Sports, like every element of society, have always been political. In particular, sports in America have been inseparable from race relations and the push for equality, first acting as preludes for the Jim Crow era and then the Civil Rights Movement. As sports once again have become the battleground for racial justice, it is crucial to remind ourselves of the Jackie Robinson era and the limitations of the Black athlete when constrained by white power structures.
The History of segregation in sports
It is well-known that Black people were largely banned from sports until the late 1940s, but the extent of this ban is rarely discussed. In the early days of professional sports, the bans were unofficial, resting on the idea that Black athletes would understand these leagues were not for them. Whenever Black athletes showed promise, demonstrating they possessed skills beyond those of white people, they were barred from these activities. In the early years of horse racing, Black jockeys dominated, but they were slowly weaned out of the sport, with the final Black jockey appearing in a race in 1920. Likewise, Black football players demonstrated great skill in the early days, but only a handful managed to play in the American Professional Football Association, and all were dismissed from the league by 1934. The story of baseball’s segregation is much the same, as is that of basketball and most other sports.
In the late 1800s and early 1900s, as the dust from the Civil War slowly settled, white Americans, realizing that Black people were not content with no longer being in physical chains, set out to clamp them with invisible ones, and all too frequently individual Black people were charged with the burden of this oppression. In 1910, Black boxing champion Jack Johnson defeated white boxer James Jeffries, who wanted to face Johnson to demonstrate the superiority of the white race. sparking riots across the country and leading to the eventual sentencing of Johnson for illegally carrying a white woman—his wife—across state lines, violating the Mann Act. Ministers in the South called for Johnson’s lynching, and a number of states who did not already have miscegenation bans introduced legislation to adopt them. Black people across America suffered because Johnson beat a white man.
In 1936, Jesse Owens won four Olympic gold medals, becoming a symbol of America’s strength over Nazi Germany. But Jesse Owens, the Black man in America, benefitted from none of this success and descended into poverty. Nobody followed through on their promise to offer him a job, and he was forced to race against horses prior to Negro Leagues games as a marketing ploy. When white people remembered his existence it was only to discuss him as one of the “good” Black people, who, though frequently endorsing politicians, refused to freely discuss the politics of race. Owens was useful to them when they could use him to criticize other Black people and invisible to them when they could not. As race relations became more dire in the 1940s and there emerged plenty of white people who represented American strength in the face of fascism, Owens sank farther into the background.
White Americans have been accepting of Black people into the realm of sports until they feel threatened by the notion of equality. Banning Black people from sports was meant to directly reinforce systemic white supremacy, and making Black athletes like Jack Johnson the cause of Black suffering was aimed toward limiting the participation of Black people in these sports in the future. But as white athletes faced the calls of war, Black athletes began to sniff around professional white leagues.
Several sports integrated in the mid 1940s, as the country was recovering from World War II and these sports required players. As a whole, Black players gained numerous rights during the war, having been admitted into the American Labor Federation, and having created the NAACP and the Congress of Racial Equality. At the time, the pinnacle of integration occurred in baseball, and much of the Black community sought solace and strength in these Black ballplayers’ achievements.
The National Football League opened up integration in 1946, when the now-Los Angeles Rams signed UCLA players Kenny Washington and Woody Strode. The NBA followed suit four years later when the Boston Celtics drafted Chuck Cooper in the second round. Also in 1950, Althea Gibson became the first Black tennis player to compete in the U.S. Championships. While each of these integrations was momentous in its own right and meant much to the Black community, the sports and leagues were all new compared to professional baseball. Integration was largely waved off as a promotional tool, and so the contributions of each of these athletes to society was limited.
The more overwhelming change occurred with baseball’s integration a year later, when Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier, a moment that is commonly understood as a spark that lit the Civil Rights Movement. Now trying to assume title as the leader of the free world, in opposition to the USSR, America struggled internally with racial divisions that threatened to subvert this position, and baseball, which had become intertwined with every aspect of American identity and had long been heralded as a bastion of democratic thought, housed this fight. Black people, eager to capitalize on the success of the Negro Leagues and the freedom acquired by them during the war, viewed baseball’s integration as a means of establishing themselves as legitimate members of American democracy.
White liberals fighting for racial justice latched onto baseball as a vehicle through which they could obtain equality. An editorial published in the Sporting News declared that “baseball in the south, no less than the north — should recognize no limitations of race, creed or color,” and many noted that the introduction of Black players increased the overall level of the game.
Robinson also quickly became a rallying point for Black Americans and particularly other Black athletes. Unlike white writers who either railed against it or largely ignored it, Black sportswriters wrote continuously of Robinson’s success, using baseball’s integration to argue for total integration in all areas of society. Future baseball players and other athletes looked to Robinson as an example of the dignity and power of Black people.
Unsurprisingly, though, Jackie Robinson and his Black contemporaries faced swift, violent backlash. Robinson’s teammate, Dixie Walker, was an early opponent of Robinson’s, requesting to be traded rather than play with a Black man. Phillies manager, Ben Chapman, repeatedly referred to Robinson as “gorilla-like,” and both the Pirates and Cardinals considered striking rather than being forced to play against the Dodgers. Other teams instructed their players to throw at his head or spike him on the bases. Early in his career, white players made known their displeasure at his existence.
Nonetheless, Robinson succeeded, capturing Sporting News’s Rookie of the Year award and opening the door for the slow integration of other black players. The following year, President Truman integrated the military, and Robinson cemented himself as a true star of the game. America was beginning to integrate in many areas, and Robinson’s name would be at the forefront for decades to come.
It took twelve years for baseball to fully integrate, by which point Jackie Robinson had retired. Though he remained a figurehead of the Civil Rights Movement, appearing alongside Martin Luther King Jr. on occasion, the sporting world plodded along without him, mired by the same racism he had spent his career fighting. States began reasserting discrimination through legal means, and though Black athletes continued to bolster the Civil Rights Movement, they received few allies and were ultimately unable to achieve full equality.
As they had with Robinson and Owens, white people begrudgingly accepted a small number of black athletes in sports, so long as they remained model athletes who rarely discussed racism. Many white people viewed the signing of Jackie Robinson as the end of racism in sports and became enraged by Black athletes re-politicizing sports and continuing to advocate for further changes. These athletes also had to depend on white owners, coaches, and benefactors, many of whom were also unwilling to put up with political athletes, and so activism among athletes dwindled.
Jim Brown, one of the greatest running backs of all-time, constantly had his talents diminished because of his dedication to the Civil Rights Movement. Tommy Smith and John Carlos were suspended from the US Olympic team in 1968 after doing Black Power salutes on the podium. Dick Allen was traded from the Phillies to the Cardinals in 1970 because of his divisive politics. This trend of curbing Black athletes’ participation in the Civil Rights Movement continued for decades and remains a component of professional sports to this day.
As the Civil Rights Movement waned in the 1970s, the white-run sports leagues made a concerted effort to “depoliticize” their sports, and Black athletes rarely found allies in their white teammates. As a result, while athletes in individual sports, like Muhammed Ali, more freely spoke about politics, team sport athletes were largely curbed from doing so. In the ‘70s and ‘80s, MLB and the NFL turned into thriving businesses whose owners not only skewed conservative, but were wary of doing anything to lose money. Politically-minded athletes thus risked not only their careers (which were already relatively short) but the owners’ franchises if they took a political stand. As a result, Black athletes no longer rallied around their peers in different sports, because they were far too concerned with maintaining a position in their own league.
The NBA, meanwhile, recruited more Black players during these decades, many of whom followed in Bill Russell’s footsteps as a civil rights activist. Protected by the sheer number of Black players as well as the existence of teams in more liberal areas of the country, NBA players more freely voiced their political opinions than did athletes of other sports. Though Bill Russell, like Jackie Robinson, was the figurehead of the NBA’s civil rights discourse, he was not alone, as all the game’s Black stars—of which there were many—joined him. Because the NBA’s success depended on these early giants, it could not and was unwilling to curb the political actions of its players. The legacy of these early activists carried on through the decades, and though stars like Michael Jordan and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar were not as vocal, the league itself remained the most liberal of the major sports.
However, in America as a whole, many willfully ignorant white people mistakenly believed the passing of the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act, and the Fair Housing Act in the 1960s moved the country into a post-racial society. But in the ensuing decades, the war on Black people merely assumed less overt appearances, moving from outright segregation to economic and social fronts, such as the war on drugs. With racism now hidden from white people who did not want to find it, sports became again a form of strict entertainment, a refuge from politics.
The Civil Rights Movement largely began due to integration movements in sports, and when the Movement petered out, so did much of the civil rights discourse among athletes. Though Black athletes made great strides, first in integration and then in slowly raising their salaries, they continue to find themselves at a disadvantage. They have much to gain from political activism, but the white-run leagues and organizations believe they have nothing to gain and everything to lose in allowing their athletes to discuss politics.
The contemporary civil rights movement
In September of last year, Colin Kaepernick refused to stand for the National Anthem, using this display as a means of protesting the continued oppression of people of color. People across sports spoke out against this action, charging Kaepernick with showing disrespect to the country, the flag, and the military. His actions undoubtedly cost him a job for this current NFL season, and launched the sporting world into a political fervor not seen since the integration movements of the 1940s. On Saturday, a day after blasting the NFL and Kaepernick at a rally in Alabama, President Trump again stoked the flames, tweeting: “If a player wants the privilege of making millions of dollars in the NFL,or other leagues, he or she should not be allowed to disrespect our Great American Flag (or Country) and should stand for the National Anthem. If not, YOU'RE FIRED. Find something else to do!” Throughout the day, athletes from various sports responded to Donald Trump, making clear the connection between sports and politics, and placing sports at the forefront of another civil rights movement.
NBA players and coaches over the past year and a half have not been shy about criticizing Donald Trump’s sexist, racist rhetoric. Following the election, coaches Stan Van Gundy, Steve Kerr, and Greg Popovich, among many others, voiced their displeasure in Trump’s victory, and players and coaches alike have continued to do so for the duration of the administration. Kaepernick received support from a number of players following his protest, including Martellus Bennett and Brandon Marshall. And this past weekend, MLB joined in when Oakland A’s rookie catcher Bruce Maxwell knelt for the National Anthem and the organization itself tweeted support of this action.
Not since the time of Jackie Robinson have athletes from a wide array of sports rallied around one figure’s civil rights activism, but as evidenced from the ‘70s and ‘80s, it takes more than a diverse array of Black athletes to achieve sustained and impactful success in civil rights matters. These athletes need white allies. And so far, several have stepped to the plate. In the NFL, Chris Long, Justin Britt, Derek Carr, and Seth DeValve have all expressed support, and US Women’s Soccer star Megan Rapinoe knelt in solidarity last September.
In this day, athletes are able to communicate directly to fans, making their messages more effective and immediate, and many athletes across many prominent sports are using social media to convey political messages. Both LeBron James and Steph Curry frequently tweet their displeasure with the current administration and their support of civil rights organizations, while Chris Long and Martellus Bennett do the same, bridging the divide between the two sports. And Major League Baseball also has its representatives, namely Washington Nationals’ pitcher Sean Doolittle, who today tweeted in response to Trump’s attack on the NFL and Kaepernick that “i don't think anyone can tell athletes to ‘stick to sports’ for a while.”
Indeed, this administration is making it more apparent than ever that all sports are political, and athletes have increasingly begun to use their platforms to voice support for civil rights. It is now up to fans to follow in these athletes’ footsteps and pressure more white athletes and more organizations to do the same. It is imperative to provide Black athletes with white allies and to force white-run organizations to view these players as human beings worthy of protection. Without a faithful watchdog, Black Americans will continue to have their rights violated and society will continue to regress to a point where Black people were seen by all as secondary.
For over a century Black athletes have existed in accordance with the whims of white owners and fans, but the actions of Kaepernick and his supporters are poised to give back Black people’s autonomy, and for those who have exploited them for decades, it is a moral imperative to ensure this movement is far more successful than the last. Unlike with the shortcomings of the 1960s Civil Rights Movement, today there are no excuses. These athletes have been shouting their concerns and it is up to us to listen and to act. There is no more denying that sports are political, and if the kneeling of a group of players during the anthem disturbs you not on behalf of them but on behalf of a cheap piece of foreign fabric, you do not get to call yourself a fan of theirs. You do not get to exploit them for your own delight without sharing in their hardships. You do not get to exert a moral or intellectual superiority over those whose oppression you have aided.
 Carrie Teresa, "‘We Needed a Booker T. Washington … and Certainly a Jack Johnson’: The Black Press, Johnson, and Issues of Representation, 1909–1915," American Journalism 32, no. 1 ( 2015): 23-40.
 Jacqueline Edmondson, Jesse Owens: A Biography, (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2007).
 Patrick J. Harrigan, "Baseball in Postwar American Society," in The Detroit Tigers: Club and Community, 1945-1995, (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1997), 9-39.
 Chris Lamb and Glen L. Blesky, “Democracy on the Field: The Black Press Take on White Baseball,” in From Jack Johnson to LeBron James: Sports, Media, and the Color Line (Omaha: University of Nebraska Press, 2016), 148-169.
 Harrigan, 26.
 Aram Goudsouzian, "Bill Russell and the Basketball Revolution." American Studies 47, no. 3/4 (2006): 61-85.
Mary Craig is a baseball history enthusiast who writes about the sport’s relation to America’s political history. You can follow her on Twitter at @marymcraig.