Michael Jordan: Did He Transcend Race, Or Just Ignore It?

Forget LeBron James or Kobe Bryant. Michael Jordan is without a doubt the greatest basketball player the sport has ever seen. In fact, he stands today as one of the most enduring and prominent sports figures of all time, a man whose competitive drive and unparalleled excellence has shaped him into a global brand of success. Ever since his emergence as a star for the Chicago Bulls, kids have been striving to become “like Mike,” clamoring to Nike stores to buy his shoes or other gear if necessary. He was a superstar in its entirety, not simply an emblem for the black community but for the nation as a whole. But the question stands: did he overcome the barriers of race to promote a colorblind society, or did he simply ignore his race and abandon the black community he represented?

Michael Jordan was drafted by the Chicago Bulls in 1984, a time removed from the turmoil of the Civil Rights Movement that nevertheless still bore its scars. His agent began pursuing a shoe deal with an athletic company, and eventually the partnership between Jordan and Nike began. It was at this time that Michael Jordan’s “image” was born. After all, when it comes to retail and marketing, the only thing that matters is the image. Who’s promoting these shoes? Who will I emulate if I buy them? Just how cool/new/like me is this guy? I would argue that it was this point in Jordan’s career, the instance in which he and his influence moved beyond the basketball court and into media and society, that he began to blur the lines of race.

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Meanwhile, on the court, Jordan’s stock was soaring. He was dunking on power forwards, hitting game-winning shots, and proving himself superior to any and all competition. As he became more and more popular on the basketball court, his image in the media did as well, and soon “Michael Jordan”, with his expensive shoes and multiple endorsements, became a bonafide brand. And, like any brand, his image and public depiction had to be maintained in order to sustain and promote his sales. This is when the issue of race begins to come in play.

Michael Jordan was able to become a superstar for everybody, not just blacks. He showed what hard work and natural talent could accomplish for the entire population, instead of merely the African American community. White kids wanted to be “like Mike” just as much as everyone else. Suddenly, it didn’t matter that he was black, just that he was a great basketball player. In a way, Michael Jordan was able to transcend race and make it irrelevant to his public depiction, becoming arguably the first and most prominent African American major athlete ever to do so. Could he even have been one of the final steps toward an equal and colorblind society?

Michael Jordan

The other side of the equation is that even if a lot of the public didn’t put an emphasis on his race, Michael Jordan was still black and still a member of the African American community. Unlike Muhammad Ali, Arthur Ashe, and many other black athletes who came before him, Jordan did not become a vocal advocate or racial symbol; instead, he merely remained a basketball player. This is not meant as a criticism; after all, no one ever asked him to represent the grievances of an entire race, nor was he necessarily expected to. That being said, Jordan took a step in a different direction from his predecessors and forged a new black athlete- one who no longer needed to become a racial symbol to be idolized or recognized.

Michael Jordan Promotion Tour Jordan Classic Camp

This silent attitude and focus on public perception was perhaps never more prominent than in 1990, when Michael Jordan was asked by his former UNC college coach Dean Smith to endorse Senate candidate Harvey Gantt, a black civil rights activist running against the segregationist and racist Jesse Helms in North Carolina. Jordan, one of the most high profile figures in the country, refused, saying “Republicans buy sneakers, too.”

As previously mentioned, Jordan was never compelled or expected to give a political endorsement. Most professional athletes don’t. This decision does, however, mark a separation that he subtly defined between activism in the black community and economic interests. By refusing to endorse Hantt and support civil rights in order to preserve his image, Jordan showed that he wanted to be a business man, not an advocate. Beyond this, he did little to engage himself in the African American community throughout his career, effectively distancing himself. So now one must ask: did he ignore his race and heritage?

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In a way, Michael Jordan was a whole new kind of black athlete. Instead of exceeding despite his race, like Jackie Robinson, or demonstrating it proudly, like Muhammad Ali, he made it a non-issue. When people saw Michael Jordan, they didn’t think “black man in sports”; what they saw was simply an incredible basketball player. Ultimately, Jordan was able to transcend race, to move beyond its duties and labels. Whether this was a move toward equality and a colorblind society or an abandonment of his roots is a question that could be debated continuously. The answer could be both. There might not even be an answer. Regardless, Michael Jordan redefined the role of African American athletes, moving beyond the labels of a race to focus more on a brand and media depiction.

 

Works Cited:

Merlino, Doug. “How Michael Jordan Became the First Modern African-American Superstar Athlete.” Bleacher Report. Bleacher Report, 20 May 2011. Web. 20 Feb. 2013.

Granderson, LZ. “The Political Michael Jordan.” ESPN. ESPN Internet Ventures, 14 Aug. 2012. Web. 20 Feb. 2013.

Breaking a Stereotype: Celebrating the 25th Anniversary of Doug Williams’ Super Bowl Victory

The Super Bowl two days ago was celebrated across the country, with families and friends gathering around bowls of salsa and bean dip to watch the Baltimore Ravens beat the San Francisco 49ers’. There were dozens of headlines surrounding the game: two head coaches that were also brothers, Ray Lewis’ final NFL game, the jubilant atmosphere in the hosting city of New Orleans. One aspect of the game, however, was only mentioned in passing because to analysts and fans alike, it seemed unimportant and unremarkable- the starting quarterback for the 49ers’, Colin Kaepernick, was black. It just didn’t seem that big of a deal. Twenty five years ago, however, that was not the case.

Doug Williams

January 31st, 1988, was the day the Denver Broncos faced the Washington Redskins in Super Bowl XXII. On one side of the ball was the Bronco’s famed quarterback, John Elway. On the other was a man who was more known for the color of his skin than his skill on the field. His name was Doug Williams, and after a turbulent career that had seen its fair share of highs and lows, he had emerged to become the starting quarterback of the Washington Redskins. The fact that he was a black quarterback about to play in the sport’s biggest game did not go unnoticed, as he was surrounded by fan fair and media attention. It wasn’t until his team emerged victorious, however, and his stellar play earned him MVP honors, that Doug Williams truly broke the stereotype surrounding African Americans in the quarterback position.

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Before he even made it to the Super Bowl, black quarterbacks in the NFL were something of a rarity. It was felt that coaches and GM’s suffered from the misguided notion that they couldn’t read the defense or make smart passing decisions. Williams’ outstanding play on football’s biggest stage finally put an end to that belief. As Charles Ross, author of Outside the Lines, said, “Doug Williams really shattered that unwritten belief system that was prevalent in NFL. What he did could not be downplayed.” Ultimately, he was able to change the perceptions of African Americans in the game of football, proving that they had just as much skill in more cerebral positions as athletic ones. He showed that black quarterbacks could lead their teams to victory and represented the struggles that so many before him faced in being denied opportunities in the sport of football. Thanks to Doug Williams’ ground breaking achievement, African Americans are no longer hindered by positions or excluded from being quarterbacks. His victory on January 31st, 1988, was truly a victory for an entire race.

 

Works Cited:

Keys, Perryn. “25 Years Later, Doug Williams’ Win Still Resonates.” The Advocate. The Advocate, 31 Jan. 2013. Web. 05 Feb. 2013.
Harris, Terrance. “Doug Williams Broke down Barriers with Super Bowl XXII MVP Run.” Greater New Orleans. The Times-Picayune, 30 Jan. 2013. Web. 05 Feb. 2013.

Meet… Wilma Rudolph

“Never underestimate the power of dreams and the influence of the human spirit. We are all the same in this notion: The potential for greatness lives within each of us.”

Wilma Rudolph knew a thing or two about adversity. Throughout her life, she had to overcome being crippled at a young age, poverty in her youth, the discrimination of being a woman, and the prejudice she faced as an African American. Yet through it all, she remained strong and steadfast, eventually rising above her challenges to become a celebrated Olympic athlete and a role model to young girls across the nation, both black and white.

Wilma Rudolph

Wilma Rudolph was born in rural Tennessee in 1940, one of 22 children (from two of her father’s marriages). As a young child, she suffered from pneumonia, scarlet fever, and eventually polio, leaving her without the use of her left leg by the age of 6. Because of this affliction, she was forced to wear leg braces, although she spent most of her time trying to take them off. Every day, one of her many siblings would massage her leg, and she travelled 90 miles round trip each week to receive treatment for her crippled limb. Although she went on to suffer from whooping cough, the measles, and chicken pox, she eventually gained enough use of her leg to discard the braces and wear a special shoe instead. Wilma was determined to live life as a regular kid, however, and within a few years she had discarded the shoe as well.

Such persistence and determination manifested itself throughout her athletic career. Rudolph took up the game of basketball and emerged as a star on the girls’ team at the all-black Burt High School. Her exemplary play and remarkable athletic ability eventually led the Tennessee State track coach, Ed Temple, to take an interest in her as a track athlete. Rudolph began attending the college practices while still in high school, then went on to enroll at Tennessee State in 1957. Wilma fell in love with running and began gaining national attention for her performances on the track. She qualified for the 1960 Olympics in Rome, and it was there that she would finally burst forward onto the world track scene and emerge as an international athlete.

Wilma Rudolph 2

In Rome, Wilma Rudolph became the first American woman to win 3 gold medals in an Olympics. There, she earned a gold medal in the 100 meters, the 200 meters, and the 4×100 meter relay, earning the title of “World’s Fastest Woman” along the way. Almost immediately, she became a media darling. Dubbed “The Black Pearl”, fans and press alike flocked to her in Rome, and subsequent competitions across Europe brought hoards of fans to watch her perform. That year, she was also named the Associated Press Female Athlete of the Year, as well as the United Press Athlete of the Year. Rudolph’s immense international popularity paved the way for other African American athletes, especially minority women, as she inspired young girls across the US to play sports and break into the world of track and field.

Pres. John F. Kennedy and Wilma Rudolph meet at the White House

Pres. John F. Kennedy and Wilma Rudolph meet at the White House

When she returned home to Tennessee following her legendary performance in Rome, Wilma Rudolph was invited to a celebration headed by Governor Buford Ellington, a prominent segregationist. Rudolph refused, saying she would not attend a segregated event. Later, a parade and celebration of her accomplishments in her hometown of Clarksville would become the first integrated event the city had ever seen. By establishing herself as  a universal hero and champion athletic figure, Rudolph was able to unite her fans behind her in ways that had not previously been accomplished, whether they were white or black, male or female. She set a new precedent for not only the black athlete, but the female as well, allowing those who had previously suffered from prejudice and discrimination in the world of sports to emerge in their own ways.

The most notable of these was Florence Griffith Joyner, an African American track star who would also go on to win three gold medals in the 1988 Olympics. Rudolph recognized her influence and was extremely proud of the accomplishments made by Joyner. “It was a great thrill for me to see,” Rudolph said. “I thought I’d never get to see that. Florence Griffith Joyner — every time she ran, I ran.” Ultimately, Rudolph’s exemplary grace, calm, and courage would establish her as one of the most prominent and influential African American athletes of the 60’s, one who set a new precedent for minority female athletes and inspired girls across America to pursue their goals in the face of discrimination.

 

Works Cited:

Roberts, M.B. “Rudolph Ran and World Went Wild.” ESPN.com. ESPN: The Worldwide Leader in Sports, n.d. Web. 25 Jan. 2013.

 

Meet… Arthur Ashe

“My potential is more than can be expressed within the bounds of my race or ethnic identity.”

Arthur Ashe may very well be one of the greatest men to ever live, and it is his enduring spirit and unwavering courage that truly embodies the very essence of my senior project. Simply read some of his most famous quotes, and you will understand the wisdom and integrity that he displayed throughout the course of his life. Best known for becoming the first African American to win a men’s Grand Slam title, he used his success in the game of tennis to advocate civil rights and equality not just in the United States, but throughout the world. He worked tirelessly to bring about the end of injustice and inequality, so much so that many criticized him for abandoning his tennis game to champion his causes. In the end, however, he would say, “I don’t want to be remembered for my tennis accomplishments”, and he hasn’t been. He has instead been remembered first and foremost as a conscience leader, humanitarian, educator and, lastly, an incredibly gifted athlete.

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Born in 1943 in segregated Virginia, Arthur Robert Ashe Jr. began learning tennis at a young age. His tennis prowess was evident early on, and soon he came under the tutelage of Dr. Walter Johnson, the same man who coached the great Althea Gibson. After success in many junior tournaments as a teenager, Ashe was offered a full tennis scholarship to UCLA, one of the best college tennis programs in the country. While at UCLA, his tennis career flourished, and in 1963, he was selected as a member of the United States Davis Cup team, becoming the first African American ever to achieve this honor and represent his country on the international stage. Ashe took great pride in this achievement and would continue to play on the team for many years, a testament to his patriotism and national pride. His prestigious college career ultimately culminated with both an individual and team NCAA Championship in 1965.

Upon graduating, Ashe went on to serve in the military, joining the US Army from 1966-68. While stationed in West Point, New York, Ashe continued his tennis, participating in the Davis Cup and other national tournaments. He even went on to win the US Open in 1968, becoming the first African American man to do so and solidifying his place at the top of the tennis world. It was in 1969, following his military service, that he truly began to establish himself as both a powerful and diligent activist. After noticing that tournament prize money was dwindling significantly in proportion with the rising popularity of the game of tennis, Arthus Ashe, along with several other players, partnered to form what is today known as the Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP), essentially the men’s professional tennis circuit. Later in the year, Ashe also cofounded the National Junior Tennis League with Charlie Pasarell and Sheridan Snyder, a program that sought to give children the chance to play tennis that might otherwise not have had the opportunity, while also promoting an attention to academics and discipline.

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That year, Arthur Ashe also expanded his activism beyond the United States’ borders when he applied for a visa to South Africa to play in the South African Open, a prominent tournament. At the time the #1 ranked American player in the world, Ashe was denied entry into South Africa due to racial discrimination laws under Apartheid. In response, he used his denial to take a stand against the racism of South Africa and called for the expulsion of the country from the international tennis tour and Davis Cup play. He continually applied for visas, and was continually rejected, until 1973, when he was finally allowed entry and became the first black tennis player to participate in a South African event. His fight against the injustice of Apartheid would continue for the next two decades, remaining a cause dear to his heart until the end of his life.

Meanwhile, on the court, Arthur’s tennis game continued to thrive. He won the 1970 Australian Open, the second of his three majors, before going on to upset the heavily favored Jimmy Connors in the 1975 Wimbledon final to become the first and only African American to win the men’s championship on the lawns of All England Club. His unprecedented victory would go on to propel him to the #1 ranking in the world, and he remains the only African American man to ever achieve this accomplishment. After enjoying this profound success, Ashe would later go on to suffer from an unexpected heart attack and undergo subsequent heart surgery. It was these heart complications that would prompt him to retire from the game in 1980 with a career record of 818 wins, 260 losses and 51 titles, a career that would eventually put him in the Tennis Hall of Fame.

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Although he may have ended his playing career, Arthur Ashe’s off-court career and humanitarian efforts flourished. He served as a columnist for the Washington Post, Time Magazine, and Tennis Magazine, a commentator for HBO Sports and ABC Sports, and author of a three volume body of work about African Americans in sports entitled “A Hard Road to Glory”. Additionally, he was appointed captain of the US Davis Cup team, leading the team to two titles in 1981 and 1982, and served as the president of the American Heart Association. Furthermore, he founded numerous charitable organizations, including the National Junior Tennis League, the ABC Cities Tennis Program, the Athlete-Career Connection, and the Safe Passage Foundation. All the while, he continued his hard work in fighting prejudice and inequality in America, as well as Apartheid in South Africa. He was even arrested outside the South African embassy in Washington DC during an anti-apartheid protest in 1985.

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It was in 1988, however, the Arthur Ashe’s life was forever changed. While in the hospital for brain surgery, it was revealed that he was HIV-positive, having contracted the virus from a tainted blood transfusion during a second heart surgery in 1983. Wary of public scrutiny and paranoia surrounding the disease at the time, Ashe and his wife chose to keep the diagnosis private, seeking to retain a sense of normalcy and privacy in their lives. He did not publicly announce his diagnosis until 1992, when USA Today contacted him to say that they had on record that he was HIV-positive. Rather than let the newspaper break the story, Ashe held a preemptive press conference on April 8th, 1992, to announce to the world that he had contracted AIDS.

Suddenly, Arthur Ashe had a new cause to champion, and in the final year of his life, he worked tirelessly for AIDS awareness and research. He founded the Arthur Ashe Foundation for the Defeat of AIDS, which raised money for research into treating, curing and preventing AIDS. He spoke before the U.N. General Assembly on World AIDS day to raise international awareness of the disease, begging delegates for increased funding in research and hoping to prompt them to address AIDS as an important global issue. Ashe continued his dedication to other causes as well, being arrested for protesting outside the White House against US policy toward Haitian refugees and founding the Arthur Ashe Institute for Urban Health, which was dedicated to solving medical problems in urban, low income, minority populations. Lastly, he competed his memoir, “Days of Grace”, only days before his death. Then, on February 6th, 1993, only ten months after announcing to the world that he suffered from the AIDS virus, Arthur Ashe died from AIDS related pneumonia at the age of 49, leaving behind his beloved wife and daughter.

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The legacy that Arthur Ashe has left behind is one of courage and perseverance. Throughout his life, he remained dedicated to causes of social justice and humanitarian aid, undaunted by the segregation and oppression he faced as an African American. He lived with the utmost compassion for his fellow humans and spent his life working to implement change in a broken world, from apartheid in South Africa to segregation in the United States. Arthur Ashe was a truly great man, one who left the world a better place than he found it and who accomplished so much in his short life that we can only stand it awe at his incredible dedication and perseverance.

 

Works Cited:

“Biography – Arthur Ashe Official Website.” Biography – Arthur Ashe Official Website. The Estate of Arthur Ashe, n.d. Web. 14 Jan. 2013.

“Life Story of Arthur Ashe.” ArthurAshe.org. Arthur Ashe Learning Center, n.d. Web. 14 Jan. 2013.

Meet… Bill Russell

“We foolishly lionize athletes and make them heroes because they can hit a ball or catch one. The only athletes we should bother with attaching any particular importance to are those like [Muhammad] Ali, whom we can admire for themselves and not for their incidental athletic abilities.”

Bill Russell not only revolutionized the game of basketball with his height and shot blocking abilities, but he also drastically altered the role of the black athlete before going on to become the NBA’s first black head coach. When Russell first entered the league, there were only 15 other African Americans playing professional basketball. Racism and prejudice still existed in organizations, and often logistics such as lodging and food were made difficult due to segregated establishments. Throughout his career, Russell remained outspoken and opinionated, attacking these issues and becoming a vocal role model for black athletes in America. Ultimately, he would become one of the NBA’s greatest champions, as well as one of its greatest men.

Bill Russell

Like so many African Americans of his generation, Bill Russell was born into poor financial circumstances in the rural South, although his family eventually moved west to California in pursuit of better jobs and opportunities. As he grew older and taller, Russell began playing basketball, a game in which he showed initial promise despite his awkward height on the court. He would go on to play college basketball at the University of San Francisco, the only school that offered him a scholarship. Bill didn’t care though; he was just excited to go to college and have the opportunity to escape the racism and poverty of his childhood. While at USF, Russell emerged as a dominant force on the court, averaging over 20 points and 20 rebounds per game. He also introduced vertical defense and smothering shot blocking to the game of basketball, two aspects that define the game today. Eventually, he would go on to lead his school to two NCAA national championships, becoming a first team All-American and Final Four MVP along the way.

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Russell’s success in college basketball was not without its dark moments, however. Racism still existed throughout the country, and it manifested itself several times throughout his collegiate career. Notable instances include a game in Oklahoma City in which none of the city’s hotels would put up Russell and his fellow black teammates, as well as the time before a tournament game in which the fans yelled “Globetrotters” at the players and threw coins at them. Russell didn’t let this deter him, however, and he continued to work hard to become the best player he could. He eventually was drafted by the Boston Celtics, where he would go on to become a forceful player and champion.

Russell entered the NBA in 1956, a time in which black athletes were being thrust into the political spotlight amidst the chaos of the beginnings of the Civil Rights Movement. Bill didn’t underestimate this significance, either. “It is the first time in four centuries that the American Negro can create his own history,” Russell wrote in the 1960s. “To be part of this is one of the most significant things that can happen.” He was never afraid to speak his mind, and did what no one else had previously dared to do when he called out the league on its lack of diversity. He also travelled to Africa several times throughout his career, seeking to reestablish his roots and form a connection to his heritage. Perhaps most notable, however, was the fact that Russell and his fellow black Celtics teammates boycotted an exhibition game in Kentucky after a local restaurant refused to seat them. This bold and unprecedented move was one of the first times that black athletes had called attention to the discrimination they faced and marked a change in the role of the black athlete.

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Russell went on to lead his Celtics to 11 NBA championships in 13 seasons, establishing a dominant league dynasty. He also became the player-coach of the Celtics in 1966, thus marking the first time an African American had been named the head coach of an NBA team. This accomplishment occurred nearly 16 years after the league had first integrated its players, a remarkably long time given the nature of integration in society and other sports. Russell led his team to a final title in 1969 before retiring from the game, leaving behind a legacy of greatness in which he redefined the nature of basketball with his height and shot blocking strategies. His most important contribution, however, was the role he played in giving African Americans power and a voice in professional sports, as well as the strides he made in finally breaking the color barrier of NBA management and coaching.

 

Works Cited:

Merlino, Doug. “Bill Russell, Civil Rights Hero and Inventor of Airborne BasketballCeltics.” Bleacher Report. N.p., 29 Apr. 2011. Web. 06 Jan. 2013.

Meet… Fritz Pollard

“You had to be tough as nails to play in that league. And that went double if you were black, because they really came after us.”

In 1919, when Fritz Pollard first began playing football in the NFL, sports was one of only a few opportunities for African Americans to advance their social and economic status. He may not have been the first black man to play professional football, but he certainly was one of the most influential of his time, emerging as a dominant force in the quest to keep the NFL integrated. Throughout his career, he continued to struggle to allow African Americans to retain their rights to play the game of football at the highest possible level. His pioneering efforts had a lasting impact that helped delay the eventual segregation of the NFL, and through Fritz Pollard’s unparalleled dedication and love of football, African Americans were able to define their place in the sport before they were ultimately forced out.

Pollard was born in 1894 into a middle class family outside Chicago. Like his three older brothers, Fritz emerged as a football star once he reached high school. It was as a student and athlete of his predominately white school that Pollard first learned how to deal with the discrimination and racial prejudice he received from his fellow students and athletic opponents. Although he excelled in baseball and track as well, he decided to focus on football in college, presuming that he would have more opportunities in the sport as an African American. After bouncing around from several colleges, he eventually ended up at Brown University where he joined the football team. At first, things weren’t easy. Pollard was ostracized by his white teammates and targeted on the practice field. However, he endured this blatant racism and ultimately emerged as the star of the Brown football squad.

After proving himself to be one of the most talented halfbacks in the country, Pollard went on to become the first African American to play in the prestigious Rose Bowl on January 1st, 1916. The following year, he elevated the Brown team even more, leading them to consecutive victories over heavily favored Harvard and Yale. His performances this year were so great, in fact, that he was named as a first team All-American, the second black player ever to receive this honor and the first to do so as a member of the back field. Due to these accomplishments, Pollard began to receive recognition from various civil rights groups and black organizations, traveling from city to city along the East Coast to accept awards and accolades. Unfortunately, he also began to neglect his studies, and the following season he was ruled academically ineligible to compete on the Brown football team.

Because of his ineligibility, Pollard entered military service for a few years before returning to football. When he did return, however, it was as a member of the Akron Pros professional football team in 1919. The next year the Pros joined the American Professional Football Association (APFA), later the National Football League. That year, Pollard assumed some of the coaching duties, and behind his powerful backfield play and the eastern formations he had brought from college, the Pros went on to win the APFA championship. Despite this success, Pollard still suffered as an African American in an all-white league. Indeed, when he first began playing, he was one of only two black players in professional football, and life was certainly not easy because of it. On the road, he was not allowed to eat at the same restaurants or stay in the same hotels as his teammates. He sustained verbal and physical abuse from Akron’s fans, who he claimed were just as prejudiced as anyone from the South. He even had to dress for home games at a local cigar store and arrive at the stadium just before game time in order to protect his safety.

In 1921, Pollard was named co-coach of the Akron Pros, making him the first African American coach in NFL history. During this time, he emerged as one of the best players in professional football alongside Jim Thorpe, a football legend. He went on to play for several other teams in the league, often acting as both a coach and player while remaining one of the most dominant men on the field. During this time, more African Americans began to enter the league, many of whom were recruited by Pollard himself. Because of his efforts to help more blacks play professional football, Fritz was also able to organize an interracial all-star game in Chicago that showcased a team made up of the finest African American players in the league against an all white squad. His purpose was clear: to showcase the talent of black athletes and promote integrated competition in sports.

Later, as the head coach of the Hammond Pros in 1925, Pollard brought in three black players who, alongside his own play, made Hammond the most integrated team in the NFL. This year would mark the height of African American participation in the NFL before growing discrimination would cause the number of black football players to begin to fall, until there was only one African American player in 1927. Dismayed by these numbers, Pollard went on to found an all-star black professional team in 1928 called the Chicago Black Hawks. This team played games against all-white professional teams before folding due to Depression. They were able to prove that interracial play was possible without the ugly incidents that had marred NFL competition between whites and blacks.

Eventually, a ban on African American participation in the NFL was passed in 1934, and so in response Pollard formed and coached an all-black professional Harlem football team, the Brown Bombers. Like the Black Hawks, the Bombers played against all-white professional teams, usually dominating behind the strength of their all-star African American talent. With his team soundly defeating NFL team after NFL team, Pollard was able to prove that blacks were talented enough to play in professional leagues, thus challenging the NFL’s race ban and bringing the issue of segregation to the forefront of professional football. After resigning as head coach of the Bombers, Pollard continued to oppose the NFL ban and remain a prominent advocate for integration in football.

Sadly, the immense contributions of Fritz Pollard are often regarded as merely a footnote in the history of the NFL, but in reality they were so much more. As a player, he helped pave the way for his fellow African Americans to enter the sport, and as a coach he maintained integration by recruiting other black players to join his teams. Once he left the NFL, he continued his advocacy by organizing first the Chicago Black Hawks and then the Brown Bombers, two teams that proved African Americans had just as much a place in professional football as anyone else. Indeed, the Bombers enabled blacks to continue to play against professional teams after they had been excluded from the NFL due to the league’s race ban. Ultimately, Fritz Pollard was a man whose extensive contributions to the game of football helped promote integration and establish a place for African Americans to participate at the professional level.

 

Works Cited:

Brooks, Scott, and Charles Kenyatta Ross. Race and Sport: The Struggle for Equality on and off the Field. Jackson: University of Mississippi, 2004. Print.

Muhammad Ali’s Protest of the Draft, Vietnam, and the Role of the Black Athlete

Outspoken, arrogant, fearless. Muhammad Ali was all of these and more, bursting into the boxing ring with power, grace, and recklessness. He was both loved and hated, revered and despised. Gone were the days of Jesse Owens and Jackie Robinson simply bearing the brunt of discrimination and prejudice as they bridged the gap toward equality; instead, Ali chose to glorify his blackness, to revel in the darkness of his skin and accentuate the difference it caused. He was proud, perhaps too much so, and when he swaggered into the ring to fight or onto a podium to speak, there was no doubt that he believed he was the best. He embraced his race, wore it proudly in the face of his white critics, and in doing so made it a factor in nearly everything he did for the duration of his career. Ultimately, Muhammad Ali revolutionized the role of the black athlete, twisting it in ways that were neither good nor bad, but that were certainly different.

When Ali chose to convert to Islam, and thus change is name from Cassius Clay to Muhammad, he began the separatist stance that would mark the rest of his career. This rejection of America’s prominent religion was simultaneously a rejection of authority, of the God most Americans viewed as the highest possible power. It was as if he had said that no one, not even God and certainly not a white man, could control him or tell him what to do. For many whites, this was a worrisome approach that ultimately angered them, as they had just become used to the idea of African Americans as silent and peaceful athletes when this outspoken and brash young man decided to deviate from the status quo.

Perhaps the most important factor in Ali’s conversion to Islam, however, was the power it gave him in his later protest of the military draft. Indeed, in early 1966, amidst political and social chaos and a raging war that was taking young lives by the thousands, Muhammad Ali claimed exemption from the draft on religious grounds of conscientious objection due to his Islamic faith. Unsurprisingly, this move shocked the country. Some praised him for his moral conviction and willingness to take a stand for peace and justice. Others called him a coward, angered at his refusal to serve his country as so many other men had done. Confused as to the true reason for his exemption, many believed it to be a public stand for his race, a continuation of his rejection of authority that said no black man could be made to fight for a country that wouldn’t even treat him equally.

If it was indeed a fight for the cause of his black brethren, Ali’s protest may have actually backfired. Although some notable black athletes, such as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Bill Russell, supported his decision, others, most notably Jackie Robinson and Joe Louis, did not. “He’s hurting, I think, the morale of a lot of young Negro soldiers in Vietnam,” Robinson later said. Ultimately this was true, as many African American soldiers fighting in Vietnam became outraged and frustrated by Ali’s exemption. In fact, many of them hated him for it. In the end, this attempt to take a stand for his fellow African Americans only served to alienate him from those that were fighting in the war, damaging his solidarity with them and his stance of racial pride.

Eventually Ali’s boxing license and heavyweight title were stripped due to his refusal to partake in the draft. Yet despite this, he remained steadfast in his commitment not to fight in the war, even saying to a pack of reporters questioning him on Vietnam, “Man, I ain’t got no quarrel with them Vietcong”. This blatantly political and controversial position may have been viewed as either heroic or cowardly, but it undeniably changed the image of the black athlete. Before, African Americans had endured so much hardship to even make it onto the field that once they were there, they simply remained quiet and strove to represent their race in the best way possible. Muhammad Ali, on the other hand, used his prominent athletic position to not only represent his race, but to advocate it as well, embracing his blackness in a way no other athlete had before. He was not simply a boxer, he was a man, one with a character that was proud and brash and ferocious, but that was also unafraid to take a stand for a cause he believed in. So despite one’s feelings on his positions and comments, it can not be denied that through his protests, Muhammad Ali gave black athletes a vocal power that they had never before experienced.

 

Works Cited:

Miller, Patrick B., and David Kenneth Wiggins. Sport and the Color Line: Black Athletes and Race Relations in Twentieth-century America. New York: Routledge, 2004. Print.

Meet… Jesse Owens

“Although I wasn’t invited to shake hands with Hitler, I wasn’t invited to the White House to shake hands with the President either.”

The Berlin Olympics of 1936 were Adolf Hitler’s show. At least, they were supposed to be, until a 22 year old African American sprinter named Jesse Owens decided to show up and become the first Olympian ever to win four gold medals. You see, Hitler had been using the international spotlight of Germany’s Olympics to proclaim his ideals of Aryan supremacy to the world. His abundant propaganda was challenged, however, when Jesse Owens established himself as the dominant athlete of the Games and proved that the white race was in no way superior.

The grandson of slaves and the son of share croppers, Jesse Owens was raised in a family in which he was expected to pick 100 pounds of cotton a day by the age of seven. As he grew older and began to attend high school, he soon emerged as a dominant and extremely gifted track athlete. Due to such athletic prowess, he went on to attend Ohio State and set four world records as a track star there. Indeed, during his junior year he entered 42 track and field events and won every single one of them. It was only a matter of time before he arrived in Berlin to compete on the world’s stage as an Olympian.

Unsurprisingly, the German attitude towards Owens and his fellow African American teammates was extremely negative. In fact, one German official went so far as to claim that America was allowing “non-humans, like Owens and other Negro athletes” to compete in the Games. This did nothing to deter Owens in his pursuit of victory, however, and he went on to win his first gold medal in the 100 meter dash against his fellow African American, Ralph Metcalfe. The next day, he went on to compete in the long jump, capturing the gold in that event as well.

Perhaps most remarkable about this event is the man who won the silver medal behind Owens, a German named Luz Long.During the competition, he gave Owens advice on his jumps, helping him qualify for the final after a rough start for the American. Then, when Owens bested him to win the event, Long was the first to congratulate him, proving that not all Germans shared Hitler’s racist beliefs. Indeed, Owens himself was not ignorant to the significance of Long’s kindness.”It took a lot of courage for him to befriend me in front of Hitler,” Owens said. “You can melt down all the medals and cups I have and they wouldn’t be a plating on the 24-karat friendship I felt for Luz Long at that moment. Hitler must have gone crazy watching us embrace.”

Owens would go on to win two more gold medals in the 200 meter dash and the 4×100 meter relay. Rumor has it that Hitler was so incensed by this triumph that he stormed out of the Olympic stadium, and that he later snubbed Owens by refusing to congratulate him or shake his hand. Ultimately, he was angered by Owens’ success and the fact that a black man had been able to upend his prominent philosophies. But, in the end, this is to be expected. After all, Jesse Owens was a black man from America who had defeated Hitler’s fellow Germans on their own soil. What is most intriguing, however, is the way Owens was treated upon his return home to America as a four time Olympic champion.

Following his emergence as an American Olympic hero, Jesse Owens returned home to much fan fare and celebration. At least, it appeared that way initially. He may have been an American hero, but in the eyes of those around him he was still a black man and thus inferior. This attitude is perhaps best characterized by Owens’ experience at a dinner that was being held in his honor. He was allowed to stand before the crowd present and accept the applause on his behalf, yet when it came time for the meal to be served, he was asked to leave because it was not considered socially acceptable for a black man to eat alongside whites. Additionally, despite the fact that nearly everyone in the country knew his name and face, no endorsements came his way following the Olympics. With no other source of income, the greatest Olympian of the time was forced to participate in races against horses and dogs in order to make money.”People said it was degrading for an Olympic champion to run against a horse, but what was I supposed to do?” Owens said. “I had four gold medals, but you can’t eat four gold medals.”

Looking back, it is amazing to think of our country’s social attitude at this time, and it makes one wonder if we were any better than the Nazis. An African American was able to become the greatest athlete in the world and represent his country on the international stage, and yet he was still treated as an outcast due to the color of his skin. Indeed, when he was winning he was an American to his fellow countrymen, yet when he returned home he was viewed first and foremost as a black man. Owens recognized this, and in later years he publicized his discrimination not by the Germans at the Olympics, but at home by other Americans.

Thankfully, Jesse Owens is remembered today as one of the greatest Olympians of all time, a man who shattered racial barriers and proved to Hitler and other Americans that racial supremacy is nonexistent, and that anyone can become champion with hard work and perseverance, regardless of the color of their skin.

 

Works Cited:

Schaap, Jeremy. Triumph: The Untold Story of Jesse Owens and Hitler’s Olympics. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2007. Print.

Schwartz, Larry. “Owens Pierced a Myth.” ESPN: The Worldwide Leader In Sports. ESPN, n.d. Web. 12 Nov. 2012.

Hodges, Dan. “Jesse Owens: The Olympic Superstar That Keeps Soaring.” The Telegraph. N.p., n.d. Web. 12 Nov. 2012.

A Good Man Lost: The On-field Death of Jack Trice

On October 8th, 1923, Iowa State’s first African American football player Jack Trice was killed after being trampled during a game against The University of Minnesota two days before. It is a tragedy that has been examined again and again by historians throughout the past century, with one question repeatedly occurring: Was race a factor? There is evidence indicating that it did indeed lead to the fatal on-field abuse Trice suffered, and there is evidence indicating it did not. In the end, we may never know the answer to this question, but the facts remain the same: Jack Trice was the first black athlete to play both at Iowa State and the Missouri Valley Conference; he suffered discrimination and abuse from the community and other schools as a result of his race; and ultimately, he was killed following an ugly play against a team that had never before encountered integration.

Perhaps the most tragic aspect of this event can be found in the letter Trice wrote on the eve of the Minnesota game, his first as a member of the varsity football team. It read:

“To whom it may concern:

My thoughts just before the first real college game of my life. The honor of my race, family, and self is at stake. Everyone is expecting me to do big things. I will! My whole body and soul are to be thrown recklessly about on the field tomorrow. Every time the ball is snapped I will be trying to do more than my part. On all defensive plays I must break through the opponent’s line and stop the play in their territory.
Beware of massive interference, fight low with your eyes open and toward the play. Roll block the interference. Watch out for crossbucks and reverse
end runs. Be on your toes every minute if you expect to make good.”

This letter, as well as accounts from Trice’s contemporaries, depict a determined and courageous young man unwillingly to let his race or society’s views dictate his life. When he arrived at Iowa State, he encountered a white community in which Klan activity and discriminatory practices were prevalent. Yet none of this deterred him, and he continued to devote himself to his team and his academic studies. That is why it is so upsetting that the life of this bright young man was cut short in an event that carries possible racial undertones.

So did race play a role in this incident? Later interviews with several of Trice’s teammates indicate that they believe the play was not intentional, and that Trice had been trampled by accident by the opposing Minnesota players. However, Merl Ross, Trice’s employer, told the Des Moines Tribute following Trice’s death that he believed that the Minnesota players wanted to knock Trice out of the game because he was black, and that’s what they had done. Indeed, just after Trice had been taken off the field following his injury, the Minnesota fans began cheering “We’re sorry, Ames, we’re sorry” (Ames is the city in which Iowa State is located). Whether or not this remorse stemmed from a possible racial standpoint, we may never know.

In the end, Jack Trice made history by integrating the Missouri Valley Conference and the Iowa State athletic program. He was a young man who understood the duty he bore for his race and who was determined to make his family and his fellow African Americans proud through his accomplishments. It is a shame that he was killed so young, and I would like to believe that his injuries were the result of an accident, a standard football play gone wrong. However, the possibility of racial undertones casts a menacing shadow over the incident, and the fact that it is even possible that there were sinister motives behind this incident proves just how poor race relations were at this time period. Iowa State has since named its football stadium “Jack Trice Stadium” (the only current Division 1-A School to have an athletic stadium named after an African American), proving just how enduring a legend this remarkable man has become, even at the cost of his life.

 

Works Cited:

Sullivan, Steve. “VISIONS Winter 2010 | Cover Story.” VISIONS Winter 2010 | Cover Story. Iowa State University, Winter 2010. Web. 14 Sept. 2012. <http://visions.isualum.org/winter10/coverstory.asp>.

Meet… Dean Smith

“I do believe in praising that which deserves to be praised.”

Dean Smith was not black. He was not an athlete. He did not, contrary to popular belief, integrate the Atlantic Coast Conference. He did, however, use sports as an instrument for social change, launching protests and discussions with not only his words, but his actions as well. As the head basketball coach at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, Smith was able to lead the school into a new era of progress and equality while simultaneously changing the face of basketball in both the ACC and the entire country.

Dean Smith’s dedication to civil rights and equality presented itself early on, when he was a high school basketball player in Topeka, Kansas. Upset by the division between his high school’s prominent all-white basketball team and the all-black team that was created due to segregation, Smith went to the principal and demanded the two teams be merged in order to allow the best possible talent to be allowed to play, regardless of race. After much deliberation, as well as increased pressure on behalf of Smith, the principal eventually relented, and the following season saw three African Americans on the Topeka High junior varsity team. Two years later, Bill Peterson made his debut as the first black basketball player at Topeka.

This commitment to change characterized Dean Smith’s later career as one of the winningest coaches in college basketball history. When he first took this coaching job, Chapel Hill still had segregated restaurants and facilities. The ACC was all white. Amongst this atmosphere of racial division, Smith soon realized that change was necessary. He understood that as the coach of the college’s basketball team, which in North Carolina is almost like its own religion, he had a certain power that came with that position. Thus, in the early 60’s, Dean Smith, Bob Seymour- a local minister and lifelong friend of Smith’s- and a black Chapel Hill student all arrived at The Pines, a local high end restaurant that was adamant about refusing African American patrons. As Seymour later said, “We asked to be served and with Dean Smith at the door, they could not say no. That was the opening of the door of The Pines restaurant.”

Perhaps his most well known contribution to civil rights was his recruitment of Charlie Scott, one of the first black students to play in the ACC and the first African American scholarship athlete at the University of North Carolina. In recruiting Scott, Dean Smith literally changed the face of UNC and helped integrate the entire ACC. Just as he had done at Topeka High, Smith challenged sports teams to include the best overall talent available, not simply the best white talent.

Dean Smith knew that with such a prominent position, he had the power to enact the change he desired to see in the world. He helped establish a settlement house in Chapel Hill for low income workers. He demanded that revenue from the basketball program be shared with all the school’s athletic programs, both men’s and women’s. He campaigned for higher wages for domestic workers. Most importantly, however, he brought equality to a city, a school, and a conference that desperately needed it.

 

Works Cited:

Lapchick, Richard. “Dean Smith and a Civil Rights legacy.” ESPN.com. ESPN, 17 May 2011. Web. 27 Oct. 2012. <http://sports.espn.go.com/espn/commentary/news/story?page=lapchick/110517>.

Kelley, Steve. “Dean Smith Challenged Chapel Hill’s Old Prejudices.” The Seattle Times. The Seattle Times Newspaper, 29 Mar. 1997. Web. 27 Oct. 2012. <http://community.seattletimes.nwsource.com/archive/?date=19970329>.