Get Woke or Die Tryin’: The Revolt of the Black Athlete

“This win hopefully brings hope and change to some of the issues that are going on.”
—Simone Manuel


From Black Lives Matter protests in the streets to Donald Trump becoming a hero for working class whites, 2016 has been one of the most racially charged years in recent memory. For most Americans sports provides an escape from the problems of the real world. But this year many black athletes have forced America to engage in an uncomfortable, yet needed, discourse on race. Cam Newton, the Carolina Panthers flamboyant MVP quarterback, began the conversation by addressing his blackness during a press conference leading up to his team’s appearance in Super Bowl 50. In the months since the Super Bowl, the topic of sports and race has gone from the sports section to front page of the national news. The most recent example being San Francisco 49ers bi-racial quarterback, Colin Kaepernick’s refusal to stand during the national anthem at the start of games. Kaepernick, who sometimes sports a huge Afro that would make Angela Davis proud, chose to take a stand by sitting and kneeling to address the issue of rogue police officers killing unarmed African-Americans. In addition to this, the quarterback has worn graphic design socks with images of pigs in police uniforms harkening back to the 1960s drawings of Emory Douglas found in the Black Panthers newspaper. Kaepernick’s protest led to a national debate on a myriad of topics during the first week in September, from patriotism and the military to the racist legacy of the National Anthem written by Francis Scott Key.

Conservative talk show firebrand Rush Limbaugh went on a 10-minute rant denouncing the quarterback. While Donald Trump told him to go find another country, fans burned his jersey as a sign of their patriotism. Host of Fox Sports network’s show Speak For Yourself, Colin Cowherd said this was the desperate act of a man who lacked leadership skills and had given up on his career. Cowherd is a middle-aged white man. His co-host Jason Whitlock happens to be a middle-aged black man. Whitlock referred to Kaepernick as a young man confused about his bi-racial identity. His diagnosis was that this immature “gesture” lacked substance and was little more than cry for self-help. ESPN’s Will Cain told his co-host Kate Fagan that he could not take his protest seriously unless Kaepernick specified every problem that he wanted to address and provided a solution to each problem. Retired NFL quarterback Boomer Esiason referred to Kaepernick as the most disrespectful athlete he has ever witnessed and told other athletes to leave their political agendas at home. Let me paraphrase: “shut the hell up and just the play the game that you are paid millions to perform!”

Kaepernick was not alone in his protest, he eventually ended up reaching out to legendary athlete-activists Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Dr. Harry Edwards for advice. Jim Brown said that he was 100% in support of him. On CNN’s 360 with Anderson Cooper, Spike Lee (famous creating the catchphrase “WAKE UP!” in his 1988 classic film School Daze) called anyone who praises Muhammad Ali’s Vietnam protest while admonishing Kaepernick for being woke a hypocrite. Anderson Cooper chimed in by referencing the passage from Jackie Robinson’s 1972 autobiography I Never Had It Made, in which Robinson exclaimed that as a black man living in the midst of Jim Crow he could not salute the American flag. In my African-American History course, I had my students read Frederick Douglass’s 1852 speech “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July” to provide some historical context on the subject. Douglass told a group of mostly white northerners: “What to the American slave is your Fourth of July? I answer, a day that reveals to him, more than all other days, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim.” Players around the NFL have joined in Kaepernick’s protest. The NFL kicked off its season on September 11th. As fans stood to salute the anthem some black players on Miami Dolphins, Seattle Seahawks, and Kansas City Chiefs chose to either take a knee or raise their fists in the air as a sign of solidarity. Kaepernick has also received public support from President Barack Obama, sports media personalities like Michael Smith and Clinton Yates, and hip-hop artists J. Cole, Lil Wayne, and Trey Songz.

What you are about to read is not another think piece on Colin Kaepernick!

My goal, in writing this article, is to contribute a more holistic perspective on this year’s hot topic: the black athlete. The role that the black athlete should play in discussions of race, civil rights protests, and other forms of activism is quite complicated. Some black athletes have been quite vocal and taken strong stands on social issues. Whereas others have recently awakened to injustice after decades of convenient silence. Some have straddled the fence on social issues. For example, Cam Newton was quite outspoken about prejudice in February; however, in his September interview with GQ magazine he was claiming that America is now “beyond racism.” Retired football superstar Ray Lewis belongs to a growing number of black athletes dissed in the African-American community for expressing opinions that are not popular with the majority of blacks. There are those athletes that want to speak out; however, the fear of retribution prevents them. Baltimore Orioles center fielder Adam Jones says that black players in profession baseball remain quiet because “baseball is a white man’s sport.” Jones and fellow black baseball players view themselves as expendable because they make up just under eight percent of the MLB’s population. Black women athletes face a double burden based upon race and gender politics. Many of these women have broken barriers in society that challenge perceptions of race, gender, and class. And then there are athletes like Jason Collins and Michael Sam whose mere presence has at least sparked the possibility of change. In the wake of the NFL players’ protests it is important to remember that black athletes have the power to be change agents in a variety ways that do not always involve civil disobedience. In July, TNT basketball analyst Kenny Smith went to Facebook to challenge all NBA players to donate ten percent of their earnings to the cause of uplifting the race. At this year’s summer Olympics there were several history making moments that lacked protest, but still made a significant difference nonetheless. Using multiple past and present examples, I will explore the role of the black athlete in race relations and social activism in America since World War II.

Act One

I love Michael Jordan. As a kid I often found myself in the neighborhood playground pretending to be my idol taking a game winning shot in the final seconds of the NBA finals. “Three, two, one, swishhhhhh!” Since my college days a fresh pair of Js has been a regular part of my wardrobe when I am not at work. I belong to a small group of sports fans who can say they attended the final home game of Jordan’s career. What’s not to love about MJ? He is the greatest basketball player in history and the most influential professional athlete of the twentieth century. Jordan’s dazzling moves on the court caused fits of exuberance among spectators that would make one think they were getting the Holy Ghost at a church revival. Michael Jordan was a six time world champion, five time Most Valuable Player (MVP) of the league, fourteen time All-Star, ten time scoring champion, two time dunk contest champion, and 2009 inductee into the Basketball Hall of Fame. He was just as successful off the court; transcending race, breaking barriers for his successors, and gaining mainstream acceptance unlike any other black athlete in history. As the majority owner of the Charlotte Bobcats, he is the only African American in this position and for those very reasons, Forbes Magazine added Jordan to their list of billionaires in 2015.

For many Americans Jordan’s success is enough for him to be viewed as role model, but for others his failure to use his lofty platform to be a trailblazer for social change is a mark on his legacy. During a 2015 interview with National Public Radio (NPR), NBA Hall of Fame legend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar stated that Jordan chose “commerce over conscience.” Football icon, Jim Brown has been critical of Jordan for failing to carry the torch of the activist-athletes of the 1960s. Professor Harry Edwards, author of The Revolt of the Black Athlete (1968) and the organizer of the 1968 Olympics boycott, once described the original Jumpman as a racial mascot. Professor John Hoberman, author of Darwin’s Athletes: How Sport Has Damaged Black America and Preserved the Myth of Race (1997), wrote that white America built up a false love affair with Jordan, their “idealized non-threatening black man,” to hide their contempt and fear of black masculinity. Hoberman goes on to argue that White supremacists use Jordan’s athletic success to seduce black youth into abandoning school and social responsibility in exchange for the seductive trappings of professional sports.

William Rhoden, author of the book Forty Million Dollar Slaves, characterized Jordan as the antithesis of Jim Crow era black athletes. “Had he said ‘jump,’ had he said ‘protest,’ most athletes would have jumped; most would have protested. Instead, Jordan said, ‘Be like Mike’.” Shots were even fired at Jordan by his own teammate Craig Hodges (who is famous for wearing a dashiki to the White House after the team’s 1992 championship and filing a $40 million lawsuit against the NBA because he felt blackballed by teams due to his support for the Nation of Islam). David Falk, a Jewish-American sports agent who represented Jordan during his entire playing career, disagrees with those who attack his client’s apolitical demeanor. Falk points to Jordan’s upbringing as a root cause for his attitudes on race and activism. “His parents raised him to be color-blind,” says Falk. In spite of Falk’s defense for his client, the criticism of MJ is not without merit.

In 1992, a group of black students at UNC, Jordan’s alma mater, demanded that the university build a center for the study of black culture (the center would also house a library named in Michael Jordan’s honor). Jordan’s mother, Deloris, publicly supported the students’ endeavor. After the university’s chancellor, Paul Hardin failed to support the project, 12 black UNC football players led a march of four hundred students to Hardin’s home. Jordan declined to support the drive for this center. He argued that any new building projects should be dedicated to the entire student body and not limited to a particular race or ethnic group of students. Four years later Harvey Grant, a black Democrat, challenged Republican incumbent Jesse Helms for his Senate seat. Helms, a segregationist, infamously ran a campaign television ad six years earlier featuring a pair of white hands holding a letter informing the individual that he had lost his job because of Affirmative Action quotas. He voted against the establishment of a holiday honoring Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. North Carolina blacks expected Jordan to publicly support Grant, but MJ refused to endorse Grant supposedly stating something to the effect of “Republicans buy sneakers, too.” Jordan successfully created a blueprint for future athletes like Tiger Woods and Derek Jeter to follow on their way to mainstream adoration and riches. Georgetown University professor Michael Eric Dyson blames white sports agents for undercutting their black clients’ interest in social activism. As a result they remain silent or speak in empty clichés like Ciara’s husband Russell Wilson to avoid ruining their brand.

Jordan’s financial empire has grown exponentially over the last 30 years as a result of his relationship with Nike. The Jordan brand is largely responsible for Nike’s annual sales of $16 billion, but there is a price for so much success. Air Jordan sneakers that released thirty years ago retail for nearly $220. Since the late 1980s, these sneakers have been associated with violence in black communities. A 1990 Sports Illustrated article titled “Your Sneakers or Your Life”, told the story of Michael Eugene Thomas, a 15-year-old high school student in Anne Arundel County, Maryland, who was found strangled by a seventeen-year-old friend who killed him for his Js. When Nike released its $180 retro Air Jordan XI Concords from the 1995-96 season days before Christmas in 2011, the result was widespread violence and shopping mall stampedes across the nation. In a 2011 article, ESPN2 His & Hers co-host Jemele Hill pointed out that a disproportionate number of victims associated with sneaker violence are young black males. Because he did not respond to the lingering violence, Hill charged Jordan with exploiting the African-American community to enhance his empire. Rather than doing something to halt the violence or even going as far as former NBA star Stephon Marbury to sale more affordable $15 sneakers, Jordan remained silent.

Perhaps MJ was trying too hard to be like O.J. early in his career. Without question, professional football Hall of Famer, Orenthal James ‘O.J.’ Simpson is one of the most tragic figures in American history, although he was the most celebrated black athlete in history from the late 1960s until the early 1980s. Earlier this year ESPN debuted Ezra Edelman’s “30 for 30” five part documentary film, O.J.: Made in America. Edelman describes O.J. Simpson’s Shakespearean tragedy as the story of a black man whose Horatio Alger story was based on the myth of transcending race to gain white people’s approval. As a Heisman trophy winning running back at the University of Southern California, he was the most famous collegiate athlete in the nation. Harry Edwards recruited O.J. to take part in the black power activism taking place in the late 1960s. According to Edwards, O.J.’s response to joining the movement was “I’m not black, I’m O.J.”. This counter-revolutionary attitude made O.J. a godsend for white sports fans and white businesses looking for an African-American to pitch their products.

During the 1970s, O.J. Simpson became America’s first sought-after black pitchman appearing in memorable commercials for Chevrolet and Hertz. The white directors went out of their way to remove any hint of blackness (aside from his skin) in these commercials. He starred in movies and had ownership in Ramada Inn and Honey Baked Ham. After he divorced his black wife Marguerite to marry a white woman (Nicole Brown), he moved into the upscale Brentwood neighborhood where he was one of only three blacks. O.J. Simpson, who referred to less fortunate blacks as “niggers”, was immune from events like the 1992 Los Angeles Riots. Despite this, it was the black community that stood in his corner when he was charged with the double murder of his then ex-wife Nicole and her white male companion Ron Goldman in 1994. While Jordan never had the legal issues suffered by O.J., he did follow his lead in attempting to always transcend race.

Act Two

Michael Jordan was born on February 17, 1963, slightly more than six months before Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his seminal “I Have a Dream” speech at the March on Washington. Jordan benefitted from the sacrifices made by black athletes during the King years and previous decades. Following the conclusion of World War II there was an increased spirit of activism within the black community. Blacks had sacrificed their lives in the war and believed that they were entitled to equality. Two years after the war ended, Jack Roosevelt “Jackie” Robinson integrated Major League Baseball. In 1958, Robinson wrote President Dwight Eisenhower about his mishandling racial strife at Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas. He wrote both President John F. Kennedy and President Lyndon B. Johnson, respectively, about the violence against blacks in Birmingham (1963) and Selma (1965). Jackie Robinson paved the way for the more militant athletic activism of the 1960s and 1970s. Although Robinson disagreed with Muhammad Ali on Black Power and the Vietnam War, the two men were cut from the same cloth. In the wake of Ali’s death in June, I read several articles about his legacy of activism. Ali was never uncomfortable with letting everyone know that he was a proud black man. Remember, Malcolm X was sitting ringside at the Sonny Liston fight and a frequent visitor at his training camp days prior to the fight. As a result Ali was loved not only in America, but also in Africa. The first thing he did after winning the boxing Heavyweight title in 1964 was visit Ghana. President Kwame Nkrumah welcomed him to the West African nation with open arms. Although Nation of Islam leader Elijah Muhammad saw Ali’s trip to Africa as an opportunity to spread the Nation’s influence globally, Ali experienced a spiritually awakening and fully embraced his African brothers and sisters.

Ali was the greatest, but he was certainly not the only black athlete making a difference in the 1960 and 1970s. The Boston Celtics center and the NBA’s first black head coach, Bill Russell, refused to play in a game after he and his black teammates were denied lodging in the hotel that only accommodated their white teammates. Russell challenged the NBA to hire its first black referee. He visited Mississippi after NAACP leader Medgar Evers was assassinated by Ku Klux Klansmen Byron De La Beckwith to experience the state’s racial climate firsthand. In 1967, he met with notable black athletes and politicians at the “Cleveland Summit” in Ohio to publicly support Ali’s stance against the Vietnam War which ultimately cost him three years at the height of his boxing career. Twenty-year-old UCLA history major and Basketball prodigy Lew Alcindor, now Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, was present for this historic meeting. The previous year Alcindor created a different type of revolution simply by dunking the basketball. The NCAA banned the dunk for the next ten years. Ironically this ban came just as the Black Power Movement was emerging. Alcindor believes that the NCAA feared black players taking over the newly integrated game. The next year Alcindor joined the boycott of the 1968 Olympics led by Harry Edwards. Throughout his NBA career Kareem, who credits Muhammad Ali with helping him to find his political voice, was cast off as being aloof and a minority of one due to his keen intellect and strong views which were seen as too radical.

Many black athletes who dared to speak out on race or political issues at the time faced dire consequences. Curt Flood refused to report to work after the St. Louis Cardinals traded him to the Philadelphia Phillies. Flood argued that Major League Baseball’s reserve clause made the athletes the property (slaves) of their teams. He lost his case in the U.S. Supreme Court and struggled to find work in baseball. Eventually, his sacrifice led to free agency in all professional sports. Not all black athletes were frightened off by such negative consequences. Arthur Ashe was the first black tennis player to win the U.S. Open (1968) and Wimbledon (1975). He used his platform to begin making public statements to the press about civil rights, black power, poverty, and even South African Apartheid. In 1981, Ashe taught a college course on black athletes at Florida Memorial College in Miami. This experience led him to publish a three-volume set, A Hard Road to Glory: A History of the African American Athlete (1988). John Thompson Jr., Bill Russell’s former backup with the Celtics, used his platform as the head coach of the Georgetown University Hoyas to speak publicly protest standardized tests that he believed were racially biased. Thompson and his team were routinely villainized by white sportswriters and opposing fans.

Act Three

After years of silence, Michael Jordan suddenly became “woke.” His metamorphosis became public on July 25, 2016. In a letter published on The Undefeated, ESPN’s new website on sports and race, Jordan finally opened up:

“I was raised by parents who taught me to love and respect all people regardless of their race or background, so I am saddened and frustrated by the divisive rhetoric and racial tensions that seem to be getting worse as of late. I can no longer stay silent.”

In the letter Jordan announced that he was pledging one million to the NAACP Legal Defense Fund and the International Association of Chiefs of Police because he believes that they are equipped to find solutions to America’s current dilemma of race. On August 8th, it was made public that Jordan donated five million to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture, opening in Washington, DC, this fall. According to Museum Founding Director Dr. Lonnie G. Bunch III, a section of the museum’s sports gallery will be named the Michael Jordan Hall. As to be expected, reactions to Jordan’s unexpected “activism” have been rather mixed. Dave Zirin, the sports editor for The Nation magazine, says Jordan’s actions are philanthropic not political statements. Zirin says that writing a check should not be equated with activism. (This is interesting because many of Colin Kaepernick’s white critics only accepted his protests after he pledged to donate the first $1 million of his salary to various community organizations). Zirin argues that Jordan made his act apolitical by building a bridge between both parties rather than choosing a side in the debate. Cynics on Black Twitter have suggested that this new sense of activism is just a reflection of Jordan’s competitive ego and not wanting to be shamed by younger athletes like LeBron James, who has spoken out and pledged nearly $41 million to provide black youth with four-year scholarships to the University of Akron. Others find it coincidental that his actions came in the aftermath of the NBA removing Jordan’s Charlotte team as the host of the 2017 All-Star game to protest North Carolina’s HB2 or “bathroom law” viewed as discriminatory to the LGBTQ community. ESPN personality Bomani Jones questioned the wording of Jordan’s statement on being silent. He wondered if Jordan had always felt like speaking up, but was afraid, thus, leading Bomani to ask how much power did Jordan actually have all of these years. Stephen A. Smith, co-host of ESPN2’s First Take, praised Jordan and said that his current actions should not get belittled due to his past inaction. Smith argued that Jordan’s silence in the past was due to the fact that the majority of his money for much of his career came from endorsements. Smith stated Jordan’s success allowed him to be in an ownership position today where he creates economic opportunities for a vast number of black employees. Furthermore, he believes that Jordan’s success allows younger black athletes of today to have more financial power and the ability to speak out without fear of losing endorsements. I happen to disagree with Smith on the notion that Jordan had to be quiet. There is a stark contrast between being a rabble rouser and just voicing your opinion or choosing an unpopular side on an issue over nearly 30 years.

New York Knicks forward Carmelo “Melo” Anthony is a spokesman for Nike’s Jordan Brand, but unlike Jordan his endorsement deals do not dictate his activism. Melo has really impressed me in the past year by his commitment to getting involved. In April 2015, he joined protests in Baltimore after the death of Freddie Gray while in police custody. On July 8, 2016, Melo posted the following Instagram message, “Take Charge. Take Action.” This call to action was in response to the fatal police shootings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, in addition to the murders of five Dallas police officers by a black man out for vengeance. He has challenged other athletes to take a stand and backed up his talk a week later at the annual ESPYs Awards ceremony broadcast live on ABC. Melo organized a powerful opening for the show which included him and fellow NBA buddies LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, and Chris Paul making statements on the nation’s volatile racial climate and black-on-black gun violence. I guess you could call this their Jesse Williams BET Awards moment. But Melo’s work did not end with the ESPYs. On July 25th, he helped to organize a town hall meeting at the Challengers Boys & Girls Club in South Central Los Angeles. Melo, members of the 2016 men’s and women’s U.S. Olympic basketball teams, and local police officers spoke to 80 predominantly black and Latino teenagers about these same issues. During the meeting a media member asked Melo what he thought about Jordan’s recent actions. He congratulated him and said that it was about time. What makes Melo’s brand of activism so impressive? Simple, he does more than post hashtags and make silent protests like wearing special T-shirts. His actions have helped to inspire similar discussions on other platforms like ESPN’s The Undefeated. His Olympic teammate Demarcus Cousins held a townhall meeting of police officers and the community in his hometown of Mobile, Alabama. Dwyane Wade went on ABC’s Good Morning America to speak out against black-on-black gun violence in his hometown of Chicago after his cousin Nykea Aldridge, a 32-year-old mother of four, was fatally shot while pushing her three-week-old infant in a stroller.

The activism of Carmelo Anthony and his NBA pals does not impress everyone. Some black media members argue that their ESPYs speech was ineffective because, like Jordan’s open letter, it went out of the way to avoid offending anyone with unifying language. In other words, the players did not risk losing anything by playing the safe role of bridge builders. I would like to remind these critics that while Martin Luther King Jr., and his allies were much more radical, they too were bridge builders. The bridge building approach taken by King and his allies was also criticized 50 years ago for not challenging the status quo enough. However, to be fair there is a stark contrast between the actions of today’s NBA players and those of the black players on the 2015 University of Missouri (Mizzou) football team. To protest a series of abhorrent racial incidents on the campus, Jonathan Butler, a 25-year-old black graduate student, began a hunger strike. Among Butler’s demands was the resignation of the school’s president Tim Wolfe. The events at Mizzou gained international attention after the majority of the school’s black football players posted a picture taken with Butler on social media. The football team announced that it would not play again until Butler’s demands were met so that he could end his hunger strike. The team’s head coach, Gary Pinkel, and many of the white players supported the boycott. The players’ action meant potentially losing $1 million dollars to play Brigham Young University at Kansas City’s Arrowhead Stadium. Butler was able to end his hunger strike after eight following President Wolfe’s resignation. The university chancellor resigned. The football players at Mizzou chose conscience over commerce. It would have been fascinating to see how long they would have continued their protest if the university did not cave in. Would they have sacrificed the remainder of the season? Would all of the players, not just a few, have risked their athletic scholarships and admission to the university? Will players at other schools such as Louisiana State University (LSU) in Baton Rouge, make similar protests this football season? What about the black players at UNC Chapel Hill and Duke University? Will they speak out against North Carolina’s discriminatory HB2 Act?

Sacrifice for African-American athletes is often a matter of dollars and cents, but this is not true for their counterparts in other parts of the globe. Feyisa Lilesa, an Ethiopian marathon runner, is seeking asylum because of a gesture he made after winning the silver medal at this summer’s Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro. As he crossed the finish line Lilesa held his arms over his head and crossed his wrists in support of his Oromo tribe in Africa. If the 26-year-old runner returns to Ethiopia he faces potential detention or execution. According to Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, at least 400 members of his tribe have been killed by authorities for speaking out against their government. I bring this up, not to belittle the actions of American athletes, but to provide a global context.

Act Four

I want to make it clear that this revolt of the black athlete is not limited to men. In many ways black women have been at the forefront of social change and activism more consistently (especially in recent years) than their male counterparts; often finding themselves fighting racism and sexism. These women who make less than the male athletes have much more to lose fiscally. The WNBA fined the Indiana Fever, New York Liberty and Phoenix Mercury and their players $5,000 ($500 per player) for wearing black warm up shirts in the wake of recent shootings by and against police officers. WNBA All-Star Tamika Catchings questioned the league for having players wear T-shirts to support the victims of the Orlando mass shooting in June, but castigating the players who wanted to speak out on this particular issue. After members of the reigning WNBA champion Minnesota Lynx wore similar shirts off-duty police officers walked out of the arena in protest. At the end of the day, these women are risking money and alienating fans and law enforcement. Carmelo Anthony, one of the highest paid players in the NBA, has enough multi-million dollar endorsement deals to keep him afloat if he were fined by the NBA. The majority of these women, earning less than a million dollars a year, do not have such a luxury. Whether you favor or disapprove of their social cause it is hard to ignore their sacrifice.

Dave Zirin says there are two different types of political athletes: the ones that make “explicit” protests and the ones who become symbols for racial uplift simply by becoming the first to do something. The WNBA players were engaging in the first form of political activism. Althea Gibson and similar women fit into the second category. Althea Gibson was the first black woman to win the professional tennis Grand Slam paving the way for the Williams sisters. In 1956 and 1957, Gibson won the French Open, the U.S. Open, and Wimbledon earning the number one ranking in the world. Gibson would also go onto integrate women’s professional golf in 1964. Toni “Tomboy” Stone broke a glass ceiling for all women by becoming the first woman to play in all-male professional sports league. She signed with Indianapolis Clowns of the Negro Leagues in 1953. The Clowns believed that she could help draw fans following the departure of their star Hank Aaron to Major League Baseball. Seven years after Stone’s milestone, Tennessee State University’s sprinter better known as Wilma Rudolph became the first black woman to win three Olympic gold medals in track and field. The Olympics have been a place for historic firsts by black women. Ibtihaj Muhammad, a native of New Jersey, became the first Muslim American woman to compete in the Olympics while wearing a hijab. Muhammad, whose presence challenges misconceptions about Islam, won a 2016 bronze medal for U.S. in fencing.

Gabby Douglas accomplished what seemed improbable when she won the gold medal in the gymnastics all-around competition and a team gold medal at the 2012 Summer Olympics. With the exception of Dominique Dawes, a member of the 1996 gold medal team, a black woman gymnast was an anomaly at the Olympics. When she was 14-years-old, Douglass and her family moved from Virginia Beach to Iowa for her to pursue her career. Douglass experienced both isolation and racist taunts as the only black gymnast while growing up. Even as she was making history people were ridiculing her on social media for inconsequential things like her hair (specifically unkempt edges). Unfortunately, nothing has changed in the last four years. A tearful Douglas said that the 2016 Olympics in Rio, Brazil, was an unpleasant experience. In addition to an overall poor performance she was mocked again for her hair and called unpatriotic for not placing her hand on her heart during the playing of the National Anthem after her team won gold. Kevin Van Valkenburg argues that Gabby was treated worse than the “privileged” white swimmer Ryan Lochte, who shamed America and Brazil with his fantastic lies. It is always harder to be the first person to break a barrier (just ask Jack Johnson and Willie O’Ree). Gabby Douglas opened the door for the diminutive Simone Biles to become the world’s greatest gymnast at this summer’s Olympics. Although Biles was the toast of the town in Rio, she too has experienced racism. After she won the all-around title at the 2013 World Championships, Italian gymnast Carlotta Ferlito quipped that the girls should perform in blackface the next time so that they can win.

Biles was the first but not the only Simone to make history in Rio. Stanford University student-athlete Simone Manuel became the first black woman to win a gold medal in swimming. In fact, she won a total of two golds and two silvers. Her achievement was especially monumental considering the history of blacks and swimming. Jeff Wiltse’s 2010 book Contest Waters, gives a history of segregation at the nation’s pools. Blacks were banned from public pools as well as beaches. The Chicago Race Riot of 1919 resulted from the stoning death of a black boy who swam in a segregated beach. Between 1959 and 1963, blacks in Biloxi, Mississippi staged “wade-ins” to protest Jim Crow at the city’s beaches. And then there was the time when a hotel owner in St. Augustine, Florida, poured acid in his pool to keep blacks swimmers out. I live thirty minutes from Ocean City, a beach town on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. For decades blacks were allowed on the boardwalk, but not in the water depending on the day. Simone Manuel does not want to be marginalized as a “black” swimmer, but she did not shy away from acknowledging the historical significance of her accomplishments. “It means a lot, especially with what is going on in the world today,” said Manuel.

Serena Williams is a combination of both types of political athletes. The mere presence of this black woman, coming straight outta Compton, at predominantly elite white tennis courts is as bold as her crip walking at the 2012 Summer Olympics or “twerking” in Beyonce’s Lemonade visual album. Since 1999, Serena Williams has dominated women’s professional tennis with thirty-four Grand Slam titles, four Olympic Gold medals, and ranked number one in the world six times since 2002. She won thirty-three straight matches prior to getting upset in the semifinals of the 2015 U.S. Open. Serena is the epitome of a modern day Muhammad Ali. Check her stats if you doubt me. She was the 2015 guest editor of WIRED magazine’s special issue on race and gender equality. She refused to play at a mandatory tournament in Indian Wells, California from 2001 until 2014 due to racial taunts from spectators targeting her and her family. In her autobiography, Serena stated that a million dollar fine would be worth standing up to racism. She used her return to the tournament in 2014 to promote her new partnership with the Equal Justice Initiative (a nonprofit organized dedicated to fighting the mass incarceration of minorities). Serena pulled out of a tournament in South Carolina in 2000 to protest the Confederate flag being flown on the state capitol building. Following a victory at Wimbledon in the summer of 2015 she publicly expressed her disgust over the racially motivated murders of nine innocent blacks at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina. Both Serena and her older sister Venus have been strong advocates for Title IX and female tennis players receiving equal pay as the men. The sisters visited Nigeria, South Africa and other African nations to encourage young women not only to play tennis, but also to challenge barriers based on gender and race. Most of all, Serena has “slayed” all the body shamers who mock her voluptuous physique and natural hairstyles.


Certainly, it is great to see black athletes who are willing to speak up on issues, give back, break barriers, and take leadership roles that benefit others. I would rather see them be vocal than quiet if something is wrong, but it is both unfair pigeonholing and unrealistic to expect the majority of black athletes to be socially conscious. Especially since the African American community is not homogenous. All blacks, regardless of social status, are not motivated to be activists. Wealth and fame provides a public stage, but it does not make an individual qualified to lead. Rather than berate or shame black athletes who do not address the issues that benefit all African-Americans and other minorities, generous encouragement is in order to embolden the athletes who have chosen to serve as change agents. We must also remember that some black athletes will speak out in ways that go against popular opinion. When newly retired Los Angeles Lakers superstar, Kobe Bryant, refused to condemn George Zimmerman before hearing all of the facts in his 2013 criminal case for the death of Trayvon Martin, Jim Brown told blacks to boycott Kobe endorsed products and accused him of being out of touch with the African-American experience. While I respect Brown’s activism he was completely out of line in his tirade. While I disagree with many of Charles Barkley’s views on race and politics, I would not question his blackness or tell my students not to watch his upcoming 2017 TNT talk show on race relations titled The Race Card.

At the end of day, black success on the playing field is a step, but there is no one solution to ending racism and the other social ills that black athletes have addressed. Black athletes can make a difference by working within their communities, giving back, and using their voice when necessary. It is also important to remember that the black athlete should not have to shoulder the entire load. Seattle Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman said in an interview with Dominique Foxworth for The Undefeated that white athletes should be exempt from helping to find solutions to issues within the black community. I strongly disagree with Mr. Sherman. White men and women have always played pivotal roles in blacks’ struggle for equality dating back to the Abolition Movement in the 17th century. Historian Patricia Sullivan has written extensively on the significance of interracial coalitions during the New Deal (1930s) and in the early years of the NAACP. Stanley Nelson’s historical documentaries Freedom Riders (2010) and Freedom Summer (2014) include interviews with several whites who traveled down South to risk their lives for their black brothers and sisters. In terms of sports there was Peter Norman. Norman, the Australian 200 meter silver medalists pictured in the famous 1968 Olympics photo with African-American sprinters John Carlos and Tommie Smith with their fists raised to the sky, did not use his race, privilege, or potential repercussions as an excuse. Carlos and Smith were each supposed to wear black gloves for their now classic black power salute, but Carlos had forgotten to bring his to the track. Norman advised Smith and Carlos to wear black gloves on alternate hands after he learned of their planned demonstration. During the demonstration, Norman wore a small badge on his left breast in support of Carlos and Smith’s cause. Norman became an outcast in both Track and Field and Australia for his gesture which led to his not being selected to represent his country at the 1972 Olympics in Munich. When Australia hosted the 2000 Olympics he was not invited. Carlos and Smith who are now celebrated by Americans, returned the favor by delivering the eulogy at his funeral in 2016. During their remarks they announced that the U.S. Track and Field Association had declared the day of his death “Peter Norman Day”.

In closing sports has provided one of the few spaces for blacks and whites to come together on equal terms since the Second World War. Integrated athletic competitions have created opportunities for both intellectual dialogue and peaceful protests on racial equality empowering black men and women to improve their lives and the lives others.

I personally cannot wait to see what is next in this revolt of the black athlete!

Excerpts from this article were originally appeared in the Spring 2016 Spectrum: A Journal on Black Men by Indiana University Press. Article: Be Like Mike?: The Black Athlete’s Dilemma by Joshua K. Wright, PhD.

Categorized as Sports

By Joshua K. Wright, Ph.D

Joshua K. Wright, Ph.D. is an associate professor of History and coordinator for the Social Studies Teacher Education Program at the University of Maryland Eastern Shore.