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.
“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.” – author Howard Bryant
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.
“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.” – Dr. Amira Rose Davis
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
Summer is a time for relaxing reading by the pool or shore. But what can you read to keep you up to date with issues impacting sport? Today, Global Sport Institute CEO Kenneth Shropshire reviews his must-read of the summer.
The Heritage: Black Athletes, a Divided America and the Politics of Patriotism, by Howard Bryant
The Heritage should top your summer beach reading list if you want to make sense of this National Football League-presidential-led intersection of sports, politics and race. The book’s author, Howard Bryant, can serve as your guide to understanding an issue that is much deeper than the modern-day, inappropriately labeled “anthem protest.”
What we are witnessing is the clash between a re-emerging heritage of protest by African-American athletes and American political leadership that has been largely silent about the simultaneous re-emergence of racism, particularly with regard to police brutality. The protests against police brutality have primarily taken the form of kneeling during the national anthem, thus the anthem protest misnomer. This issue filled the void that had existed since previous athlete activism focused on achieving equal rights for all citizens. Bryant quotes Dr. Harry Edwards as noting the void was due to the absence of a “sustained ideology” for protest. This violence against black men amplified by social media provided the previously lacking unifying element.
The May 24 decision by NFL owners that players can either stay in the locker room or be on the field and salute the flag reignites what I believe was a dying fire. The football ownership edict essentially said to players: “We are daring you to protest, to exercise that most American of citizenship rights. If you come out and don’t stand for the anthem, your team will be fined.” This unnecessary policy — the protests were on a natural decline — clearly aligns the league with the position expressed by President Donald Trump. Trump supports the new policy and says to players who don’t stand “I don’t think people should be staying in the locker rooms,” Trump told Fox News. “You have to stand proudly for the national anthem or you shouldn’t be playing, you shouldn’t be there. Maybe you shouldn’t be in the country.” This statement resonated beyond dog whistle levels to the men of the largely African-American league, rising to demeaning and racist.
Bryant recalls what Paul Robeson said when he was similarly invited to leave the country. Who was Paul Robeson? He was a triple threat with world-class talents as a singer, actor and athlete. He was an All-American football player at Rutgers and played in an early iteration of the NFL in 1921. He starred at both the collegiate and professional levels in football before his political activism and the political response squashed his career.
Robeson was alleged to be a communist and traveled frequently to Russia. (Ironically, a close Russia connection was problematic in that era as well.) It was a 1949 speech that ramped up his troubles and prompted Jackie Robinson to be summoned by the House Un-American Activities Committee to testify and counter the opinion of another famous black man. Robeson said, “Why should the Negroes ever fight against the only nations of the world where racial discrimination is prohibited, and where the people can live freely? Never! I can assure you, they will never fight against either the Soviet Union or the peoples’ democracies.”
Years later, in a hearing where he sought the return of his passport, he was asked by the House Un-American Activities committee why he didn’t live outside of the United States:
“Because my father was a slave, and my people died to build this country, and I’m going to stay right here and have a part of it, just like you … no fascist-minded people like you will drive me from it. Is that clear?” That was almost three quarters of a century ago.
This NFL policy announcement occurred on the same day the leadership of the Milwaukee police department apologized for wrongfully shocking a black man with a Taser. That man happened to be an NBA player, the Milwaukee Bucks’ Sterling Brown. He had illegally parked across handicapped spaces in front of a Milwaukee Walgreens. The police body cam video showed Brown seemingly prepared to receive his parking ticket in the same spirit as any American.
But what followed was violent treatment by Milwaukee’s finest, ending in his tasing. Similar encounters have impacted other NBA players, including an incident in which police broke Thabo Sefolosha’s leg in an unlawful arrest. This sort of event represented precisely what the player protests had been focused upon and the NFL policy is now determined to squelch.
What was clear in the NFL policy vote was the intent: to please President Trump and fans ruffled by protests. Clear, too, was a disrespect for the bargaining unit of the players, the National Football League Players Association. The NFLPA issued a statement decrying that the union had not been consulted on this final policy. The players who had found their “sustained ideology” were being scolded.
These converging events make this as good a time as any to step back and ask how patriotism became so entangled in American sport. Why this convergence and why this vitriolic response to protest taking place during the Star Spangled Banner? The best guide to that journey is Bryant’s book.
I love books I wish I had written. Even more so those that I wish I had the narrative chops to deliver. Howard Bryant has written that book. Anyone who wants to understand athlete activism, the role of patriotism and the place all of this has in history should take the time to march through The Heritage.
Bryant refreshes Jackie Robinson’s story, going beyond the integration story of 1947. Robinson’s lesser-known activist actions while in the military and his political stances are explored. Bryant makes sure those who know only the famed integration moment or maybe the negative of testifying against the great and largely forgotten Robeson know that in truth his activism was boundless and in many ways the model for athletes who followed.
Woven throughout Bryant’s analysis is the man I’ve always believed to be the athlete activist who sacrificed the most, Robeson. The man who Jackie Robinson testified against in Congress was once the most famous black man in America. Robeson is forgotten by many for his role as the turbine of modern activism, largely erased from our history books. But, as I noted above, many of his words are ready-made for today’s political environment.
Robeson was a global star, and his passport and, effectively, his career were revoked in the early 1950s. I researched and wrote a paper on that case while in law school. This was the 1970s and at the time there had not been even a modest revival of his life. I knew little about the man before then. I only decided to look more deeply into his life to write a mandatory paper and a curiosity that had been aroused as he was one of the first African-American graduates of Columbia Law, where I was then a student decades later.
Bryant writes that athletes and activism grew as the athlete sector in society represented the “first fully mainstreamed” black employees in America. That and their profile provided a previously nonexistent level of power. He highlights, too, the most important facet for what he calls the heritage of protest, a “sustained ideology.”
Athlete activism ramped up in 1968 with that notable Mexico City Olympic victory stand moment with John Carlos and Tommie Smith, but died via the raceless and apolitical celebrity of O.J. Simpson. The casket nails were supplied by the even more transcending commercial success of Michael Jordan and driven in by Tiger Woods. The idea of being commercially successful as an athlete by being raceless and apolitical contrasted vividly with the non-existent endorsement careers of activists Jim Brown, John Carlos, Tommie Smith and Muhammad Ali.
The journey the reader is taken on is the manufactured connection between patriotism and sport. Most know the corner was turned after Sept. 11, 2001 with the Yankees playing a prominent role being New York based and on a championship run.
But not all know that there was a reluctance based on reasons that are quite American, involving competition and capitalism. Bryant discusses the other New York team — the Mets — making more successful efforts to address the patriotic moment and the reluctance by the Yankees to engage with the issues, being overcome in part by wanting to be better at patriotism than the crosstown rival.
It is that 9/11 fervor that Bryant focuses on as the merger moment, where the occasional became the common — the addition of God Bless America in the seventh inning, which had been the exclusive province of Take Me Out to the Ball Game.
Then there is a similar manufactured merging of police with the military. This again, is not the way it always has been. The police are not the military.
Bryant walks us through how the hand-me-down military equipment, including armored vehicles and assault weapons, ended up in the hands of our neighborhood police forces. This was on full display in the police brutality protests that took place in Ferguson, Mo.
It was in 2014 and near Ferguson, where members of the then-St. Louis Rams may have begun this modern era of athlete activism. This was two years after the LeBron James-led Miami Heat took a widely circulated photo of the team dressed in hoodies in response to the killing of Trayvon Martin. This Rams moment is where Bryant sees the connection with and the revival of the past, reconnecting the link of player activism going back to Jackie Robinson.
I’ll refrain from being the spoiler in the details. But to understand and truly make your determination of who is right in all of this or whether or not to support or participate, this work is a must read. Beyond the obscure St. Louis Rams players, LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony stand out as leaders in this transition period, leading us to the ongoing saga of Colin Kaepernick and Eric Reid, to the disdain of many including President Trump.
No book covers every facet of a topic. I would have provided a deep exploration of Jack Johnson, the first black heavyweight champion of the world. During his time, federal legislation banned the showing of fight films in hopes that race riots would not be fanned by images of a black man beating a white. Johnson was brought down by the Mann Act for transporting a white woman across state lines. But Bryant is pretty explicit in connecting the police brutality dots and that is anchored in the Robinson-Robeson intersection. Ironically, the day after the NFL announcement, Trump praised Jack Johnson and granted a posthumous presidential pardon. Coupled with the Sterling Brown incident, it made for a most stunning week.
Many have a bad taste about the Jack Johnson pardon, as many chroniclers find that other than his love for white women in a forbidden age, there was noactual criminality that needed decades-late forgiveness. The pardoning was a hollow gesture to point to in deflecting critique for support of actions silencing the protest by NFL athletes.
From the impact of shows like “Cops” to the redlining and other housing schemes by the federal government as outlined in Richard Rothstein’s, “The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America,” the depth is well beyond the basic trope of baseball being as American as apple pie. Bryant provides a timeline that brings us to today.
Reading The Heritage and the events of last week caused me to reflect on the “green-light” letter, written by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt to then-baseball commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis, as a good guide on presidential intervention in sport. Landis wrote Roosevelt to ask if baseball games should be played during World War II. Roosevelt initially balked saying, “As you will, of course, realize the final decision about the baseball season must rest with you and the Baseball club owners — so what I am going to say is solely a personal and not an official point of view. I honestly feel that it would be best for the country to keep baseball going.”
At least he had a dash before his intervening opinion. But Roosevelt could not resist staying out of the sports business either. This presidential meddling is nothing new.
Roosevelt penciled out some numbers impacting employment but most practically he wrote, “Baseball provides a recreation which does not last over two hours or two hours and a half, and which can be got for very little cost.” Yes, the good old days. Sport was viewed as an escape. A break from politics. Perhaps that mythical past is what motivates the animus that exists against sports focused protests today.
But, in fact, there has rarely been a moment where sport is not intertwined with the political. Since the founding of the modern Olympics, nations have boycotted for political reasons. Another Roosevelt —Teddy was largely responsible for the creation of the NCAA after football players were dying in unregulated games.
I drive or walk past a mural of Paul Robeson almost daily when I am in Philadelphia, where he once lived. It is on the side of a building in the largely black West Philadelphia community. He looks down on a chain link fence and often the garbage of the day on eastbound Chestnut Street at 45th Street. I wonder how many drive by this magnificent mural with little understanding who Robeson was and how much he has to do with the kneeling of today? The caption on the bottom of the mural, if one interpolates it fully, is what the heritage, a sustained ideology, desires for all of us: “Citizen of the World.”
Kenneth L. Shropshire is the CEO of the Global Sport Institute and adidas Distinguished Professor of Global Sport as Arizona State University and Endowed Professor Emeritus at the Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania. Among his 13 books is Sport Matters: Leadership Power and the Quest for Respect in Sports