Posted: March 18th, 2023
Racism in professional sports has been documented for decades. However, only in recent years has it been more noticeable. The recent â€˜Take the Kneeâ€™ Movement ahs sparked outrage on both sides as people fight for equality and others fight for patriotism. However, this is just one symptom of a much larger disease that is institutionalized racism and how it crossed over into sports. Certain theories like critical race theory and colorism allow for an understanding of what it means to be a person of color in professional sports and how it affects certain outcomes. This essay is meant to highlight what racism in professional sports is, how it has led to the â€˜Take the Knee Movementâ€™, and how theory plays a part in understanding it all.
Professional sports in the United States has been a â€˜Whites Onlyâ€™ area up until the mid-20th century. It was not until certain black athletes became the first to achieve a professional sports position like quarterback for there to be some integration of people of color on the field. For example, 1953 saw Willie Thrower become the first-ever black quarterback in Am erican Football and it only one black QB, Douglass Williams has led his team to the Super Bowl. â€œDoug Williams has been the only black QB to lead his team his team to a Super Bowl win when he led the Washington Redskins blew out the Denver Broncos 42-10 in Super Bowl XXII.â€ (Fuhrman) This shows not only that is was hard to gain such a position then, but it is also difficult now with only 4 spots or so being given to non-white players (QB position).
No one knew the struggle of being non-white in professional sports than Jackie Robinson. His efforts landed him a role as one of the greatest sports players in history. However, he had to struggle greatly to do so. His story is one of the highlights of black athletes in sports and staunch racism as well.
Jackie Robinson was a great baseball player. Through his first game with the Brooklyn Dodgers, he managed to become the first African-American in the Major Leagues. His will and determination set him above everyone else and allowed him to shine amidst such troubling times. Even with the racism he encountered during his time as a baseball player, he did not let it affect him and managed to perform well enough to win a much-covered Rookie of the Year title.
During his first season in the majors, Robinson encountered racism from opposing teams and fans, as well as some of his own teammates. However, the abuse didnâ€™t affect his performance on the baseball field. Robinson played in 151 games, hit .297, stole more bases than anyone else in the National League and was awarded the first-ever Rookie of the Year title. (History.com Staff)
His and otherâ€™s stories show that racism was rampant in professional sports in the mid-20th century. However, some people believe it has all but left in modern times. This is not the case as while blacks, Hispanics, Asians, and other ethnic groups enter sports, there are still racial barriers there that keep such athletes from feeling completely at home in their teams and in their sports. In fact, in the last few years, incidents of racism have increased leading people to believe racism remains prevalent in professional sports. â€œThe same was true in sport in 2016, where such acts tripled from 11 in 2015 to 31 in 2016, according to researchâ€¦There were 104 reported incidents of racism in sports internationally in 2016.â€ (Lapchick)
Why is this the case? What can help better understand the existence of racism in sports? Critical race theory and colorism are theoretical frameworks that may help explain why racism remains such a problem in professional sports. Critical race theory (CRT) is a theoretical framework that allows for application of critical theory. Critical theory is a critical analysis of culture and society regarding things like law, race, and power. Some key elements of CRT is storytelling/counterstorytelling, Essentialism philosophy, and structural determinism. (Martin) When applied to the area of professional sports it can help pick apart the different aspects of race and racism inherent in American culture that creates the prevalence of inequality in professional sports.
CRTâ€™s focus on social justice and transformation are two areas of convergence between critical race theorists and anti-racists. Of the many nuanced and pernicious forms of racism, one of the most obvious and commonly reported forms of racism in sport, racial abuse, has been described as a kind of dehumanizing process by Gardiner (2003), as those who are its target are simultaneously (re)constructed and objectified according to everyday myth and fantasy. (Hylton 335)
An excellent example of this is the Black Lives Matter Movement and how it crossed over as being the cause for the Take the Knee Movement. People saw the police brutality rampant across the country and the unfair treatment of black men by the American government, so some athletes decided to abscond from standing for the pledge of allegiance. This left a sour taste in many, notably President Trump, and people on both sides began to argue. What began as something as a protest for racial inequality and police brutality, took on something greater as some believed it was a protest the country and patriotism.
These stories help provide context as to why racism exists in an area like professional sports. If one looks at the time when Jackie Robinson played, there was segregation and intense racial tension all throughout the United States. These events and situations spur acts of racism in professional sports, in business, and other areas. The next theoretical framework to help create a further understand of the issue is colorism.
What is colorism? â€œColorism is the discriminatory treatment of individuals falling within the same â€˜racialâ€™ group on the basis of skin color. It operates both intraracially and interracially. Colorism is historically contingent on supremacist assumptions.â€ (Martin 108) An example of this is the â€˜beauty standardâ€™ and how it relates to European beauty regarding hair texture, skin color, and face shape. Colorism can be applied in professional sports in several ways. One way is what certain races are good in versus others. For example, blacks are often see in track and field whereas whites are seen in golf and swimming.
When races are expected to be in one specific sport, it generates limitations. Tiger Woods was one of the first people of color to enter professional golf and win. He provided the foundation from which other people of color and women can enter golf, removing the age-old restriction and belief that only white men can golf. This instance is just one of many that show how colorism can be used to understand the reasons for racism to still exist in professional sports.
Another reason to use colorism as a theoretical framework is because colorism also affects socialization practices in racial groups. Colorism suggests that skin color can play a more important role than ancestry. For example, light-skinned blacks or Hispanics in basketball and baseball may be treated better than their darker-skinned counterparts. Such a theoretical framework suggests racism is not dead and that the racialized social systems in the United States are partly responsible for how people perceive and treat other according to their skin color.
Racism is something that has existed for centuries in the United States and was made legal in several ways through slavery, segregation, and other government measures. It is important to understand this side of the country in order to properly synthesize the information available regarding racism in professional sports. Without this context, it makes it difficult to see why it still remains a problem.
In conclusion, racism in professional sports is a real challenge for people of color attempting to make a career for themselves. Athletes of the past like Jackie Robinson had to contend with racism everyday and later became one of the first in his field to break the major league color barrier. It was him and countless others that made it possible for other athletes of color to participate in professional sports. However, as racism outside of sports continued, it leaked into it, leading to the 2017 â€˜Take a Kneeâ€™ Movement where athletes began taking the knee when the national anthem played. The movement was created in part because of the Black Lives Matter Movement and the way the government has neglected black people in the United States. Thanks to theory, there is some level of connection that can be made from the events of the past to the events of the present, highlighting a true need for change.
Fuhrman, Zeke. “A History Of African-American Athletes.” Bleacher Report, 24 Oct. 2008, bleacherreport.com/articles/73113-a-history-of-african-american-athletes. Accessed 30 Nov. 2017.
History.com Staff. “Jackie Robinson Breaks Major League Color Barrier – Apr 15, 1947.” HISTORY.com, 2009, www.history.com/this-day-in-history/jackie-robinson-breaks-major-league-color-barrier. Accessed 30 Nov. 2017.
Hylton, Kevin. “How a turn to critical race theory can contribute to our understanding of â€˜raceâ€™, racism and anti-racism in sport.” International Review for the Sociology of Sport, vol. 45, no. 3, 2010, pp. 335-354.
Lapchick, Richard. “The Year in Racism and Sports.” ABC News, 25 Jan. 2017, abcnews.go.com/Sports/year-racism-sports/story?id=45035554. Accessed 30 Nov. 2017.
Martin, Lori L. Out of Bounds: Racism and the Black Athlete. Praeger P, 2014.
—. Out of Bounds: Racism and the Black Athlete. Praeger P, 2014.
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