- More Than a Game: A History of the African American Experience in Sport by David K. Wiggins
Readers and teachers, as well as scholars, have an excellent new synthesis of the African American experience in sport in David K. Wiggins’s More Than a Game. Wiggins covers the major black athletes in American history, adding new details to these familiar stories. [End Page 107] He also incorporates several new subtheses, particularly dealing with the important role of government interventions in securing opportunities for integrated athletic competitions, black women athletes, and the historic and contemporary protests by athletes of color.
The Mount Rushmore of African American athletes, arguably Jack Johnson, Jackie Robinson, Muhammad Ali, and Serena Williams all receive the attention they deserve as path-breakers, central to understanding the history of the black athlete and the black experience in America. Wiggins is not interested in establishing new arguments about these athletes or their legacy, but they are, of course, central to any survey of the subject.
A central theme throughout the book explores why black athletes have been so successful at America’s most prominent sports. Wiggins carefully notes, however, that African Americans are vastly underrepresented in many sports as well. Even in sports with prominent black superstars, for example, golf and tennis, as well as recent individual successes in swimming, minority athletes as a group still face considerable obstacles. Moreover, despite their success playing highly visible and popular sports like football and basketball, African Americans continue to struggle to earn positions as coaches and managers and to work in management roles of teams and leagues.
At the same time, protests by black athletes run throughout the narrative. Wiggins clearly shows that the recent protests by Colin Kaepernick, featured with Jesse Owens on the book’s cover, are not a new phenomenon but have been a vital piece of the black experience in sports going back to the era of slavery. Athletes including Jack Johnson, Muhammad Ali, Tommie Smith and John Carlos, and many, many others all protested, and suffered professionally and financially, because of their advocacy for equal rights. In the civil rights era, black athletes faced considerable challenges in remaining loyal to the evolving civil rights struggle, while also desiring to protect their careers and opportunities for success.
The role of government in creating additional opportunities for black athletes and supporting nondiscrimination efforts gets a boost in Wiggins’s account. In 1946, one year before Jackie Robinson’s debut with the Brooklyn Dodgers, the Los Angeles Rams were told that they were required to have at least one black player on the team in order to play in the publicly funded Los Angeles Coliseum. The Washington Redskins, famously the last NFL team to be integrated, was similarly forced finally to sign a black player in order to play in the new DC Memorial Stadium. Examples like this show the important role that government policy could play in integrating professional sports.
Wiggins also pays considerable attention to college athletics. Prior to the post–World War II integration of baseball and other sports, many black athletes found their best opportunities at the collegiate level. Moses Fleetwood Walker, acknowledged now as the first African American to play major league baseball, more than seventy years before Jackie Robinson, first starred at Oberlin College. Others, including William Henry Lewis and Paul Robeson, starred on the gridiron, while still dealing with discrimination, particularly from Southern teams that would refuse to play against black athletes.
Wiggins pays more attention to female athletes of color than most previous surveys of this subject. Still, this book shows the overall lack of scholarship on black women athletes. In some cases, such as the Ladies Professional Golf Association, men and women faced similar challenges at integrating sport. In many other ways, however, women of color faced even higher hurdles to secure opportunities to participate and excel in sports. Because of [End Page 108] the limited professional opportunities in women’s sport, the Olympic Games often...