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Historically, the sport has been perceived as an apolitical space where players, coaches, spectators, and everyone in between focuses solely on athletic performance and team rivalries; the idea of sport promotes physical fitness, teamwork, and social interaction. However, it only serves this purpose when it is not forced to operate beneath a government that promotes systematic racial oppression. For minorities, sport operates as yet another site of social stratification through the amplification and reproduction of racial, sexual, and economic inequalities and stereotypes. Standing much stronger than the belief of an apolitical sporting space is the perpetual racial discrimination of Black people: global antiblackness. Many Black athletes aim to foster a deeper understanding of racial discrimination through sport-based activism, which raises questions about geography as a tool for racial discrimination: and how anti-blackness has become a globally accepted phenomenon. These questions often go unaddressed by political administration; Black athletes and entrepreneurs who use their platform to promote social justice movements and agendas have been targeted in critique and isolation by a predominantly white administration and outspoken social media users. In the 20th and 21st centuries, this form of activism is increasingly prevalent as social exclusion and underrepresentation practices are becoming less and less accepted in mainstream society; perpetuated global anti-blackness has been combated through athlete activism, which has shed light on the ubiquity of this problem.
The Olympic Games of 1936–best known as the Nazi Olympics–split the nation, especially as the discussion of whether or not the United States should compete settled on the decision to attend. Although race relations were improving, they were nowhere near equal and Black Americans were discriminated against in sports just as much as they were in other parts of their life. At the time many Black athletes were unable to compete in leagues in the U.S., but due to the international nature of the Olympic Games, they were permitted to compete without restrictions. For many Olympic team members, they remained apolitical on the matter; Black team member John Woodruff even stated in an interview, later remastered into an NPR podcast, “we weren’t interested in politics, you see, at all. We were only interested in going to Germany and winning”. This is an example of silence by Black athletes, shying away from public commentary on any issues perceived to be controversial or political in any way in the fear that it would destroy all of their hard work towards their careers. Once in Germany, racism, and anti-Semitism were rampant: Blacks and Jews were banned from athletic facilities and hotels. Surprisingly, many Black-owned newspapers published material that did not encourage a boycott on the Olympics by black athletes to protest racial discrimination. The general assumption within the Black community and news publications was that the only way to combat Hitler’s master race theory was to go to Berlin and win. And, this is exactly what Jesse Owens and John Woodruff did: defy the Aryan ideal by winning five total track and field gold medals. Still, the tremendous Black athletic performance had little impact on Nazi and American racism. While whites in the U.S. complained of the racial discrimination in Germany, they continued to deny Black Americans equal rights and opportunities in the country that they fought so hard to represent; hypocrisy was prevalent.
“Every movement needs a catalyst, an event that captures people’s experiences and draws them out from their isolation into a collective force…”. Nearly 50 years ago, the catalyst for modern sports activism occurred: Tommie Smith and John Carlos clenched their fists while on the victory podium at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics. This sparked a new generation of Black activism centered around athletics; the gesture was greeted with support for fellow Black athletes and allies across the world and became known as the “Revolt of the Black Athlete”. It, however, was not an isolated and spontaneous incident, but rather the result of a year-long Black boycott of the Olympic Games. “We knew that what we were going to do was far greater than any athletic feat,” Carlos later said about the gesture. Smith, along with his sociology professor, Harry Edwards, and several teammates at San Jose State University crafted a campaign that they named “the Olympic Project for Human Rights”. The creation of this movement began in 1967 when Smith, after a race in Japan, answered a question by a Japanese newspaperman that asked if there was a possibility “Negro athletes” might boycott the 1968 Olympics. Answering with a simple, “there is a possibility,” Smith unknowingly opened the door to confront, what he called, “necessary changes in our country.”
In its early stages, the OPHR group hosted a conference on athlete activism in Los Angeles, organized pamphlets, spoke at press conferences, and earned the support of activists like Martin Luther King Jr. for their list of demands for racial justice within athletics. As the OPHR organizing pamphlet put it: “We must no longer allow this country to use black individuals of whatever level to rationalize its treatment of the black masses”. Other supporters of their movement include Lew Alcindor–known more popularly as Kareem Abdul Jabbar–, All-Star running back Jim Brown, Bill Russell, and the man who integrated Major League Baseball, Jackie Robinson. The backlash from the Reagan administration called for an abolition of the movement, targeting supporters, like U.S Olympic legend Jesse Owens, for dismissal from their government jobs. An already polarizing topic became increasingly more so as both sides pushed against each other with force; Edwards even called Reagan “a petrified pig, unfit to govern”. Though the Olympic Boycott of 1968 did not happen, it kick-started movements on predominantly white college and university campuses across the country. The “Revolt of the Black Athlete” had begun.
The primary motivations of the OPHR from its creation on were not about protesting the racism in sport, but instead using a space or geography in which Black athletes excelled, and were praised, to call attention to societal racism in service of a larger movement for equality and justice. This emphasis on societal rather than athletic racism indicates the development of an understanding of sport in a new light in its relation to racism and social change, that exists even today. Tommie Smith summarized the role of the Black athlete in American society during a press conference following his gold medal victories in Mexico City: ‘If I win I am an American, not a black American. But if I did something bad then they would say ‘a Negro’. We are black and we are proud of being black… On the track, you are Tommie Smith, the fastest man in the world, but once you are in the dressing rooms you are nothing more than a dirty Negro’. Black athletes were only defined by their “blackness,” if they were doing things that were not condoned or controlled by the majority white administration. This was applicable to the Black community as a whole: the general population in the ’60s, and even now, tends to direct attention on the negative preconceived notions about Black behavior and existence, choosing to ignore the general positive contribution that Black students, employees, athletes and people bring to the table.
In 2016–near the 50th anniversary of the Mexico City Olympic protest- -former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick jumpstarted a new era of sports resistance with his bold and brave decision to kneel during the American national anthem in protest of police brutality. He was immediately met with irreversible repercussions: blackballed out of the league and job loss. However, Kaepernick, like Smith and many of the athletes before him, did not protest with the goal of abolishing the wage gap and difference in treatment between Black and white athletes; he kneeled as a condemnation of police brutality against Black men. In his own words, ‘I will not stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses Black people and people of color’. Across the nation, and even the globe, the act of defiance was reenacted in colleges, high schools, and sporting events. In the summer of 2016 alone, these actions included: NBA star and American Olympian Carmelo Anthony urging athletes to quit worrying about their endorsement deals and speak out on police killings; tennis player Serena Williams offering support and a clenched fist salute at Wimbledon; the testimonials of Anthony and NBA stars Chris Paul, LeBron James, and Dwyane Wade at the ESPYs Awards on ESPN; WNBA players and teams dressing in support of Black Lives Matter and against police shootings.
Despite the almost decade time difference, Black athletes are still protesting the same issues they had in the past: global anti-blackness. Though its nature has changed from “lawful” racial exclusion via Jim Crow to targeted incarceration and murders via the New Jim Crow, athlete activism continues to shed light on the ubiquity of racism. Because of the platform that modern athletes hold with the emergence and prominence of the digital media and press, their outspokenness about systemic racial injustices prohibits the current administration from failing to address the inconsistencies and hypocrisy of their actions. In a society that continues to be infested with disproportionate police brutality against Black people–largely men–, racial gaps in the workplace and school, and conspicuous bigotry and bias in everyday diction, Black athletes feel compelled to say, and now do, something. After Kaepernick’s kneeling, the top-trending hashtags on Twitter were #ColinKaepernick, #KapsoBlack, #boycottNFL, and #BLM, gifting mass exposure to Black social movements of this decade. Though a qualitative textual analysis projected that many tweets in response to Kaepernick’s actions were either negative or portrayed mixed emotions, it brought attention to BLM and other movements around the world that could not have been achieved in a time prior to social media. Three years later, Kaepernick and his gestures are still being discussed and have been followed by plenty of other athlete activists with similar intentions.
The modern athlete-activist was developed through years of earlier sports resistance movements against global anti-blackness. Though not yet abolished, the strength and power of Black athletes have inspired a new era of activism and social movements that is intolerant of racial discrimination, injustice, and exclusion. Reflecting on the geographical space of this activism–sports and athletics– modern Black social movements are able to grow their presence and following while simultaneously pressing the government and society for equal treatment between races.
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