Sports in America is a multi-million dollar creation that has contributed to American culture today. Before one can say sports helped unify the country, we must examine the origins of racism and how it contributed to the worldwide leisure activities we classify as sports. Early sporting events were set during a time where African-Americans were still experiencing racism and injustice because of the color of their skin. To really understand how important equality is during a sporting game and in everyday life, we should first understand the injustice they experienced. Racism is defined by the blunt formula: prejudice plus power equals racism.
Racism is prejudice is turned into action that harms others. America strives on being the “best” country and is very patriotic on an international level, but at home America has a hate for its own natural citizens whose complexion were not white. America is unified during athletic competition with other nations (for example, the Olympics), but at home racism existed for minority athletes. Negative racial feelings affect sports on a domestic and global basis; however there were several activists who not only integrated sports, but they helped the nation understand the social cons of racism. “The walls of segregation were built thick and high during the last decades of the nineteenth century and the first years of the twentieth, and racism manifested itself not only in exclusionary practices, which pervaded the sporting world as well” (Miller and Wiggins 1-2). Additionally, this is the birthing of Jim Crow.
Jim Crow came from a song performed by a white entertainer who was popular in the 1830s. He painted his face black and mocked blacks, “In the late 1800s, as southern legislatures and communities systematically deprived African-Americans of equal rights, ‘Jim Crow’ became for southern whites a euphemism for segregation in the South” (Carson 54). Namely, this social and legal custom would follow African-Americans until the late 1960s.
Racism post-civil war had a major impact on sports. A major Supreme Court case, Plessey v. Ferguson, in 1896 that stated separate but equal is fair, thus supporting the Jim Crow laws which basically funded racism in the country. “On June 7, 1892, Homer Plessy entered a New Orleans railroad station and boarded a whites-only coach…Plessy was an octoroon (one-eighth black) and, therefore, in violation of state law” (Carson 38-39). The Supreme Court rules against Plessy “finished the job by upholding as constitutional the ‘separate but equal’ doctrine’” (Carson 55). After all, there was racism in America.
Racism is when prejudice is turned into action that harms others, and the belief that one race of people is superior to another because of their ethnicity (Davis). Racism is based on the color of a person’s skin, it is destructive and it disembowels people by shattering their identity. It destroys community cohesion and creates divisions in society (Carson). Plessey v. Ferguson supported racism in America and limited minority participation in “white-only” sports. Altogether, this case began the question of what makes a person black or white and how Americans classify people and athletes based on the amount of black ancestry.
Blacks were not allowed to participate in white-only sports and facilities. “Tennis had been introduced to the United States as a country club sport in the 1880s. Because most clubs were segregated, it had remained a predominantly white sport” (Rennert 528). American tennis athlete, Althea Gibson was the first black to win a Grand Slam title, also known as the French Open. Gibson dominated the U.S. Lawn Tennis Association (USLTA) indoor matches, but she was not invited to any outdoor events because they were plated at a private, segregated country club. Due to her achievements on the courts, she gained a lot of attention from the public and the USLTA’s practice was put into question. Alice Marble, a white woman who dominated tennis during the 1930s, spoke out against racial discrimination; her article was published in the American Lawn Tennis magazine. Through the public’s participation and awareness of discrimination on the basis of race, Gibson was invited to play in the tournament (Rennert 530-531). Anyhow, blacks were not allowed to participate in white-only sports and facilities.
“In the pre-World War II years, the Black athlete was restricted from competition in all the professional sports. Only in the Olympics, because of its international nature, were Black athletes allowed to compete unrestricted” (Walter). America allowed talented blacks to represent America on a global range but when the competition was over and they had to return home, the country did not treat the athletes as equal citizens. For example Jesse Owens was a black man that did track and field. He is a natural born American citizen who participated in the Olympics, the leader of Germany did not like the fact there was a black man winning all of the races and he refused to congratulate the athlete (Rennert 541-547). Even when Jesse Owens returned back to America, he was not seen as an American hero, he was not treated like an American citizen with rights. With this in mind, several years after Plessey v. Ferguson, Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, (1954) overruled the idea that separate but equal is fair, arguably ending discrimination on the basis of race.
Just a few years after the Brown v. Board of Education decision, Ernie Davis, he was a football running back and the first African-American athlete to win the Heisman Trophy. Although Davis was a great athlete, the color of his skin prevented him from caused major problems during the Cotton Bowl Classic in Dallas, Texas. Because he was considered colored, he could only accept his award at the banquet following the game and then he had to immediately leave the building. Davis and his white teammates refused and decided to boycott the banquet because a teammate was not allowed to participate in a banquet due to the color of his skin (Gates and Appiah). It was a challenge Davis had to overcome; for example, being physically abused after each play and advised not to score. After this, Davis became an icon for an integrated America and for African Americans achieving the American Dream (Wright).
There seems to be an additional challenge that blacks have to approach and overcome relative to white Americans. “The signing of Jackie Robinson by baseball’s Brooklyn Dodgers in 1946 is well chronicled, as is his debut in the major leagues in 1947. For most people, Robinson has the honor of integrating professional sports. However, two years before he made his debut, the National Football League had integrated when the Los Angeles Rams signed two African-American professional players, Kenny Washington and Woody Strode, the latter of whom became movie star” (Walter). Robinson is credited by white Americans as integrating a “white,” American pastime sport—baseball, at the time, football was not the same type of American traditional sport. On the other hand, why do critics arrange sports by race in today’s society, prohibiting certain races from participating in “mainstream” sports?
Black athletes dominates certain sports, like basketball, football, track, and baseball. To add to that, they also play some leading role position such as quarterback, which is normally the position you would see a white athlete playing. “In track and field, particularly in the coming Olympics, the overwhelming number of Black American athletes in proportion to white Olympians is radically disproportionate to the Black population in overall U.S. society.” (Walter) Black athletes are casting to take over American sports and receiving financial income equally as whites. African American athletes receive less income in America’s major sport, which is baseball. This declined the number of black baseball players, and the black attending audience as well. Blacks are quick to sign a major league baseball contract before a white person, but are financially treated unfair of salary. At the same time, salaries alone do not tell the entire story.
Today African Americans generate an enormous amount of publicity from the mass media. The public views elite black superstars as celebrities, valued citizens, and heroes. Their sports performance and other outside activities reflect the ways in which American people view them as individuals and perceive African Americans as a whole. A gradual increase of African Americans athletes are gaining successful income pay from endorsement products. This idea started from cereal boxes to now automobiles, Nike, McDonald’s, Coca-Cola, State Farm and others. Walter Payton, African American football player at Chicago Bears, did not appear on a Wheaties box until 1986. “In 1996, Michael Jordan of basketball’s Chicago Bulls and sports’ highest paid athlete is expected to earn 90% of his $40 million through endorsements.” (Walter) Giving these points, this has started the take-over of African Americans athletes, dramatically increasing their popularity and success.
Not so long ago, black athletes were segregated from participating with white athletes due to the Jim Crow Laws established after the Plessy V. Ferguson (1896) Supreme Court case. Black athletes, as were their non-athletic brothers and sisters, were seen as racially inferior and not worthy of socially mixing with whites. However, these purely promoted brave athletes slowly but positive social change against the racism and later racial prejudice in this country by their heroic example both in and out of the athletic arena. Black athletes hold a special place in American sporting tradition.