- Sidelined: How American Sports Challenged the Black Freedom Movement by Simon Henderson
Sidelined is the first work to grapple significantly with the social belief that integrated sports indicated a significant advance in race relations, demonstrating that sports institutions disseminated the belief and that politics should not be interjected into sports, for example, as it was to undermine a proposed black boycott of the 1968 Olympics and related student-athlete protests. The book makes excellent use of National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) and International Olympic Committee (IOC) files that demonstrate those organizations viewed athletes’ protests as public relations crises and were rarely concerned with addressing athletes’ concerns. The book advances discussion of sports’ social utility by demonstrating that much of society expected sports to reflect the liberal status quo and that dissenting athletes, like other progressives, were repressed by the (sports) establishment.
The book also proposes to demonstrate that the boycott proposal had significant support among more white athletes than previously known. Henderson interviews more than forty former athletes to substantiate his claims. Consequently, their support allows Henderson to claim the black fists protest at the 1968 games was more than a black power moment: it was a demonstration representing all antiestablishments’ angst in the period.
Sidelined is insightful concerning the connections between the black freedom movement and black athletes’ protests and is well researched. One of its key arguments, however, needs to be extended. Henderson demonstrates that the sports establishment used [End Page 422] the social belief to undermine protests but does not examine mainstream media’s role in that effort. The mainstream media helped create the belief of integrated sports during the early Cold War and likely had incentive in its maintenance. Given the book’s reliance on media sources, Henderson should have explored if the media helped disseminate the belief, and if so, whether that bias influenced public understanding and subsequent scholarship, including his. The boycott was widely considered a black power campaign, and activists routinely criticized what they believed to be negative coverage of their movements.
As concerning, in chapter 5, Henderson repeats David Wiggins and Douglass Hart-mann’s argument that pressure from militants forced black student-athletes to protest. This pressure, Henderson notes, caused blacks to use white coaches as scapegoats, sometimes equating team discipline with discrimination. One prominent example in the text is that of the black Wyoming 14, who, during the 1969 season, asked their white coach if they could wear armbands during a game against Brigham Young University to protest the Mormon Church’s racist teachings. The coach not only forbade protests but also kicked those black athletes off the team. Henderson notes that the coach had forbidden players to participate in protests and considered the request an affront to his authority. Some black student-athletes, however, likely had another perspective. The autobiographies of black athletes, including Tommie Smith and Lew Alcindor, demonstrate that discrimination on campus and by coaches were key incidents in the evolution of their activist consciousness. For example, prior to 1969, Melvin Hamilton, one of the Wyoming 14, quit the team because the coach opposed his marriage to a white coed. Henderson, however, does not ask if that incident influenced blacks’ protest at Wyoming. Additionally, following their expulsion, it was proposed that the players could return. They declined, however, because the coach refused to apologize for racist epithets. The incidents suggest that discrimination on campus was important in spurring blacks’ activism. The need to examine such links is indicative of the book’s need to incorporate a stronger understanding of the black students movement, which many black athletes deemed themselves members of. There were approximately 125 black student-athletes’ movements; without further research, it would be irresponsible to suggest that all white coaches were racists, but it would be equally embryonic to suggest that the discrimination black athletes experienced in white-controlled sports did not inform their protests.
Henderson also seems to overstate the conclusion that white athletes’ significantly contributed to the boycott campaign (their support garnered...