Where did the idea of athletes sticking to sport come from? Sports reporters and historians are equally flummoxed by the concept that sport could ever be separated from society or politics. (Photo courtesy Ashley Lowery)
During a panel entitled “Shut Up And Dribble” at Arizona State University’s 2019 Global Sport Summit in Phoenix, author and reporter Howard Bryant and Pennsylvania State University sports history professor Dr. Amira Rose Davis made the case that the very act of people of color participating and succeeding in sport has been a political tool throughout history.
That tool, they said, has been wielded both by the athletes yearning for a larger platform and the institutions that have power over those athletes.
The panel, staged by ASU’s GlobalSport Institute, took its name from an infamous, recurring quip most recently wielded by Fox News host Laura Ingraham in response to NBA superstar LeBron James’ attacks on President Donald Trump.
This discussion took on an elevated place in the national discourse during the prolonged Colin Kaepernick saga in the NFL, as the African-American quarterback knelt during the national anthem throughout the 2016 season in protest of racial injustice and systematic oppression of people of color in America. Since opting out of his contract at the end of that season, Kaepernick has not been on an NFL roster. He continues to draw attention to social injustice with the platform afforded to him by taking a stand as a pro football player.
“It’s not as if you went from Jesse Owens to Joe Lewis to Jackie (Robinson) to Muhammad Ali and all the way up … what’s been really interesting is putting this in context now,” Bryant said.
Bryant is the author of “The Heritage,” a book that traces the history of black athlete activism. Much of Davis’ research focuses on that history: the radical and sometimes explosive relationship between black athletes and their white counterparts in the bleachers and front offices.
Throughout the summit on March 29, the career of early-20th century boxer Jack Johnson was cited as a prime example of how race relations play out in American sports. He was a prolific and skilled fighter who generated outrage and concerted effort on the part of the nation to find a “Great White Hope” to defeat him.
“You’re talking about a time when scientific racism was really prominent,” Davis said. “It’s really hard to sell an idea that black people are inherently inferior in all walks of life if, in a boxing ring, Jack Johnson is knocking people the hell out.”
Johnson, who was known for dating white women, was convicted in 1913 after violating the Mann Act when he traveled with a white woman across state lines for “immoral purposes.”
In particular, Davis examines through research how black women fit into this story, which Johnson set off. One thread within the broader context of black women’s participation in sport is “paid patriotism,” which she said is an early and explicit example of how the government attached itself to sport.
During the Cold War, the federal government touted the success and patriotism of black athletes, both male and female, to combat Soviet propaganda that attacked American race relations. The Soviets begged the question of how the United States could operate as the north star for worldwide democracy if it mistreated so many of its citizens, and America responded by spotlighting black athletes such as Wilma Rudolph, an Olympic gold medal sprinter in the 1950s and 60s. Rudolph and others toured the world spreading the gospel of American capitalism and democracy to defend the civil liberties available in the U.S.
“That speaks to the fact that there has been a long entanglement of sports and politics,” Davis said.
The plan was successful for American diplomacy. After Rudolph traveled to Dakar, Senegal, in 1963, the U.S. worked out an accord with the country, Davis said, to prioritize American private business over that of Soviet territories.
It wasn’t so successful for Rudolph. Despite her patriotism and ambassadorship, Rudolph was paid very little and moved from job to job and city to city throughout the rest of her life.
While Johnson was treated as an anomaly during his time, athletes since then have taken on more power.
Bryant’s reporting in “The Heritage” specifically examines the period between the Civil Rights Era of the 1960s in America and today, when Kaepernick and outspoken superstars such as James and Serena Williams work to dictate the conversation around their performance and fame.
“Name me another occupation where you are asked to be quiet because you make more money,” Bryant said. “The more money you have, the more people want to hear you, except when it comes to black athletes.
“If you have money, you get to be a political candidate; you get to be the mayor of one of the biggest cities in the country … Yet when we deal with black athletes, we want them to be quiet.”
The rhetoric in Ingraham’s diatribe belongs to the same lineage, Bryant said, as the messaging used when pundits seek to silence African-American athletes. It’s incredibly familiar across the spectrum of sports analysis, nearly a century after Johnson began to carve out what the relationship between star black athletes and American powerbrokers would look like.
That journey took many forms and navigated many challenges. When Jackie Robinson broke Major League Baseball’s color barrier, it prompted discussions about white female fans. Davis said there was a concern for the “baseball mollies,” or the women who would sit near the field and look heart-eyed at the male players during play, because of the proximity of black players to these women once Robinson and other African-American ballplayers joined the league.
“Black entertainers have always been allowed to entertain white people,” Bryant said. “But team sports undermines the entire idea of segregation.”
That is the difference between Johnson or Rudolph and their counterparts in team sports, from Robinson to Kaepernick. The ability of black athletes to coexist with white teammates portended integration across society, Bryant said.
But even the influx of people of color into those spaces left out certain positions of power. Davis sees athletes whose voices are elevated as protective devices for organizations that still ignore diversity or activism when it comes to running their business:
“So often now what we have is sports media that’s not diverse, coaching staffs that are struggling, all the way up from the sidelines to the front offices that still have these legacies but then we push the players out front that become the shield to the other ways that some places are still not integrating.”
History shows it’s inaccurate to imagine a world in which sport and community don’t intertwine, and the future will likely bear a similar interaction between the games and larger society.
Brendon Kleen is a senior journalism student at Arizona State University