Professional sports in the U.S., a multi-billion dollar industry, are loved by many as they provide a major source of entertainment and a sense of camaraderie among fans who rally behind the same team. Sports teams provide players, coaches, and executives opportunities for success while doing what they love. Since I was little, I have loved following professional sports and always admired players for their incredible athletic abilities. However, I have learned that the sports industry has historically discriminated against athletes of color. Sometimes the racism is overt, but often it’s more subtle — for example, certain traditions, such as playing the National Anthem or God Bless America, can overly promote patriotism and result in the exclusion of immigrants and non-whites (Zirin 19). Since the desegregation of professional sports leagues, the diversity of the players has dramatically increased, but racism among the leagues has not been eradicated. Black athletes’ opinions and expressions are silenced, and they have received backlash for peacefully protesting or speaking about racial injustices in our country. Many believe that Colin Kaepernick’s activism, and not his athletic ability, was the reason he was shunned by the NFL (Fletcher). Despite the increased number of black players, professional sports leagues attempt to appeal to the fan base, and many white spectators do not welcome the combination of social justice protests and sports (Jenkinson). In addition, black people are rarely hired for coaching and executive jobs, despite often being more qualified for such positions (Streeter). In other words, professional sports leagues and franchises view black athletes as simply entertainers whose opinions aren’t to be respected while keeping white people in positions of power.
I first became interested in the idea of fighting racial injustice through the professional sports platform in 2016 when Colin Kaepernick kneeled during the national anthem. I wondered why his fight against racism caused such dissent. I realized that the refusal of many fans to listen to these protests reflected their underlying racism and a lack of compassion. In 2020, I followed the NBA “bubble” playoffs when full teams kneeled together in a unified protest against police brutality. I was moved by the players’ solidarity with black victims and their use of their public platform to fight racism. I became more interested in the problem of systemic racism in professional sports over the summer when I saw a documentary series called “Shut Up and Dribble.” The title is based on a statement by Laura Ingraham, a television host, to Lebron James to “shut up and dribble,” reflecting her dislike of Lebron’s social activism. The documentary examines the history of racism in sports, with a special focus on the NBA. It discusses racism experienced by NBA players in the 1950s and the role of professional athletes, such as Muhammad Ali, in the civil rights movement. I learned that Larry Bird was depicted by the media as the “white hope” of the NBA in competition with black players. “White hope” portrayed white athletes as the underdogs against stronger black athletes, perpetuating racist attitudes and ignoring the success of black athletes. Before watching this documentary, I had not fully understood the ways in which the media and professional sports leagues have attempted to eliminate black activism and black culture from sports. Through this project, I wanted to learn more about the history of racism in sports and what we can do to combat the current-day racism that still exists.
History of Racism in Professional Sports
Because many professional sports leagues were established during or before the Jim Crow era, American professional sports prohibited black athletes from the beginning. Even when blacks did participate, however, racism was present. For example, boxing began in the U.S. because plantation owners found entertainment in watching slaves fight each other while wearing iron collars (Zirin 54). During the Reconstruction era, blacks were permitted to participate in certain professional sports leagues, such as minor league baseball, but any success experienced actually hurt their future opportunities as “African-American success in sporting endeavors contradicted the theories of black inferiority and invoked fears of many whites of sports being taken over by African Americans” (Davis 7). Informal rules prohibited blacks from playing on major league baseball teams, and by the mid-1890s blacks were officially excluded from all professional baseball in America. Other professional sports leagues, such as basketball and football, soon followed baseball’s example by prohibiting black players (Davis 9). Racial stereotypes were used to defend the exclusion of black athletes from professional sports as “baseball owners argued that African Americans lacked the requisite talent, intelligence, and motivation to compete successfully in the major leagues” (Davis 11). Owners feared that they would lose their white fan base if they permitted the integration of blacks on their teams (Davis 12).
Professional baseball finally began to integrate in 1945 after Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier by becoming the first African American player in major league baseball. The National Football League was integrated by 1946 and professional basketball was integrated in 1950 (Primm). However, even after segregation was technically eliminated, black athletes were not treated the same as whites and teams remained predominantly white. For example, “the fifty percent color line” represented the unofficial policy that teams should not have more than 4 blacks on the field at once (out of 9 fielders) in order to preserve the control of professional baseball teams by whites (Primm). Black athletes also faced the challenge of overcoming the myth that they lacked certain skills demonstrated by white players. Positional stacking, or positional racism, led to the overrepresentation of whites in “positions believed to require greater intelligence, decision making abilities, and leadership,” such as the quarterback (Primm). The positions typically assigned to black athletes were more physically demanding and likely to result in injury leading to shorter careers and lower earnings (“Using Statistics”). Racism was also demonstrated by fans shouting racial slurs towards players at games. Jackie Robinson faced racial attacks from players as well as fans and was hit by more pitches than any other player in his rookie year (Zirin 31). While blatant discrimination became less common after the Civil Rights movement, more subtle forms of discrimination and implicit bias continued. Studies show that black athletes had to be much better than their white counterparts to sign with professional teams (“Using Statistics”). In addition, although the diversity among players in the NBA, NFL, and MLB had improved, coaches and administrators continued to remain predominantly white and were underrepresented given the number of black athletes (Primm).
Certain athletes have attempted to fight racial injustices in professional sports such as when Jackie Robinson said he would refuse to play in a retired players game until he “see[s] more progress being made off the playing field on the coaching lines and in the managerial departments.” (Zirin 35). Similarly, Muhammad Ali advocated that minority athletes use the fame they gained through the entertainment of white spectators to fight discrimination (Zirin 69).
Decades after the integration of professional sports leagues, black athletes continue to face racism that manifests through both overt discrimination and subtle bias. Certain leagues, such as Major League Baseball, have declining numbers of black players rather than an increase (Stewart). In 2020, only 7.5% of MLB players were black (Nightengale), but in 1990 17% of the MLB players were black (Stewart). The expense of playing baseball as a child, such as the costs of equipment and travel teams, makes the sport inaccessible to many inner-city minority neighborhoods and families with lower incomes. This translates into fewer black athletes playing for colleges (in 2013, 2.6% of Division 1 college baseball athletes were black) which results in fewer black baseball players being recruited into the MLB (Stewart).
While many black players are in the NFL, black assistant football coaches face extreme challenges to becoming head coaches, and there have only been 8 black head coaches and 7 black general managers throughout the entire history of the NFL (Reid). In 2003, the NFL created the Rooney Rule to incentivize owners to interview minorities for head coaching, general manager and other front office positions. However, this rule has failed to result in widespread hiring of minorities, especially with regard to hiring black assistant coaches for more prominent positions (Graziano).
Similarly, while NBA athletes are mostly black, NBA executives are not. And even when NBA coaching positions are filled by African Americans, a current New York Times study showed that the coaching careers of NBA black coaches are substantially shorter than the careers of white coaches (Kirwin).
In addition, racism is evident when black culture and the expression of ideas is deliberately suppressed in professional sports. For example, the NBA’s implementation of a dress code in 2006 was seen by many as an attempt to eliminate a style of dress that reflected black culture (Kirwin). Sometimes, current racism is even more blatant, such as when Bob McNair, the owner of the Houston Texans, commented “We can’t have the inmates running the prison” with respect to Colin Kaepernick’s kneeling during the National Anthem in 2016, implying that black athletes are equivalent to prisoners who are not entitled to voice their opinions (Sanchez). Colin Kaepernick was ostracized from the NFL for protesting police violence against minorities. He was released from the 49ers and has not received any playing offers since.
Changing the Rules of the Game: Fighting Racial Injustice in Professional Sports
In an attempt to end racism, contemporary efforts have shifted to much greater activism among the players themselves. If team owners not only permit, but actively encourage professional athletes to use their platforms to fight for equality and social justice, players may influence a broad segment of our population. Not only should players use their platform to fight for social justice, but fans should leverage their power as well. If teams promote racism or inequitable hiring practices, fans should speak out — whether through voicing concerns to owners and managers or boycotting games and withholding public support. Not only should major leagues, such as the MLB, NFL, and NBA, affirmatively support black activism in professional sports, they should also promote and support black culture through permitting individual customs and dress choices.
In addition, team owners need to take an active role in equitable hiring practices for minority coaching and managerial positions. One way to address this issue would be to set up moderators who participate in the hiring practice and who are tasked with ensuring that all interviews provide equal opportunities and consideration. Professional leagues could also require, as do most workplaces today, racial bias training and education for all executive positions as well as all staff and players. Similarly, the MLB, the NFL, and the NBA could create new job positions for staff that work to promote equity and inclusion within the leagues.
In addition, changes need to be made to provide younger children with opportunities to play sports and assist with overcoming economic barriers. Cities must be willing to provide resources for maintenance of public baseball diamonds and parks and owners should invest in youth programs and improvement of facilities, especially in underserved areas. By fostering youth participation in sports early on, kids are more likely to play in college and possibly professional leagues. Instead of taxpayers’ funds paying for the building of new stadiums, they should go toward schools, libraries, hospitals, and other services for underserved communities. Local political action by individuals and groups to influence local government could be very helpful in increasing minority youth participation in sports and access to education and training that could lead to executive sports careers. Students like myself can work through our schools or clubs to increase awareness, help fundraise to support sports for underserved youth in our own hometown of Oakland, and lobby our city council members for support, in the hopes that more kids of color will play sports in college, go on to professional leagues, and have fulfilling professions in coaching and executive positions. We can educate our friends and families about the racial inequalities that continue to exist today and choose which leagues, teams, and news sources to support.
Professional leagues, owners, local governments, and fans can effectively work together to fight discrimination in one of America’s favorite pastimes, and to ensure that the power of the professional sports platform in the United States is used to fight the inequities that exist both on and off the field.
Check out these great organizations that are already fighting racial injustice in professional sports . . .
- The Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sports (TIDES), an organization that addresses racial issues in college and professional sports, publishes various studies on racism in sports as well as the annual “Racial and Gender Report Card,” detailing racial hiring practices for coaches, managers, front office positions and other league positions. TIDES also consults with sports teams and leagues in order to improve their hiring decisions and work on their media policies to provide more opportunities for people of color to receive positive press such as having the opportunity to engage in interviews.
- The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, an organization that seeks justice for African Americans has spoken out against racism in professional sports and sought to bring public attention to news outlets that do not support activism of black athletes fighting against discrimination. In a letter to the NFL, it admonished the partnership between the NFL and Fox News when it wrote “The NFL, a league where nearly 70% of the players are Black, should not be complicit in helping to increase the profits of Fox News, a leading voice in condemning those same players for peaceful demonstrations against systemic racism” (Freeman).
- The American Civil Liberties Union speaks out on a regular basis against discrimination in professional sports and the unfair treatment of athletes such as the way the NFL treated Colin Kaepernick when he protested police brutality and discrimination (Robinson).
Works Cited and Consulted
Please leave any feedback you have. I would love to hear suggestions on additional solutions. Is there more we can do on the individual level? What policies should leagues make to combat racial injustice in their sports?