who utilized their platforms to make social, political and cultural statements. Similar to Ali, Smith and Carlos before them, their political stances resulted in their marginalization from the NBA.
In the late 2000s, Ed O’Bannon, a former UCLA and NBA basketball player, challenged the NCAA. With his lawsuit, he recognized how the NCAA continued to profit from former (and current) players’ “likeness” on video games, specifically EA Sports NCAA basketball and football. His lawsuit highlighted the hypocrisy of the NCAA rules where the NCAA, coaches, athletics directors and the like all monetarily benefited from these video games, while remaining illegal for student-athletes to profit from their own likeness. As a result, EA Sports has since stopped the production of those video games.
Today, Kaepernick, Eric Reid, Michael Bennett, LeBron James, Steph Curry and Michael Jenkins are just a few of the countless numbers of contemporary black athletes who have taken a political stance against social injustices. The black sporting experience continues to be a double-edged sword. While we praise their athletic talents, we also criticize, for instance, their salaries. This often triggers people to ask, “What do they have to complain about?” when they address issues such as poverty, mass incarceration, police brutality or poor-quality education. The response to their social awareness is often met with disdain and even hostility. This generates such statements similar to Laura Ingraham’s “shut up and dribble,” suggesting athletes, particularly black athletes, have no room or just cause to speak out against inequalities.
Since the turn of the 20th century, black athletes have utilized sports as venues to challenge racism and raise awareness of other social issues, most often at the expense and costs of their livelihood.
There’s always been a nexus between athletes as activists. White and black men and women have proudly stood in defiance of the adage that they’re “just athletes.” For instance, we celebrate the brave women who resisted the ideas that women weren’t athletes and broke down barriers for respectability and equality, resulting in Title IX. Wilma Rudolph, credited with elevating women’s track and field to international acclaim, refused to participate in her own homecoming celebration after winning Olympic gold due to the proposed event remaining segregated. Billie Jean King’s victory over Bobby Riggs shattered the beliefs that women could not compete with nor defeat men, while Pat Summitt was a singular force who changed the face of women’s college basketball. These were all advocacy efforts that improved the quality, exposure and funding for women’s athletics.
Similarly, the history of the black athlete is compounded by roles of activism. This is evident from the Negro Leagues to the Syracuse 8 and the Black 14. Black athletes have always sought to use their platform to address social and political issues. Athletes have advocated for equality of opportunities in professional sports, both at the player level and, just as important, at the coaching, management and ownership level. There has not been a time in modern sporting history where black athletes (or women athletes) have not addressed various forms of institutional practices that negatively affect the lives of marginalized people.
Exploring sociological themes such as race, gender, politics and social activism through the prism of sports is the journey taken during my course – Race and Sports: Chronicling the Black Sporting Experience. Each semester that this class has been offered has aligned perfectly with the current events that are shaping the sporting world. As a result, I’m armed with ample source material to connect theories, themes and concepts to real-world occurrences. The most
recent term, fall 2017, was filled with the continuation of the NFL protests sparked by Kaepernick, resulting in President Trump referring to those players, the majority of whom were black, as “SOBs.” This resulted in even more NFL protests. The sporting landscape also witnessed a series of issues that plague NCAA men’s basketball (e.g., illegal benefits allegations), which resulted in the relaunching of the “should student-athletes get paid” debate.
These, and many others, are core topics covered throughout the course. Examining how race, gender, politics, economics and activism intersect with sports, particularly with the focus on black athletes, generates stimulating dialogue, critical analysis and tremendous social engagement. My overall objective with this course is to have students begin critically evaluating sports from a perspective other than just being a fan.
– Anthony Greene is an associate professor of African American studies and sociology.
Illustration by Chiara Ghigliazza