Sports and Politics Mix Together Quite Nicely If You Ask Me

by on July 22, 2020 · 1 comment

in From the Soul, Sports

front row, L to R: Bill Russell, Muhammad Ali, Jim Brown, Kareem Abdul Jabbar. Photo

by Ernie McCray

There are a lot of folks who are complaining about black athletes drawing attention to Black Lives Matter, saying “Politics and sports don’t mix.”

Have to say that’s news to me since, in our country’s history, particularly, if black athletes didn’t confront the racism inherent in our society and in our politics, there would have been very little notice of a people’s struggle to achieve equality.

I think back to July 4, 1910. On that day Jack Johnson, an African American, entered the ring in Reno, Nevada to face Jim Jeffries, the “Heavyweight champion of the world,” in the “Fight of the Century.”

Jeffries had set out to prove “that a white man is better than a Negro” but Jack, as we used to say, “whipped him like he stole something” aka “turned him every which way but loose.”

The country was abuzz with emotion, black people dancing in the streets, white people pondering their guy’s defeat, while Jack, now the first black heavyweight champ, was off strutting around town with pockets full of money and blondes on his arm, driving fancy cars, and buying everybody a drink at the bar…

He broke all the rules, both social and political while the white press ate it all up, making Mr. Johnson, in essence, “wanted dead or alive” – highlighting life for black
people in a Jim Crow world.

And then along comes Jesse Owens running and broad jumping and conjoining athletics and politics at the 1936 Berlin Olympics in front of the whole human race, etching dismay all over Hitler’s face, kind of laying his Aryan master race theories in a shallow grave for brief moments in time.

Examples of black athletes playing prominent roles in getting their people’s stories told go on and on.

Muhammad Ali telling the pentagon he wasn’t “shooting no Vietcong” because: “They never called me nigger, they never lynched me, they didn’t put no dogs on me, they didn’t rob me of my nationality…”

Tommie Smith and John Carlos bowing their heads and raising their fists in the Black Power Salute at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City.

I can’t help but ask where we would be today if black athletes didn’t have their say. What if there had been no “Black 14,” those University of Wyoming football players back in 1969 who were taunted with racial epitaphs at a game at Brigham Young University?

What if they hadn’t aired their grievances and asked to wear black armbands which they were told they could not do and hadn’t protested against a policy of the Mormon Church (which ran BYU) that barred black men from the priesthood?

What if their dismissal from the team hadn’t brought the school into the limelight with TV camera crews from the major networks showing up in Laramie and articles appearing in newspapers and magazines throughout the nation?

Their actions gave the country something to think about when it comes to race relations in the Land of the Free.

By them daring to mix sports with politics and contribute to the changing of our social order I’d like to think that they influenced the “Syracuse 9,” football players at the University of Syracuse who, in 1970, demanded equality in the treatment of white and black athletes on the campus. The school changed policies because of them.
So here we are today just a few years after Colin Kaepernick took a knee when the anthem was played at an NFL game to focus on the injustices in our country.

And NBA players in their upcoming shortened season will wear jerseys highlighting social justice messages which, by the way, is why so many people don’t think sports and politics should mix.

But, in the way I see things, black athletes have mixed their sports into the social and political arenas nicely, inching us closer to a just society every time they do so – often at a cost to them which makes their actions more credible and praiseworthy.

It’s been said freedom isn’t free.

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Laura Dennison July 22, 2020 at 8:31 pm

Thank you Ernie, for this great synopsis! I don’t remember Jesse Owens–I wasn’t born. But I was stunned when Muhammed Ali (Cassius Clay), refused to go to Vietnam. His words really caused me to rethink how different my life was from his. I know that when athletes, black or white, speak out, people do listen. Thanks again.


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