When Race & Sports Collide

(Brook Ward/Flickr)

By John L. Elwell

In America there is hardly ever a moment when race and professional sports are not colliding. Long before Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier of Major League Baseball in 1947, and long since Doug Williams became the first African-American quarterback to win a Super Bowl in 1988, race has been a key issue and concern for athletes, coaches, and fans of all professional sports. And this is not a purely American issue, as the soccer fields of Europe have had multiple memorable moments where racism and xenophobia have overcome what was meant to be a game. 

The new millennium has brought on an era where these concerns and issues were pushed to the sideline; ever present, but hardly talked about. In fact, to even hint at it could and would mean the end of your career (just ask Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf). But the past year has raised the issue of racism to the forefront of American professional sports once more, from former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick and his silent protest against police brutality and injustice to the recent revelation by Baltimore Orioles outfielder Adam Jones of the racist and profanity-laced verbal assaults suffered at the hands of fans in Boston.

It’s always there just below the surface, but at the same time the reality isn’t quite so subtle. In the National Football League more than two-thirds of the athletes are African-American and yet, of its 32 professional franchises, not a single one is majority-owned by an African-American. Each Sunday in autumn, millions of Americans cheer on their favorite teams while rich, white men “own the rights” to men of color. But hey, at least they’re paid well; athletes in college put their bodies on the line for college credit and a food plan.

For fans of these sports, the prejudice and stereotyping is evident. At sports bars across the country, fans will casually joke about black hockey players, white running backs, and how at least players on their favorite team are “well-spoken.” If you watched the NFL Draft recently, where former college athletes were selected by their new owners off the auction block and branded immediately with a jersey or a ball-cap, think about the rhetoric of the announcers and commentators. How many times did you hear the word “thug” or hear the phrase “character issues” tied to a specific athlete? Do you remember the race of those athletes? Yes, there are those easy to label cases, like running back Joe Mixon who was caught on video punching a woman in the face; but how many know that the woman in question was berating him with racial slurs and derogatory language? His violent reaction was of course wrong and he should have to account for his actions, but doesn’t what proceeded the assault deserve some interrogation?

In sports as in ordinary life, society pushes and pressures young men of color constantly. It pushes and pushes until there’s a reaction and then we act surprised at the reaction and blame the “violent thug.” Colin Kaepernick saw injustice and chose to raise attention to it; now no team will touch him and he’s ridiculed by fans, writers, and commentators while at the same time he does nothing but donate to charity, form community organizations, and try to build movements aimed at helping young people and the formerly incarcerated. But that’s not what American athletes are for; they’re supposed to play their games, put their bodies and minds on the line, take their paychecks, and keep quiet about anything outside sports.

Sports can and should be an avenue of social change, just as art, music, and film have and continue to be. Professional athletes have a certain power in our society and it shouldn’t be put to waste. They have a voice and we should not cut them off when they dare to speak outside their place. But that is for them; and as for us as fans or simply as bystanders, we must confront the racism that seems inherent in sports. It begins, as usual, with young people: from the middle school gyms of Virginia to the massive high school football stadiums of Texas, we need to educate. Sports are a game. They should be fun for athletes and fans alike, but they can also be an amazing platform for positive change. Let’s be that change. 

John L. Elwell is a member and former founding Co-Chair of DSA North Texas.

Individually signed posts do not necessarily reflect the views of DSA as an organization or its leadership. Democratic Left blog post submission guidelines can be found here.