- Sports and the Racial Divide: African American and Latino Experience in an Era of Change
Scholars of sport and race are at a crossroads. After decades of exemplary work, they have established that sport is more than "just a game" or a space where racial differences are leveled through competition. Rather sport is a contested terrain: a site of discrimination and spectacles that often perpetuate racial shibboleths and stereotypes. Yet many scholars want more from sport, and especially yearn for athletes to become more politicized. Hence, the figures of Tiger Woods, Michael Jordan, and Allen Iverson loom over Sports and the Racial Divide: African American and Latino Experience in an Era of Change. Woods and Jordan are regularly faulted for failing to express themselves politically, while Iverson is the embodiment of the "New Jack Jock," with swagger, flair and riches but no revolutionary consciousness. Many of the essays in this edited volume look nostalgically back on athletes from the 1960s who used platforms earned through their athletic success to speak out on civil rights issues.
Some athletes in the turbulent decade of the 1960s did speak out on racial issues. This collection features works on notable athlete-activists such as Roberto Clemente and Muhammad Ali. Four of the essays discuss Harry Edwards' Revolt of the Black Athlete [End Page 172] (1969). In addition, a superb essay by Maureen Smith explores the little-known boycott of the American Football League All-Star Game by black players in 1965. The protest, triggered by racist treatment in New Orleans, succeeded in getting the game moved from the Big Easy to Houston. The boycott not only revealed the power of athletes in the fight against discrimination, it was a collective action that occurred before more celebrated protests by Ali against the Vietnam War, Tommie Smith and John Carlos at the 1968 Olympics, and by college athletes.
Yet protests like those by the AFL players must be put into the context of the Civil Rights Era. Black athletes, despite their fame, still faced many indignities off the field. As Michael Lomax explains in his sobering contribution, "Bedazzle Them with Brilliance, Bamboozle Them with Bull," blacks' "hard earned success in the athletic arena did not bring the rewards off it." Therefore, many "refused to accept the status quo" (p. 63). Black athletes may have been stars on the field, but unlike today's sports heroes they received few endorsement deals, faced a discriminatory housing market, and had little hope of gaining a coaching or front office position after their playing days were over (p. 75). Lomax also points out that Edwards' much-celebrated "revolt" never really came to fruition. Though Smith and Carlos bravely raised their black-gloved fists on the Olympic medals' stand, athletes and administrators dismissed the Olympic Committee for Human Rights' earlier calls for a boycott of the games. The movement had many critics, but Lomax argues that "the primary opposition Edwards faced… came from African American athletes." Most of these competitors regarded sports "as one of the few institutions that facilitated upward social mobility and served as a leveler of racial prejudice in American society" (pp. 56–57). They did not hope for a revolt, Lomax finds, just better treatment on and off the field, and this nostalgic idealization of the 1960s clouds the current racial dilemmas faced by black athletes.
This nostalgia reflects some fundamental disconnects between academics and athletes. Academics often lament that athletes fail to recognize that they are being exploited, or squander their platform by refusing to speak out on broader political issues. In doing so, academics are usually unable to appreciate all the status benefits that top-flight competitors accrue. In "The Black Panther Party and the Revolt of the Black Athlete," Ron Briley complains that today's minority athletes are "loath to challenge this corporate and nationalistic hegemony of sport" (p. 90). But why should high-profile athletes bite the hands that feed them? Instead of more treatments...