Black Athletes and Protest

By Demarcus Jenkins

Across the globe, black athletes submit their bodies to white coaches, trainers, and fans, in the pursuit of winning at the highest levels of sports. Within these arenas, black men contort their masculinities in order to assure success to their perspective teams. Throughout the 20th century black men have gone abroad to define their masculinities. From the Harlem Globetrotters to Muhammed Ali, the black man characterized what it meant to have physical prowess within the realm of sports. However, many black men including Bill Russell and Jim Brown did not want to be used as the white coaches’ workhorse. By utilizing their positions of power and public respect, some black men created Unions in order to reshape the color narrative within sports. Jim Brown’s Negro Industrial and Economic Union helped to bring national attention to the disparities apparent within the black community (Freeman, p.8). This union gathered prominent black athletes in Cleveland in 1967 with the shared goal of pushing economic stimulus into the black households (Freeman, p.9). However, this did not fully alleviate racial inequality.

James Michener wrote in Sports in America, that sports did not necessarily elevate the black race from the grips of white supremacy (Michener, p.178). Despite winning the 100-meter dash and the 200-meter dash at the 1960 Summer Olympics, Wilma Rudolph did not acquire financial freedom (Smith, 85). Her story, served as a reminder that many black athletes who performed at home and abroad during the early 1960’s, did not reach economic stability. Jim Brown understood the false narratives of the American Dream. The American Dream allowed for an overwhelming number of spectators to be white, thereby continuing the story arch of black men as “entertainers.” Events such as the formation of the Negro Industrial and Economic Union allowed for the eventual advent of the black athlete-activist. In recent parlance, the deaths of Travon Martin and Eric Gardner have led to protests by Colin Kapernick and Lebron James, who kneeled during games and wore “I Can’t Breathe” shirts respectively (The Undefeated). But, the tide toward athlete-activism occurred prior to this most recent upsurge. During the 1968 Olympic Games black athletes rose the black power sign, while Muhammed Ali dodged the Vietnam draft during the same era (Wagg, p.154). Therefore, black athletes made a stance against white owners and businessmen who perpetually determined and defined black masculinity. Yet, both domestically and abroad the dominant culture attempted to choose how black men should respond to social injustice. White owners have banned Colin Kapernick from the league and restricted kneeling during football games.  Of course, more work has to be done to explore the debilitating effects of white supremacy on black masculinity within the world of sports.


Works Cited

Freeman, Mike. Jim Brown: The Fierce of Life of an American Hero. New York: It Books, 2007. Print.

Michener, James. Sports in America. New York: Dial Press Trade, 1987. Print

Smith, Maureen. Wilma Rudolph: A Biography. New York: Greenwood Publishing Group, 2006. Print

Wagg, S. Myths and Milestones in the History of Sport. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011. Print.