Racism in Sports
Racism and racial sentiments have been a part of the North American history, and while racism has subsidized over the years, it is still present in the everyday North American life, both overtly and covertly. Perhaps one of the areas of North American life that rightly depicts racism and its history through the years is sports, where many athletes have had to break racial barriers, to not only participate, but also be accepted as equals in the field. Racism in North American society has a long history, beginning with slavery to the creation of racial sports brands, at a time when the larger North American society openly accepted racism and bigotry as an American culture (National Congress of American Indians 2). There are innumerable instances of racism in American sports, painting a picture of racist imagery. Nearly all sports in North American society have had its share of controversy with racism. Indeed, a look at the history of American sports makes one aware of the level of racism and the journey that minorities have had to take to reach the current position in American sports.
Sports is and remains one of the most important institutions for community building. Over the years, professional and college sports have played the important role of community building, specifically by helping in the definition of American identity in the lowest levels of the community (Naison n.p.). Perhaps sports have as much power as politics, the media and Hollywood films in the definition of the society. The role of sports is especially important in putting into perspective American history, given the nation’s experience with immigration and economic change; factors that affect the nation more than any other country in the world. In itself, sports have been a highway to economic success to many a people, giving the sports personnel a primeval link to the nation’s customs and cultural values.
More than culture, sports opens a window to the very relationship between different ethnic people in the nation. The Super Bowl, one of the most watched American sporting events, provides the perfect observatory event into American racial and ethnic relations. Perhaps the most important point to take home during a Super Bowl event is America’s racial divisions, largely depicted by a vastly white spectatorship enjoying entertainment by largely black teams participating in a dangerous and violent game (Naison n.p.). Super Bowl opens more than a window into the racial relations in the American society; it is particularly reminiscent of the Jim Crow era of minority subordination. A similar spectacle is witness in Canada, where hockey is a national game. While the hockey teams are largely white in their composition, the presence of a black player in the game received disapproval from many fans, who did not like the presence of the black goalie. This is despite Canada’s celebrated reputation as a multicultural society.
Sport has, and continues to play a major role in the lives of American immigrant population, who saw and continue to see it as a leeway to the American dream. Naison informs that in the early times of immigration, European immigrants saw sports as espousing the spirit of open competition and fair play, and therefore, providing a more accessible route to fortune (Naison n.p.). This is in comparison with the strict and discriminative tendencies of banks, corporations and universities, which were slow in making progress towards integration. However, even at this time, sports were only a leeway for Irish, Italian and Jewish Americans, who found their success and acceptance into the American society that previously looked at them suspiciously.
While sports presented an avenue for the said immigrants, the situation was far different for African Americans. In the first half of the 20th century, there were restrictions on Blacks, barring them from participating in the bulk of professional sports leagues; regardless of the level of talent they had (Naison n.p.). The restrictions transcended professional leagues to include both college and recreational teams. While the barriers for Blacks were more de facto in other professional sports leagues, Major League Baseball had a far more pronounced de jure barrier, drawing the color line in 1903 in the inaugural World Series (Naison n.p). This was similar to Grant Fuhr’s denial of membership by a golf club in Buffalo Canada because of his skin color. In drawing the color line, the coaches and executives did not take into consideration African American interest in the sport. During this time, baseball was one of the most popular sports among African Americans across the nation, with a deeply rooted and strong talent base among the African Americans (Naison n.p). Evidence of the level of pool of talent in the African American community manifested during the off-season amateur games and Cuban winter leagues, where Black players did more than hold their own game.
Therefore, Jackie Robinson’s joining of the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947 marked a huge milestone for African Americans in addition to making the necessary inroads in the fight against racism and racial discrimination. By breaking the color line, Robinson became a sign of hope for the Black community beyond sports into education, jobs and housing (Lamb n.p.). Even with Robinson making history with his signing in a previously white dominated sport, the level of racism was evident in the media reporting of the story. Although it was expected that it would be a headline story for the media, Robinson’s signing did not make it to the front page of the sports publications, while sports columnists only mentioned Robinson’s name in passing in their articles.
Lamb reports of that Tommy Holmes, a columnist with The Brooklyn Eagle, reported of Robinson’s presence in the game only as “an acknowledged Negro” taking the field in the major leagues. For Daily News, Dick Young’s article only mentioned Robinson at the end of the story, while Red Smith, among the greatest in sports writing, did not give Robinson precedence in his article, mentioning him way in the middle of the article. Even in mentioning him (Robinson), “Red” referred to Robinson as the “dark and anxious young man” (Lamb n.p.).
Disheartening was that the dailies across the nation made little sense of the significance of the game. Even more is that some of the columnists portrayed and advanced their bigotry in their writing on the game. Arthur Daley with the New York Times wrote nothing about Robinson’s performance in the game, rather he took to assuage his readers that Robinson posed no threat to the game, and was the “right type” of Negro without any intention of questioning his place (Lamb n.p). Daley additionally made reference to Robinson’s intellect, first mentioning his (Robinson) muscular strength, with derogatory reference to Robinson’s intellect. Specifically, Daley states, “The muscular Negro minds his own business and shrewdly makes no effort to push himself …. He speaks intelligently when spoken to” (Lamb n.p.).
The struggle for inclusivity in the sport (baseball) was unbeknown to larger section of the majority white American society. Black sports writers engaged in a campaign to desegregate the sport, a fact that many of the white writers and the wider American society remained oblivious to (Lamb n.p.). the sports writers (Black) took their case to the baseball commissioner, baseball executives, and individual baseball team owners, who promised tryouts for Black baseball players then cancelled the tryout (Lamb n.p.). Yet the struggle for inclusivity remained unknown to baseball fans, who were unaware of the prohibition of the Blacks from the game. The fans additionally were ignorant to the fact that while team managers and players were in support of the integration, sports writers had far established a color line similar to the one instituted by the sport’s top echelon (Lamb n.p.).
Moreover, while the white sports writers were silent about desegregation, anytime they talked about the absence of Blacks in the sport (baseball) was purely a case of blatant dishonesty. Taylor Spink, one of the most influential sports editors at the time at Sports News had claimed that the inclusion of Blacks in the sport would cause riots in the games (Lamb n.p.). Additionally, Spink had claimed that both whites and blacks did not support integration, in addition to the claim that no blacks were good enough for the major leagues (Lamb n.p.).
Yet the story of racism does not end in baseball but goes to other games. Women have especially struggled to participate in competitive sport. The history of women’s participation in competitive sports in America is reflective of the women’s right movement in addition to bringing to the fore a carefully crafted powerful gender system, which insisted that women’s participation in such competitive sports will only masculinize the women (Naison n.p.). The larger part of the 20th century therefore had males as the most dominant participants in competitive sports, a situation that only changed with the passage of Title IX and the Civil Rights Act in 1964 (Naison n.p.).
While one would think that with the passage of such legislation that the inclusion of women in competitive sports would not draw any racist jibes, Serena Williams is a sure evidence of the presence, evidence, and practice of racism in sports. Desmond-Harris informs that despite Serena Williams’ illustrative career in tennis, perhaps being the greatest tennis player of all time with more Grand Slam victories than any other player, she is still a recipient of bigoted and racist remarks. More often, Serena has been likened to a man, while others have painted a picture of her being frightening, gorilla-like and horrifyingly attractive (Desmond-Harris n.p.). Such remarks only help to remind of the “Hottentot Venus” caricature of the African woman as was displayed in the 19th century Europe to theater audiences. Like Robinson, it is the media that continually perpetuates these negative racist caricatures with references to Serena as bulky, ugly and animalistic in thinly veiled bigoted comments (WITW n.p.).
Yet Serena’s racially based maltreatment does not stop at the bigoted comments and utterances, it transcends to payment and endorsements. Despite being one the tennis’ greats, Williams ranks a distant 47th on Forbes’ list of highest paid tennis players. Bain informs that despite Maria Sharapova being nothing of a genuine rival for Serena Williams in years, she still gets $10 more than Williams in endorsements at $23 million in 2015. In explaining the difference in earnings between Sharapova and Williams, it is evident that ethnicity plays a major role (Bain n.p.).
Serena’s woes are of bigoted racist statements are similar to what Wayne Simmons, a Canadian ice hockey player, got from the audience. This is despite Canada’s perceived multiculturalism. Simmons did not only receive name-calling, but also had a banana thrown at him, a symbolism of him being a monkey (Black n.p.). Moreover, like in the United States, the media in Canada perhaps perpetuates racism, as was the case of Patrick Chan, whose Chinese heritage became a fascination of the media, drawing attention to his race rather than his performance in figure skating (Black n.p.).
Racism is present is American sports, and while sports has made great steps in inclusion, racism still rears its ugly head in the field. Robison helped cross the line barrier, and although there may be no line barriers today, the media, sponsors and management in sports still depict acts of racism in sports. The history of sports, therefore, is an imagery of racism, and even today, that imagery continues to show.
Bain, Marc. “Only sexism and racism can explain why Serena Williams doesn’t earn more in endorsements.” Quartz, 2015. Web. 26 October 2016
Black, Simon. “Racism and Anti-Racism in Canadian Sport: An Interview with Dr. Janelle Joseph.” Canadian Dimension, 2013. Web. 2 November 2016
Desmond-Harris, Jenee. “Serena Williams is constantly the target of disgusting racist and sexist attacks.” Vox, 2016. Web. 26 October 2016
Lamb, Christopher. “Jackie Robinson and the Press.” The Huffington Post, 2013. Web. 26 October 2016
Naison, Mark. “Why Sports History is American History.” History Now: The Journal of the Gilder Lehrman Institute, 2016. Web. 26 October 2016
National Congress of American Indians. Ending the Legacy of Racism in Sports & the Era of Harmful “Indian” Sports Mascots. NCAI, 2013.
WITW. “Serena Williams subjected to racist, sexist remarks following French Open victory.” WITW, 2015. Web. 26 October 2016