In recent months we, the staff at Fitness Information Technology, have had the privilege of publishing (or are preparing to publish) some fine books that have examined the history, culture, and defining roles of African-Americans in sport. These books, together with yesterday’s celebration of what would have been Martin Luther King, Jr.’s 82nd birthday, has helped our office gain considerable introspect to the dynamics of the sporting arena, and how it has shaped the lives of not only the African-American community, but the national and global community of sport as a whole. We have found that while much focus has been brought to the triumphs of African-Americans in sport, there exists a parallel side—a bleaker side—that shows we still have much to change. Yet we still have much to be thankful for.
The realm of sport in America is a complicated one. Throughout America’s history, the role of the black athlete has been severely limited; many athletes suffered mightily through poor wages, hostile crowds, and even saboteurs and cheating. In the upcoming Sport, Race, and Ethnicity, edited by Daryl Adair, author and scholar Andrew Ritchie brings new focus to Major Taylor, an African-American cyclist who resorted to racing in white Australia to escape the horrors of racing at home. At the time, white Australia was very intolerant towards Aborigines and blacks, yet they observed the champion cyclist with a sort of wondrous enthusiasm as explained by Taylor when he first arrived:
I could not restrain my tears as I looked over the side of the liner and saw hundreds of boats . . . decked out with American flags with their whistles tooting and men and women aboard them with megaphones greeting me with this salutation, ‘Taylor, Taylor! Welcome Major Taylor!’
In another chapter by Randy Roberts, the iconic, prize-fighting white brawler, John L. Sullivan, is showcased against another icon of American masculinity—the legendary black fighter Jack Johnson. Roberts writes how Sullivan declined to fight black boxers in 1892—although there were several great contenders within the ranks–and,
In one stroke, Sullivan banned black boxers from the empire of American masculinity. He set a precedent—Jim Crowing the most important athletic title at a time when ‘separate but equal’ was becoming the law of the land.
But we need not look too far back to realize that African-Americans in modern sport are still facing troublesome times, even though great changes have been made in terms of equality. Richard Lapchick, director of the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport and author of 100 Pioneers: African Americans Who Broke Color Barriers in Sport, shared some of his thoughts:
In the 1970s, African-American student-athletes were graduating at rates hovering around 25 percent and were not employed in any significant way in college athletic departments, professional franchises, or league offices. It was easy to conclude that African-American athletes were being used and exploited at that period of time. Students would come to our colleges and universities dreaming that they would become a pro or at least have a college degree and go home to their communities with neither and seem to be double losers.
After many years of pressure and studies, the disparity between blacks and whites in the hiring practices has certainly changed. Now all of the major professional sports leagues that we cover in the Racial and Gender Report Cards receive A’s in their racial hiring practices and B’s for gender hiring practices.
The sad exception is college sport, where issues of unfair hiring practices or lack of opportunity for African-Americans are still too evident. Women still coach less than half of the women’s teams in college sport. In terms of the graduation rates, the rates of African-Americans have increased dramatically. The greatest remaining problem in that area is that the disparity between the graduation rates for African-Americans and whites is still too significant. More pressure is needed, as exerted by organizations like the Black Coaches and Administrators.
Braham Dabscheck, industrial relations scholar, sporting aficionado, and author of the upcoming Reading Baseball: Books, Biographies, and the Business of the Game, explores, within parts of his book, complicated labor intricacies and how they have been applied to racial divides. Dabscheck wrote about the different worlds Babe Ruth and Satchel Paige—“The Darling of Whiteball and the Epicentre of Blackball”—lived and competed in. He compared the men as being at the top of their game—in hitting and pitching, respectively—and they both had rambunctious nocturnal lives, yet, “The real difference between Paige and Ruth, of course, is that they lived in two different United States of Americas . . . during his prime, Paige was denied the chance to display his talents in the ‘big-time’ because of the color of his skin.”
But Dabscheck was among those who celebrated the inroads that Martin Luther King created within the spectacle and culture of sport, writing to us:
[Dr. King] had a dream that his children would ‘live up in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.’
Sport is one such arena where African-American athletes have demonstrated again and again that they are equal to any of the ‘great stars’ who have dazzled us with their skills and daring. Sport, in its celebration of excellence, is intolerant of arrangements or ‘gentlemen’s agreements’ which discriminate on the basis of race, color, or creed.
In terms of the long march of African-Americans towards equality, Jackie Robinson—who broke the color barrier in ‘The National Pastime’ when he turned out for his first game with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947—has assumed an important role as an exemplar of Martin Luther King’s dream. He was just one of many such athletes, in baseball and other sports, who have demonstrated the equality of opportunity, not so-called racial or other characteristics, is the key to success and performance.
Here, at FiT, we are proud to help promote the academic and cultural backgrounds of sport—the raw beginnings of social change, the overtures of hope, the spirit of pure competition, and the endurance of the spirit. We thank our authors, readers, and colleagues for their assistance in improving our world to one in which we can be proud of, and we thank Dr. King for providing a great foundation of ideals in which we can follow and invoke.
Man is man because he is free to operate within the framework of his destiny. He is free to deliberate, to make decisions, and to choose between alternatives. He is distinguished from animals by his freedom to do evil or to do good and to walk the high road of beauty or tread the low road of ugly degeneracy. – From the speech, “The Measures of Man,” 1959. (In memoriam, the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., 2011)
Daryl Adair is an associate professor of sport management at the University of Technology in Sydney, Australia. He is the editor of an upcoming collection of essays, titled Sport, Race, and Ethnicity: Narratives of Difference and Diversity, to be published by Fitness Information Technology this summer, 2011.
Richard Lapchick is a pioneer in social change and racial equality in sport. He is chair of the DeVos Sport Business Management Program at the University of Central Florida. He is also the director for both the Institute for Diversity and Ethics and Sport and the National Consortium for Academics and Sports. He has written extensively on race, gender, diversity, and hope in sport, including the titles 100 Pioneers: African Americans Who Broke the Color Barrier, 100 Campeones: Latino Groundbreakers Who Paved the Way in Sport, 100 Trailblazers: Great Women Athletes Who Opened Doors for Future Generations, and150 Heroes: People in Sport Who Make This a Better World, published by FiT.
Braham Dabscheck is an industrial relations scholar, sports writer and enthusiast, and author of the upcoming title, Reading Baseball: Books, Biographies, and the Business of the Game, to be published this summer, 2011, by FiT.