Recent examples show that today many sports stars see an important link between their profile and raising issues of racial justice. These stars sit on the shoulders of giants when it comes to the world of sports, race and resistance.
American sports in the 19th and early 20th centuries mirrored the rest of American life. Racial segregation and discrimination was the norm. Until Jackie Robinson came along. Robinson grew up in Georgia and then California before joining the US Army to fight in World War Two. He battled discrimination all the way through his life, being arrested as an active soldier for refusing to go to the back of an unsegregated bus but was determined to make it as a baseball player despite no Black player ever playing in Major League Baseball (MLB).
He is credited with initiating the movement against segregation after World War Two when he broke the ‘baseball color line’ by becoming the first black player to play in the MLB in 1947 having signed for the Brooklyn Dodgers. He was selected by Branch Rickey, the club President in the belief that Robinson would be able to sustain the level of discrimination and abuse “with guts enough not to fight back.” In his first season, despite abuse from fans, players intentionally looking to injure him and would be segregated from his teammates in restaurants in places where he was refused service, he resisted by remaining silent and speaking with his sporting performances.
A year later, he used his power as one of the top baseball players in America to raise his voice against racism. Despite the anger that provoked, he continued to regularly speak out against racism, including organising the Youth March for Integrated Schools with Martin Luther King Jr. in 1958 and was also inducted into the Hall of Fame. This cemented his legacy as a top baseball player and also as a trailblazer for Black athletes to follow in his footstep.
Muhammed Ali was another athlete who had to endure a lifetime of discrimination but remained resolute in the need to intersect his sporting achievements with speaking out and campaigning for racial and social justice causes. Having shocked the world by defeating Sonny Liston to win the World Heavyweight championship fight in 1964, he renounced his ‘slave name’ of Cassius Clay and joined the Nation of Islam. However, he was stripped of his title and boxing license for refusing enlistment to the Army for the Vietnam War. He spent three years working through the appeals process and used his time to speak on college campuses and elsewhere on racial justice and against the Vietnam War. He used his platform as part of the Nation of Islam to promote African-American pride as shown by his infamous quote,
“I AM AMERICA. I AM THE PART YOU WON’T RECOGNIZE. BUT GET USED TO ME ...BLACK, CONFIDENT, COCKY... MY NAME, NOT YOURS... MY RELIGION, NOT YOURS... MY GOALS, MY OWN. GET USED TO ME.”
One of the most prominent photos of the campaign for racial justice in the 1960s is the medal ceremony of the men’s 200-metre final at the 1968 Mexico City Olympic Games. After Tommie Smith and John Carlos won gold and bronze respectively, they both raised black-gloved fists and wore black socks for the medal ceremony and were joined by Australian silver medallist Peter Norman in wearing human rights badges. Both Black American activists were ostracised by the US sporting community and from the International Olympic Committee who deemed it to be a ‘political statement,’ juxtaposed to their lack of opposition to the Hitler salutes and Nazi flags at the 1936 Berlin Games.