What Ever Happened to the Conscientious Black Athlete?And is the Black community expecting too much from today’s sports stars?
By Ronald Roach
Charles Thomas and Terrence Jason Welton came of age in the Michael Jordan era. As NCAA Division I-A basketball players during the 2001-02 season and in previous years, Thomas and Welton reached a pinnacle of athletic success that tens of thousands compete for and only a select few thousand ever attain from year to year.
The two Arthur Ashe Jr. sports scholar nominees, one a senior at the University of Notre Dame and the other a senior at Drake University in Iowa, believe themselves fortunate to have come along as youngsters when Jordan reigned as basketball’s most dominant player.
“Jordan’s been one of my role models,” says Welton, who hopes to play professional basketball overseas and plans to be a sports agent.
Thanks to Jordan, academically gifted and talented basketball players, such as Thomas and Welton, readily see themselves as potentially successful in the corporate world because stars like Jordan have had tremendous success in making themselves acceptable to and marketable by corporate America.
While admiration for Jordan is a given for many young athletes who dream of stardom as well as upper middle-class success, the men recently have come to learn and think about previous generations of Black athletes, such as baseball’s Jackie Robinson, basketball’s Bill Russell and boxing’s Muhammad Ali, in a manner that differs from the way more recent stars are regarded. Though Jordan gets high marks for his athletic dominance, charisma and professionalism, earlier athletes are seen as heroes as much for their social and political accomplishments as their athletic prowess.
“Those guys were trailblazers. They paved the way for Black athletes,” Thomas says.
The status of Black athletes in American sports represents a vitally important social concern for many Americans, particularly African Americans who see sports as a barometer for social acceptance and Black participation in American society. In academia, sports sociologists, sports historians and others also pay serious attention to the position of Black athletes and study the evolving status of Blacks in American and international sports.
Scholars say one of the most persistent issues generating debate in academia, the media and among the public is how Black athletes use their public prominence to voice social and political concerns of interest to the Black community. From the barbershops to newsrooms to college classrooms, the issue of Black prominence in sports and social activism gets aired frequently, according to observers.
“I don’t know how many times I hear people ask why today’s Black athletes don’t speak out and use their clout more,” says Dr. Jeffrey Sammons, a historian at New York University who has written extensively about race and sports.
In contemporary times, questions about activism by Black sports stars often center on Michael Jordan and on golf phenomenon Tiger Woods. The unprecedented success of these men in their respective sport have made them natural targets for high social expectations. It is these same expectations that previous generations of Black athletes strove to meet. And in a number of circumstances, Black athletes, using their sports fame, took leading roles in social issue protest, such as opposing the Vietnam War and apartheid in South Africa.
“Those select few showed that athletes could make a serious (political) contribution,” says Dr. Richard Lapchick, executive director of the National Consortium for Academics and Sports in Orlando, Fla., and director of the sports management and business program at the University of Central Florida.
Pioneers in protest
Scholars say Black Americans have long held high expectations for Blacks who achieve significant prominence in American society. These expectations have resulted partly from the fact that historically, few African Americans were accorded recognition for their accomplishments simultaneously by the White establishment and the Black community.
“There were special expectations on Black athletes because of their prominence and their public recognition when there were very few prominent Blacks,” Sammons explains.
Sports legends Joe Louis, Jesse Owens and Jackie Robinson were among the first Blacks to win wide acclaim for their pioneering roles in American sports. In addition to their symbolic importance in affirming Black social progress, their success allowed them opportunity to speak on behalf of Black Americans.
The communal sense that Blacks are expected to “give back to the community” also has contributed to the high expectations Black fans have consistently nurtured for prominent sports figures. “If a Black person makes it, then there’s an expectation that he or she has to give back,” says Dr. Todd Boyd, a professor in the School of Cinema-Television at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles and noted writer on contemporary Black American culture.
During the 1960s, a more radical cohort of Black athletes took their places on the athletic fields in the college and professional ranks and began conducting themselves in accordance with the spirit of the civil rights and the Black Power movements, according to scholars.
“There were clear national and international issues on which people were united,” says Kenneth Shropshire, the chair of legal studies at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business in Philadelphia.
Dr. C. Keith Harrison, the director of the Paul Robeson Research Center for Academic and Athletic Prowess at the University of Michigan, adds that during the 1960s Black athletes were still fighting for basic respect and equal treatment from their coaches and White teammates.
The ’60s activism of Black athletes pushed a select number to use their prominence to express political dissent in an unprecedented fashion. The 1968 image of Black Olympians Tommie Smith and John Carlos, track and field teammates at San Jose State University, accepting medals with raised arms and clenched fists, stunned Americans and resulted in a furious backlash against them. Muhammad Ali’s refusal to be drafted into the Army during the height of the Vietnam War represented the extraordinary length to which he went to express his religious and political beliefs.
Such activism came at great cost to the athletes, and some scholars argue that some sports figures, decades later, are still paying the price of their activism.
“If you look at the post-sports career of Kareem Abdul-Jabaar, it appears that he’s paying serious penance to become part of the NBA again. Aside from making a few movies, (football legend) Jim Brown has never gotten the opportunities afforded other NFL stars,” says Dr. Earl Smith, chairman of the sociology department at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, N.C.
Nevertheless, the activism by figures like Ali and others, such as Arthur Ashe Jr., who led protests against South Africa, has led to enduring research work and support efforts for student-athletes by a number of scholars and administrators in American higher education. Since the 1970s, academic figures, such as the sports sociologist Dr. Harry Edwards and Lapchick have mixed research and teaching with activism and support on behalf of student-athletes. Increasingly, minority ex-athletes have been returning to campuses to earn master’s degrees and doctorates and eventually becoming colleges administrators, coaches and professors.
A great deal of advocacy and activity has also developed around the push to get Blacks into the managerial and coaching ranks of college and professional sports. Some observers say the type of energy and activism demonstrated by previous generations of Black athletes has persisted in activism around equity and fairness issues in sports, especially the concern about the college graduation rates of student-athletes.
The Contemporary Scene
“Today’s athletes are products of their times,” USC’s Boyd says.
Generations of Black athletes that came after their athletic cohorts from the 1960s and 1970s didn’t grow up with the highly charged civil rights and the Black Pride movements as their inspiration. For young athletes of the new millennium, learning about the legacy of Black athletes is not something they casually pick up from their schools and family environments.
Drake University’s Welton, who is a dean’s list student in finance, says he learned the details about Muhammad Ali’s controversial boxing career only while doing research for an African American studies paper when he was in junior college. Notre Dame’s Thomas, also an honors student, says he found out about Ali’s draft board refusal while watching the recently released film “Ali.”
Scholars, such as Boyd, are critical of the perspective that Black athletes have an obligation to be social activists. It’s understandable that Blacks may have looked upon athletes as leaders and spokespersons in decades past, but harboring those same ideas and expectations in current times represents misplaced priorities and a lack of political maturity, Boyd says.
“African Americans should look for leadership among people who are trained as leaders and spokespersons. Athletes aren’t trained to be leaders; they train to excel in their sport,” he says.
Though Boyd’s sentiment is widely acknowledged, there remains a feeling that Black athletes are wasting a precious resource when they constantly are in the media spotlight but don’t speak out on issues of importance to the Black community, according to
Smith of Wake Forest, however, says athletes who make it to the elite ranks of Division I-A college competition and the professional leagues are often discouraged by their handlers, coaches and advisers against taking stands that might lead to them being branded as “troublemakers.” He argues that the college and professional athletic system with regard to men’s football and basketball is a brutal one that’s been paved with the broken minds and bodies of thousands of Black athletes.
“Athletes learn early that they have to mind their P’s and Q’s,” Smith says.
Over the years, young Black student-athletes have sought Smith’s advice when they have faced dilemmas over their status. “Black student-athletes have come to me when they want to pursue a certain course of study and are told to take less challenging classes. I have seen them struggle with serious contradictions that come with them being athletes and students,” Smith says.
In the professional ranks, Black athletes are pushed mightily by their handlers to be “raceless, colorless and apolitical” to win acceptance by the corporations from which they seek endorsement deals, according to Wharton’s Shropshire, who has written books on race and sports in American society. Achieving that status has been critical to the image Jordan and Woods have projected during their professional careers, according to observers.
Lapchick says that while professional success in sports is often driven by corporations expecting “apolitical” conduct from its biggest stars, Black athletes, like many athletes, have demonstrated considerable generosity through public service in their communities.
“(Modern) athletes have always been active in their local communities,” Lapchick says.
He notes that today’s Black athletes rarely get credit for their community service and philanthropy. “The media is quick to publish stories about the alleged wrongdoings rather than the community accomplishments of athletes,” Lapchick adds.
Drake University’s Welton says learning about the tradition of socially conscious athletes has become important to him. He says it has added an additional dimension to his motivation to excel as a student and an athlete. “When you read about the courage of some athletes, it makes you want to achieve even more,” Welton says.
© Copyright 2005 by DiverseEducation.com