Sport and Politics: Strange Bedfellows Within the African American Community

By Danielle Mincey, Ph.D
Updated: November 27, 2005

FAIRFAX, VIGINIA —– It seems like sport sociologists have been attempting to answer the question, “Why does sport appear to be more important within the African American community than education?” for ages. I would venture to say that for African American sport sociologists, there exists a personal sense of urgency to finding the answer to this question. This column is by no means my attempt to answer the question of why sport appears to be more important to the African American community than education. What I will attempt to do is place a joint emphasis on sport and politics, thereby creating a lens through which to examine the importance of sport to the African American community. The omission of education from this examination is intentional.

I recently came across an article, “Affirmative Reaction” (1995), which was a dialogue between Mr. Cornel West and Mr. Henry Louis Gates, Jr. on the subject of affirmative action and the status of the African American community. One of the many significant points in the article, and the one that encouraged me to address this subject, was a question posed by Mr. West to Mr. Gates:

CW: “Isn’t it interesting that sports and music have been the two major contexts in which Blacks have been able to compete fairly?

HLG: “…when you look at the place of play in the human experience, it’s very difficult for the structures of unfairness to be actually at the center of that play, or it’s not really play.”

This short discourse between these two African American academicians ignited a match within me. As the flames flickered in my consciousness, my love of sport, coupled with my “love” of investigating anything political, began to become less of a mystery. I began to wonder how many other African Americans have this dual fascination with sport and politics.

Mr. West’s question/statement on sports as one of two major contexts in which Blacks have been able to compete fairly and Mr. Gates’ response/explanation “turned the lights on” for me. The stories told over and over by older African Americans about how feelings of community triumphed whenever Joe Louis defeated an opponent became clearer. The triumphs of the “Brown Bomber” were not just athletic. They were political. In the ring, the rules are established. This explains why Jack Johnson’s triumphs over opponents were so reviled by political powers. In sports, the rules must be enforced or the subsequent victory is tainted. So, for African Americans, victories in sports, especially against White opponents, were in essence political victories. As long as the political victories remained in the ring, they were accepted by the political powers.

When African American athletes began to raise their voices against social injustices, the ramifications for the athletes were severe and pervasive. Some examples of this phenomenon are the lives of Paul Robeson, Muhammad Ali, Tommie Smith and John Carlos.

The attack on Paul Robeson began when he stepped outside of the arenas of both music and sports. Martin Duberman’s extensive 1988 biography of Mr. Robeson allows readers to experience adoration with Paul Robeson when he was singing and acting, as well as to experience his frustration and disappointment in living as a second-class citizen of the United States. We know today of the magnitude of Paul Robeson’s intellect. This fact is well published. What many of us do not know is that when he exercised his rights to freely speak against social injustice his ability to make a living as a singer/actor here in this country was taken away. In addition, his passport was taken away, thereby prohibiting him from traveling abroad to perform.

In a similar fashion, Muhammad Ali’s refusal to be inducted into the United States armed forces was a political statement, which cost him dearly. Although the penalties he paid were high, for an entire generation he was a hero. Mr. Ali’s refusal to step forward remains today a pivotal moment in history. He refused to compromise, even when it meant that he would be unable to practice his livelihood. In the African American community, adult Black men had been “boys” and “uncles” for so long, that for the young, brash Muhammad Ali to refuse to step forward and obediently be inducted into the military was akin to a young Black male looking a White female in the eye: a “lynchable” action.

I would estimate that a street poll of African Americans would garner an average of, say, 40% (that’s probably too high) who would say that they could identify the names Tommie Smith and John Carlos with sport and politics. Probably more identifiable would be the photograph of the two young Black men with upraised, black-gloved fists on the medal stand at the 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico City. These two men nonverbally expressed their displeasure with the social injustices against their people in the United States. Because the expression took place at an international event heralding the top athletes worldwide, the lives of these two men were forever altered. Their actions signaled to the world that the champion of worldwide human rights, the United States, was an oppressor of Black people, even the ones they sent abroad to win medals.

In each of the four examples, stepping outside of the realm(s) of competition and entertainment was costly to the athlete. Yet, in each case, the athlete understood that he was more than just an athlete within the African American community. He was the hero who went beyond the structures of unfairness through the world of play (sports), and because of his hero status, he utilized his visibility to speak for his people, the people who collectively were denied the right for so many years to speak for themselves. In light of this growing revelation about the “mystery” of my fascination with sport and politics, I can safely say that the dynamic relationship between sports, politics and the sociological implications of these two strange bedfellows will be the foundation for debate and research for years to come