Spend 10 minutes listening to any avid fan or sports pundit talk about issues of inequality in sports and you will hear how there is no other place in society that is more about merit and what you can do on the field, court, rink, etc. Spend 5 minutes listening to many of those same people talk about Colin Kaepernick, Serena & Venus Williams, or Allen Iverson and you will quickly understand that they are all full of shit! While it is seldom identified as such, the discourse of whiteness that pervades college and professional sports in the United States is one that serves to maintain the inequitable power dynamics that have existed since these games went from neighborhood fun to multi-billion dollar industries. And just as whiteness as a racial identity or system of privilege and oppression takes power from its invisibility and illusiveness (Painter, 2011), the whiteness that is central to athletics thrives on the same discursive tactics and neoliberal ideology that are problematized by many Critical Race scholars (Bonilla-Silva, 2010).
I recently had the silly idea to call in to a local sports radio show to speak with the host on the question that he posed to listeners, “Does racism still exist in sports today?” The occasion was the 75th anniversary of Jackie Robinson’s first game in the MLB (Major League Baseball) and the host was adamant in his belief that while racism was still present in society at large, the world of sports was absolutely post-racial and free of any traces of racism or racial inequity. My second mistake (the first being making the call to begin with!) was when I tried to explain systemic racism to him, an argument that he was just not interested in. After a few minutes of hopeless discussion he kindly hung-up on me and then proceeded to ridicule my comments for another minute or two before moving on to the next caller. I continued to listen to the program and was amazed at the various discursive techniques, what McIntyre (1997) refers to as “white talk,” that the host and other callers used to convince themselves that racism no longer exists in sports today. Needless to say, I took out my notebook and what follows are two of the many arguments made consistently on this program, and by many fans and pundits in general, that demonstrate how people of all races uphold white supremacy in the world of sports.
Focus Primarily on Access and Ignore Equity
When one’s frame of reference for an argument dates back to a time when individuals were excluded, enslaved, or dehumanized because of their racial identity, it becomes much easier to make the case that things really aren’t so bad in the present day. Oftentimes when people argue for the post-racial nature of sports they do so by comparing the current situation to a time when athletes of Color were not allowed to compete on the same teams or in the same leagues as white athletes. The argument is usually accompanied by some emphasis on the amount of money that athletes make in todays games and how they should consider themselves fortunate to be playing at all.
On the surface this perspective may seem to have some merit, sure athletes tend to make an exorbitant amount of money and often live what fans perceive to be a lavish and carefree lifestyle. In reality though, the truth is much further from what such an argument would make it seem. While a select number of athletes are fortunate enough to make large salaries and play for an extended period of time, the vast majority play for much smaller salaries and are often treated as dispensable puzzle pieces to be traded or discarded at the leisure of the white ownership. When one looks at data on average player salaries, it appears that NFL players make an average annual salary of $2.1 million and NBA players make $6.2 million. However, these figures are not truly representative as outliers like Quarterback Drew Brees ($31.25 million) and Lebron James ($31 million) skew the average figures. Not to mention the fact that many of these contracts are never paid out in full as teams include options to cut players before the full-length of their contract is played out.
More than that though is the fact that mere access to a game should not be considered a success or an accomplishment. For one, the focus tends to be on the select few sports like basketball and football where athletes of Color equal or outnumber white athletes, ignoring the vast majority of sports that are still largely closed off to people of Color due to cost, accessibility, or culture. Moreover, just because we no longer have *formally* segregated sports leagues does not mean that the experiences of the athletes is truly equal. One example of this inequity can be seen in the regulation of Blackness epitomized by regimented dress codes and most recently a ban on what the NFL calls “excessive celebrations.” In the same league where the hyper-sexualization and exploitation of cheerleaders is seen as “just part of the game,” NFL players can be fined tens of thousands of dollars for a “sexually suggestive celebration.” Some may not see these examples as racist, but they certainly have a disparate impact on athletes of color (Alexander, 2012).
Whitewash Historical Athletes of Color to Discredit Current Athletes of Color
Whether in sports or in society more broadly, one of the favorite strategies that individuals use to discredit the actions and beliefs of those who challenge systemic oppression is to compare them to sanitized examples of past actors. Perhaps the most well known example of this tactic is the way that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. has been transformed into a symbol of peaceful resistance and passivity in order to condemn present day activists who fight to challenge white supremacy and racial oppression.
In a similar manner numerous athletes of Color from throughout history are used today to discount and discredit those athletes who display any level of social or political consciousness. It should also be noted that this criticism is not aimed equally at all athletes. For example, Tom Brady’s decision to support Donald Trump as a presidential candidate by placing a “make America great again” hat is his locker has gone largely unnoticed where Colin Kaepernick’s protest against racial oppression and police inequality have left him virtually ostracized from the NFL.
The two individuals who’s revolutionary messages and spirits have been most whitewashed by today’s post-racial society are Muhammad Ali and the afore-mentioned Jackie Robinson (others include Arthur Ashe, Jim Brown, and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar). As one of if not the best boxer in the history of the world, Muhammad Ali used his platform to advocate against racial oppression, to challenge U.S. military efforts in Vietnam, and to call attention to U.S. imperialism throughout the world. Whether it was in going to jail to protest the Vietnam War, or through his alliances with prominent Black Power figures like Malcolm X and Angela Davis, Ali was as ferocious in his fight against oppression as he was in his fights in the ring. Yet, today he is remembered as a heartwarming unifier who’s life and voice were tragically taken away from him by Parkinson’s disease. Prior to and following his death in 2016, many expressed the sentiment that the (white) population in the U.S. never showed reverence for Muhammad Ali until he was no longer able to challenge the pervasive white supremacy that he so despised.
As the first African American baseball player to play in the major leagues, Jackie Robinson is remembered and revered for his strength and courage in breaking the “color barrier” in major league baseball. While his accomplishments on the field were certainly memorable and extraordinary, it was his work in advancing the Civil Rights Movement that made Jackie Robinson a hero. Yet, by remembering him as a baseball player and not as an activist and advocate for racial equity and against white supremacy, we as a society are able to whitewash his legacy to fit our historical narrative and maintain the status quo. Just as Muhammad Ali is remembered for his athletic accomplishments and peaceful disposition, Jackie Robinson is immortalized for his actions on the field and not his challenges to racial oppression.
Where this becomes even more problematic is when these false narratives about athletes like Ali and Robinson are used to discredit the actions of contemporary Black and Brown athletes like Colin Kaepernick, Lebron James, or Richard Sherman. Most recently the criticism, and subsequent de facto ostracization from the NFL, of Colin Kaepernick for his decision to kneel during the playing of the national anthem, has been validated by comparing his improper forms of protest to the “peaceful resistance” of athletes like Ali and Robinson. While this is just one example of how the white-washing of politically and socially active former athletes of Color has been used to criticize current athletes for their challenges to racial oppression, many others can be found through a simple google search or in my case, a conversation with an unpleasant sports radio host!
While the length of this post does not allow for the full exploration of the wide variety of strategies utilized to uphold white supremacy in U.S. sports, the following constitutes an additional list of examples and methods used to this end.
- Always compare today’s situation to long ago to focus on how far we’ve already come.
- Focus on a Black-white binary to ignore and negate the experiences of other racial and ethnic groups.
- Always speak from a white/personal point of view.
- Insist that athletics is the ultimate meritocracy.
- Situate racism as an issue isolated to a few extreme individuals or regions of the country.
- Alexander, M. (2012). The new Jim Crow: Mass incarceration in the age of colorblindness. The New Press.
- Bonilla-Silva, E. (2010). Racism without racists: Color-blind racism and the persistence of racial inequality in the United States. Rowman & Littlefield.
- McIntyre, A. (1997). Making meaning of whiteness: Exploring racial identity with white teachers. Suny Press.
- Painter, N. I. (2010). The history of white people. WW Norton & Company.