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Martin Stallworth

Sports and Multiculturalism

Prof. Kevin Grace


Racism in U.S. Sport and the Civil Rights Movement

On August 14, 2016 Colin Kaepernick made the conscious decision to sit during the

national anthem. His reasoning for his actions were to bring attention to the ongoing systematic

oppression that minorities still go through in the United States. Whether or not one considers his

execution of this plan patriotic or not, no one can disagree that he helped ignite the flame of the

racial tensions that have been growing recently. A recent poll by NBC found that around 52% of

Americans believe that racism against black people was an extremely serious or very serious

problem. Furthermore, 25% of Americans believe that it is somewhat of a problem. This is a

sharp increase from even just a few years ago. While many believe racism to be a new problem

that we face in our country the reality is that this has been a problem throughout its entire


Many of those who argue against Colin Kaepernicks assertion that racism still exists in

the United States claim that todays minorities do not suffer nearly as much as those who were

around before and during the Civil Rights Movement of the 50s and 60s. While this may be

factual in certain respects, it could actually be argued that todays athletes have it tougher in other

respects. The best way to examine this idea is to look deeper into what minority athletes had to

go through and compare it to what the minority athletes of today go through.

One important thing to note about minority athletes is that for a long time they were

banned from some of the sports that are the most popular today. Between 1933 and 1946 black
players were banned from the NFL. Jackie Robinson became the first black player in the MLB in

1947. The NBA, which began in 1946, was the most progressive of the bunch after allowing its

first black players in 1950. There are the three most popular sports in the United States today and

while the number of African American baseball players has decreased over time, black athletes

make up a majority of both the NFL and the NBA. The first challenge of the black athletes of this

era was to get accepted into these major sports. The next challenge was their assimilation into

these sports over time and the push back that some of them got when they dared to stand out.

One of these athletes that dared to stand out was Muhammad Ali. While Jack Johnson

became the first black heavyweight champion in the sport in 1908, Ali is arguably the greatest

champion the sport has ever seen. He first won the heavyweight championship as Cassius Clay in

1964. The next day he announced he had converted to the Muslim faith and adopted the new

name Muhammad Ali (Hampton, Fayer, Flynn 322). Initially, many Americans refused to refer to

him by his new name. Ali made the conscious decision to be different from the other black

athletes of the time. In an interview with Edwin Pope Ali stated, I realized blacks was supposed

to be humble, meek (Hampton et al. 325). He defied this notion with his boastful attitude and

supreme confidence inside and outside of the ring. This attitude garnered him an immense

amount of popularity among black youth; however, it also attracted the hatred of White America.

This hatred reached a fever pitch when he decided that he would not fight in the Vietnam war

even though he was drafted.

In March of 1966, Ali refused to be inducted into the armed forces via the draft. Many

newspapers at the time quoted him saying, I aint got no quarrel with them Vietcong (Bingham

and Wallace 115). This famous quote raised the question of why an African American would

fight a war for a country that treated them like second class citizens. At this point in time many
black athletes were afraid to speak their mind and this helped to break down that barrier. As a

result of his actions he was treated like a criminal and even sentenced to five years in prison. He

received death threats on a regular basis and was called a coward by many. He was also stripped

from his boxing title and banned from the sport. The main reason that the supreme court

overturned his case was an illegal wiretap placed on his phone by the FBI. The heavyweight

champion of the world was given the same treatment as a terrorist because he did not want to

enter a war that many thought we should not have been fighting in the first place. He was finally

able to get back into the ring in 1970 but by that point he had lost many of the prime years of his

career. The silver lining of Muhammad Alis story is that he eventually became a national hero

for these same actions by the time he died earlier this year. While Ali took on a national stage

during this time period, two more athletes took on an international stage.

Leading up to the 1968 Olympics in Mexico there had been much unrest in the United

States. Martin Luther King Jr., the most vocal leader of the Civil Rights Movement, had been

assassinated earlier in the year and racial tensions were at an all time high. These tensions were

heightened during the medal ceremony of the 200-meter race in track. American athletes Tommie

Smith and John Carlos placed in 1st place and 3rd place respectively. However, as they were

standing on the podium to receive their medals they did what would become the symbol of the

protest of black athletes. Among other small details in their outfit, they both wore black gloves

and raised one fist in a black power salute to show solidarity to those who were oppressed in the

United States. The black power salute was popularized by the controversial Stokely Carmichael a

year prior as a way to unite the Black Americans who wanted to combat racism in a more

aggressive manner than the peaceful Martin Luther King. The fact that these two athletes would

associate themselves with this movement led to a lot of backlash.

The immediate backlash was the banishment of the two athletes from the Olympic games.

Furthermore, they did not receive their respective medals for the race. When they returned to the

United States they were subject to an enormous amount of criticism which includes death threats

aimed at them and their families. Tommie Smith later said in his autobiography, The pressure

from Mexico City had taken my mother, had broken up my marriage, and had left me without a

way to make a living (Smith and Steele 193). This raises the question of whether these actions

were worth it in the long run for these two athletes. Neither of these athletes ran for the United

States in the Olympic games again after this protest; however, like Muhammad Ali their actions

are now seen as an act of bravery by many as opposed to the harsh reactions that they received at

the time. Along with Ali, this protest unleashed a racially charged reaction towards these athletes

and these instances are prime examples of the kind of racism black athletes suffered during the

Civil Rights Movement.

Many argue that todays black athletes do not suffer from the kind of racism that the

athletes of the civil rights era did. The contemporary athletes certainly do not go through the kind

of physical abuse that athletes of the past did, but they do deal with attacks on their image that

are strikingly similar in nature. The biggest challenge that todays athletes have is inclusion of

social media into their daily lives. It is now possible for athletes to see every negative comment

aimed at them at the click of a button. Just as Muhammad Ali was labeled a coward because of

he decided to distinguish himself from the cookie cutter black athletes, the black athletes of

today face the same kind of insults when they choose to stand out on their own. Examples of

athletes that have faced this kind of are Cam Newton, Richard Sherman, and Colin Kaepernick

all players in the NFL.

The case of Richard Sherman is one of the most interesting of recent memory. He is an

athlete that grew up in the historically rough neighborhood of Compton, California, but he

managed to do well enough to school to make it into Stanford University. While at Stanford he

was successful academically as well proving that he is someone who is well educated. However,

he is also someone who is very boastful and opinionated when it comes to competition. One

prime example of this is during his post-game interview after the 2014 NFC Championship game

against, ironically, Colin Kaepernicks San Francisco 49ers. After making a big defensive stop to

seal the win for his team he boasted about his greatness and the ineptitude of the receiver he was

covering. This post-game interview garnered Richard Sherman a large amount of negative


In the following days he received a massive amount of negative tweets. Use of the n-

word was a common thread of those tweets, as well as referring to Sherman as a monkey, ape, or

gorilla (Tettleton 48). One common word that Sherman was called in the social media backlash

was thug. In the black community, being called a thug is the equivalent of being called an n-

word because of the connotation of the word. This was seen as offensive by many because when

looking at Shermans success academically and his intelligence level you can see that he is about

the furthest thing from a thug. However, he is a rather boastful player a la Muhammad Ali

which is not always a bad thing when considering that sports are a form of entertainment. It can

be argued that a white player being that fired up after a game would be seen as inspirational.

Cam Newton of the Carolina Panthers also received some negative attention last year for being

himself on the football field.

Last season, Cam Newtons popularity increased immensely because of his excellent play

at the quarterback position. With this increased attention came more media scrutiny. Cam
Newton has a habit of celebrating through dance whenever he makes it into the end zone. A

mother that attended one of the games that Cam Newton played in even wrote him a letter

lambasting him for his celebrations. Her analysis of his celebrations and the affect that it had on

children reeked of bias. In her letter she asked the question, Is that what your coaches and

mentors modeled for you, Mr. Newton. She decided to single out Newton due to his

celebrations, but does not mention the myriad of other players that celebrate when they make a

play including Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers. It does not make sense that a

player who gives a football to children in the crowd after scoring each touchdown would be a

bad role model to children because he likes to have fun on the field. Situations like this prove

that black players are still judged on a much stricter scale when it comes to their attitude on the

field than white players. This is not the most recent controversy that a black player has faced in

sport. Colin Kaepernick has brought national attention back to the issues of police brutality and

systematic racism.

This season Colin Kaepernick began to do what many athletes that preceded him in the

Civil Rights Era did. He used his profession as a means of protest to shed light to the many

issues that minorities still face in the United States even after the Civil Rights Movement. His

protest during the national anthem has led to a large divide of support from fans and other

players. Free agent quarterback T.J. Yates tweeted, It blows my mind how many people hate the

country that they live in. Contrary to this many players have joined Kaepernick in his protest by

either kneeling, raising their fist a la Carlos and Smith, or locking arms as a unit as the Seattle

Seahawks did on 9/11. T.J. Yates comment is the same sentiment that many Americans had in

opposition to the national anthem protests. Many people told Kaepernick to leave the country if

he did not like living here. While there is nothing wrong with having pride in your nation, there
should not be major backlash when someone wants to improve the nation and help it live by the

written standards that began with the Declaration of Independence. In Kaepernicks he may not

be commenting on racism he has experienced, but he has the right to speak up for those who

cannot speak for themselves.

There a definitely major differences in the way that black athletes experience racism

today compared to how they experienced racism during the Civil Rights Era. One major

difference between these situations was that in the 1960s black players could be essentially

blacklisted from their respective professions if they dared to stand up for their beliefs through

protest. If Colin Kaepernick were to be released from the NFL because of his protest the NFL

would have seen major backlash and lost a large amount of support. It would be increasingly

more difficult to remove an athlete from their profession because of their political beliefs. One

similar issue that athletes have had to face in both eras is the constant scrutiny from the media

and fans of the sport. Although, the introduction of social media into the has made this more of a

problem for todays athlete because hecklers have more access to them than ever before.

The largest difference between the kind of discrimination the athletes of the different eras

have to face is perspective. Kaepernick and other athletes that joined the anthem protests are

doing similar things to what the athletes like Ali did back in the 1960s. What most fail to notice

is that they commend Ali, Carlos, and Smith for standing up for their beliefs, but they criticize

Kaepernick and other athletes for having similar beliefs currently. There is a possibility that in

due time that Kaepernick will be seen as an important athlete in regards to civil rights if he

remains in the spotlight. If history repeats itself Kaepernick and other athletes that stand out will

be respected just as Ali was towards the end of his life.


Sandritter, Mark. "All the Athletes Who Joined Kaepernick's National Anthem
Protest." SB Nation, 11 Oct. 2016. Web. 18 Oct. 2016.

Burke, Michael. "Poll: Most Americans Believe Racism Is a Serious Problem." USA Today.
Gannett, 14 July 2016. Web. 18 Oct. 2016.

Hampton, Henry, Steve Fayer, and Sarah Flynn. "Voices of Freedom." Google Books.
Bantam Books, n.d. Web. 18 Oct. 2016. <

Smith, Tommie, and David Steele. "Silent Gesture." Google Books. Temple University
Press, n.d. Web. 18 Oct. 2016. <

Bingham, Howard L., and Max Wallace. "Muhammad Ali's Greatest Fight."Google Books.
Rowman Litterfield, n.d. Web. 18 Oct. 2016. <

Breech, John. "NFL Players React to Colin Kaepernick Protesting the National
Anthem." CBS, 29 Aug. 2016. Web. 18 Oct. 2016.

Siner, Jeff. "A Tennessee Mom to Cam Newton: Here's What My 9-year-old
Saw." Charlotteobserver. The Charlotte Observer, 17 Nov. 2015. Web. 18 Oct. 2016.