By Dirk Smith, MSc, SDL (He/Him).
As the US is in the midst of chaotic protests as it is gripping with the reality of systemic racism prevalent in policing and law enforcement, as well as ingrained within our society as a whole. The trust between police departments and the communities they are supposed to be responsible for has been shattered. It’s time to have an important discussion on the existence of systematic racism in sports. Let’s be clear, systematic racism and white privilege exists in sports on every level.
anThis is not just limited to the US either. It’s a worldwide problem that affects many sports on every level and it doesn’t seem to be improving. According to Kick it Out, an organization that fights racism in soccer, incidences of racism in the 2018/2019 season have increased 43% from the previous season in all levels of soccer in the UK.
On June 30th, 2020 in the midst of the #BlackLivesMatter protests, Colorado Rockies’ infielder Ian Desmond chose to walk away from the 2020 MLB season to protest the racist, sexist and homophobic culture that is prevalent within the professional sports league. This came after seeing the abuse of George Floyd and so many others at the knees of armed police officers and sharing his own experiences as a biracial kid and man trying to make it as a professional athlete. He also pointed out that of the five major professional sports leagues in the US, that is the MLB, NFL, NHL, NBA and MLS, none of whom have non-white majority owners and very few, if any non-white executives.
With the recent passing of Chadwick Boseman, it’s important to highlight his portrayal of Jackie Robinson in the autobiographical film “42” sharing the story of Robinson breaking the color barrier in professional baseball. While Jackie Robinson was not the first black athlete to play for the MLB (that honor goes to Moses Fleetwood Walker) he is the one who’s legacy in the league paved the way for future generations, including Desmond. Yet, despite this progress, in 2020 we still struggle with racism in sports and society. The “politics” of the issue are ingrained within sport itself.
While Jackie Robinson is considered someone who paved the way, even the simple and peaceful act of playing baseball as a black man was met with violent bigotry and hatred. Dramatized in “42” it was so much for any one person to handle and pushed Robinson to the breaking point in his own mental and physical health. How could something as simple as playing baseball (and damn well I might add) lead to so much hatred and bigotry? It had nothing to do with his skills as an athlete, but simply because he was a black man in a white world.
Many, many times, black athletes and people of color have peacefully protested and used their platform to speak out against racial injustice that they experience every day. Hatred, bigotry and discrimination they experience solely based on the color of their skin. People are generally familiar with the story of Jackie Robinson, as well as Jesse Owens and Muhammed Ali. Who made their mark simply through competing, yet despite being some of the greatest athletes of their generation, when they spoke out about the struggles and discrimination they faced as people of color, despite their accomplishments, people ignored them.
Jesse Owens returned home from the 1936 Summer Olympics, where he showed up Adolf Hitler with his athletic dominance. People hailed him as a hero for standing up against the racist ideology of the Nazis. Yet, upon returning home he was pushed right back into the same racial segregation culture prevalent within the US. The same kind of barbaric culture that the Nazis themselves used as inspiration. At his own celebration event, Owens was forced to take the service elevator through the kitchen rather than the lobby elevator all of his guests were allowed to use. Despite being the greatest athlete of the world, he was still relegated to going in and out the backdoor as a second class citizen. Banned from making a living as a professional athlete and banned from capitalizing on his own celebrity; Owens was forced to take on menial jobs and racing horses just to make a living.
Muhammed Ali, also known as Cassius Clay, before he turned professional competed at the 1960 Olympics in Rome where he took home the heavyweight gold medal for Team USA. Despite his accomplishment, he was still subjected to the racist segregation policies present in the US and after being refused service from a “whites-only” restaurant he threw his medal into the Ohio River. A few years later, he was drafted by the US Army to fight in the Vietnam War but publicly declared himself as a “conscientious objector” and famously made his point clear:
"Man, I ain't got no quarrel with them Viet Cong.” Ali elaborated: "Why should they ask me to put on a uniform and go ten thousand miles from home and drop bombs and bullets on brown people in Vietnam while so-called Negro people in Louisville are treated like dogs and denied simple human rights?"
And frankly, he had a point. Why was his life suddenly valuable when it came to fight a war he had nothing to do with; but as an accomplished fighter he wasn’t even good enough to eat at the same restaurant as white people?
John Carlos and Tommie Smith, two black athletes representing Team USA at the 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico City won the gold and bronze medal respectably in the 200m event. When they took to the podium, wearing a black glove, rose their fists and bowed their heads at the US flag during the national anthem to protest the segregation and racist foundation of US society at the time. In response, they were swiftly banned from the Olympic Village and suspended from Team USA; although they were not forced to return their medals. Their peaceful protest of US racism still stands today as one of the most iconic moments in the history of this movement.
You might think back on these examples as issues from previous generations. Yet, when Colin Kaepernick took a knee during the US national anthem in 2016 to protest police brutality against black people; it all came rushing back. Just like John Carlos and Tommie Smith, Colin Kaepernick has faced swift consequences for his peaceful protest against a society built upon racism and discrimination based on the color of one’s skin. This was further amplified by Donald Trump who continues to rally for violence against these protests and movements, expressing a clear sense of nationalism and white supremacy that is pushing our society to a breaking point.
Not unlike Jackie Robinson struggling to maintain his composure as racist taunting, bullying, overt discrimination and harassment pushed him to his very limit; the same problems he faced in sports still exist today.
Sports has long been in a unique position as a form of entertainment for the masses, but also as a platform for the athletes to make a statement. Jackie Robinson made a statement simply by playing the game. Generations of athletes of color, women and LGBTQI backgrounds, including Duke Kahanamoku, Jesse Owens, Wilma Rudolph, Renee Richards, Billie Jean King, Greg Louganis, Arthur Ashe, Michael Jordan, Serena Williams, James Blake, Jeremy Lin and many others. Although it’s often easy for people to dismiss the discriminatory experiences of these athletes when they speak out; often stating that “politics and sports should remain separate.” But the thing is, for these athletes, discrimination is not a matter of politics, it’s a part of life, and it cannot exist separate of their identity as an athlete.
That’s why sports are an important platform to speak out against racism, sexism, homophobia and transphobia. The athletes themselves who have to live with the reality of this discrimination are the same people who are celebrated for being a famous athlete. The people who applauded the white and Christian football player Tim Tebow for taking a knee and praying during his football games are the same people who chided Colin Kaepernick for taking a knee against police brutality. Yet, unlike Kaepernick, Tebow has never had to worry about being arrested or killed during an interaction with the police.
In 2015, world famous retired tennis player, James Blake was leaving his hotel in NYC on the way to the US Open where he was set to work as a commentator in the event. As he walked out of the hotel, Blake was suddenly tackled and thrown down onto the sidewalk by a plain clothes NYPD police officer who quickly placed him into handcuffs and pinned him onto the ground. Blake was mistaken by the officer as a suspect in a case of credit card fraud by another person staying in the hotel. The thing was, the officer failed to identify himself nor gave any explanation as to why he tackled and arrested Blake during the whole ordeal. The officer was solely relying on a witness and a photo that he claimed Blake fit the description; but without any kind of interaction with Blake on any level, nor any action (or awareness) from Blake in response to the unidentifiable officer’s presence, he was tackled. Later on, the NYPD commissioner apologized for the officer’s actions but denied allegations of racism. The incident led Blake to take a more proactive stance against police-brutality and led him to question whether or not the incident would have been different if Blake himself was white.
In 2020, as the US is gripping with an out of control pandemic thanks to the incompetence of the US Government, tensions against police brutality are boiling over as the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Atatiana Jefferson, Aura Rosser, Stephon Clark, Botham Jean, Philando Castille, Alton Sterling, Michelle Cusseaux, Freddie Gray, Janisha Fonville, Eric Garner, Akai Gurley, Gabriella Nevarez, Tamir Rice, Michael Brown, Tanisha Anderson and many others, all of which happened in the summer of 2020; were at the mercy of the police departments who are supposed to “serve and protect” their communities.
Thus, in sports, “politics” are not separate because the athletes of color must live with these realities every day. Professional sports organizations with a predominantly large base of black athletes, specifically the NBA and the NFL are moving to be more outspoken against this racism as the athletes themselves are stepping up as a force for change. Even in just the last few weeks, many sports games have been cancelled from the athletes taking a stand and refusing to play to bring attention to this racial injustice that the current US political administration is advocating for. Even the NFL who had no interest in Colin Kaepernick’s protest in 2016 is admitting that they were wrong (thanks to pressure from the players). Sports has the power to really get a message across, and given it’s a multi-billion-dollar industry, is a force to be reckoned with. While Jackie Robinson may have broken the color barrier, that was only the first step toward using sports as a platform for change to dismantle the structures of racism built within our society today.
By Dirk Smith and Rune Clemens
David "Dirk" Smith M.Sc, SDL, CSCS, (He/Him) is a sport psychology expert, strength & conditioning coach, swimming coach, sports diversity leader, published research scientist, teacher, writer, journalist, and athlete. He brings over 12 years of experience, education, and training to empower athletes to build self efficacy, strength, confidence, and express themselves through sport.