Sports and Civil Rights in America
The histories of sports and civil rights in the U.S. are intertwined with the idea of fair play. But what “fair” means on and off the playing field continues to evolve with our ideas about race, gender and sexuality, and the actions of sports organizations have echoed both lingering prejudice and increasing tolerance. As rights movements have gained momentum, the accomplishments of minority, female and gay athletes have helped nudge public opinion toward greater acceptance.
The gold medal winner of the pentathlon and decathlon at the 1912 Olympic Games, as well as a professional football and baseball player, Jim Thorpe has been called one of the greatest athletes of the 20th century. He was Native American, and reporters often called him a “natural” or suggested that his prodigious athletic talent stemmed from brute native force rather than individual accomplishment or training. Race was always part of the story with Jim Thorpe, but it never barred him from any professional organization.
For half the century, however, the so-called color line relegated black baseball players to the Negro Leagues; it was only in 1947 that Jackie Robinson was called up to the Brooklyn Dodgers. Though the target of racial epithets and threats, Robinson was named Rookie of the Year and went on to play in six World Series. By the time Hank Aaron joined the Milwaukee Braves in 1954, the color line had been all but erased. But 20 years later, Aaron was inundated with hate mail and death threats when he surpassed Babe Ruth’s home run record. Integrating the baseball diamond was one thing; besting the revered “Sultan of Swat” was another.
Jackie Robinson and other early black players in baseball’s major leagues quietly endured harassment by fellow players and spectators as well as the indignities of traveling through the Jim Crow South, where hotels were segregated and black players often had to find their own accommodations. After retirement Robinson became a civil rights advocate. He wrote to President Kennedy in 1961: “I thank you for what you have done so far, but it is not how much has been done but how much more there is to do. I…will not refuse to criticize if the feeling persists that Civil Rights is not on the agenda for months to come.”
Not nearly as polite as Robinson, basketball star Bill Russell spoke freely about the injustices and insults he experienced as a center for the Boston Celtics in the 1950s and 1960s. Renowned for leading the Celtics to an astonishing 11 championships, Russell was never quiet about the racism he perceived among players and fans, and he often lashed out about it. More reflective in his later years, Russell has written a number of books, among them a memoir about how his friendship with white Celtics coach Red Auerbach transcended race.
Jackie Robinson’s talent on the diamond is apparent even in the black-and-white newsreels in which many Americans saw him play for the first time. He was the only black player in Major League Baseball when he signed with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947, and the racist reaction was wide-ranging, some of it coming even from his teammates. But Robinson steadfastly established his excellence, and other teams began to sign black players. The Boston Red Sox held out till 1962, and even in 1983 still had only one regular black player on the roster, Jim Rice.
The 1966 National Collegiate Athletic Association basketball championship game was also a breakthrough. It was supposed to be a rout—the number-one Kentucky Wildcats victorious over the Texas Western Miners. But Texas made an unprecedented move: Before a white crowd that included Kentucky fans waving Confederate flags, they fielded an all-black team against Kentucky’s all-white one—and won. Future NBA head coach Pat Riley, then a forward for Kentucky, called the game “The Emancipation Proclamation of 1966.” It was a tipping point that changed basketball, by forcing Southern schools to begin to see that they would have to integrate their teams in order to win.
When Don Haskins, the basketball coach at Texas Western College, started five black players in the 1966 NCAA championship, he defied an implicit ban of all-black teams on the college circuit. Perry Wallace, who became Vanderbilt’s first African American player in 1967, explained the prejudice: “There was a certain style of play whites expected from blacks. ‘Nigger ball’ they used to call it. Whites then thought that if you put five blacks on the court at the same time, they would somehow revert to their native impulses.”
The National Basketball Association had taken the lead on racial integration three years earlier, however, when Boston Celtics coach Red Auerbach assembled the first NBA team with an all-black starting lineup. The Celtics had been the first NBA team to draft an African American player back in 1950 (even while Boston’s other team, the Red Sox, was refusing to integrate). NBA firsts continued in 1966, when Auerbach retired and the Celtics appointed the notoriously prickly Bill Russell player-coach, making him the first African American coach in modern sports. “I wasn't offered the job because I am a Negro,” Russell said. “I was offered it because Red figured I could do it.”
Though the Texas Western–Kentucky 1966 NCAA championship game has been called one of the most important basketball games in the sport’s history, nothing about the way it was treated at the time or the way the footage looks suggests anything extraordinary. The media wasn’t interested, and the game wasn’t broadcast nationally. Frank Fitzpatrick writes in And the Walls Came Tumbling Down, his account of the legendary game, “There’s no dazzle or flair. And the pace, certainly by contemporary standards, is numbingly slow.”
Seven years later, American audiences witnessed a true media frenzy. Rather than a game-changing racial showdown few people watched, this was the 1973 Battle of the Sexes, a winner-take-all tennis match held at the Houston Astrodome—a highly charged event that crackled with arrogant gender-baiting on one side and can-do feminism on the other. Billie Jean King, at the height of her career, stared across the net at Bobby Riggs, a former men’s Wimbledon champion. King won handily, invalidating Riggs’s misogynistic rants.
A year earlier, Congress had extended the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to include wording about equality for women. This clarification, Title IX, has become linked through subsequent legislation with expanded athletic opportunities for women.
Winner of 12 Grand Slam titles in the era of bra-burning and Ms. magazine, Billie Jean King became increasingly outspoken in press conferences, calling for gender parity and more scrutiny of sexism in professional tennis. King made headlines again when she was outed as a lesbian in 1981. While initially reluctant to discuss the particulars of her sex life, and aware that her orientation might impact the still-young women’s tour as well as the perception of all women in sports, King has, in the years since, become equally vocal about gay and lesbian concerns.
Candid and assertive like Billie Jean King, hockey player Sean Avery has become a spokesperson for gay rights within the not always tolerant institution of the National Hockey League. While heterosexual himself, Avery filmed a short video advocating marriage equality in 2011. Avery had grabbed headlines a few years earlier when he confessed to an admiration for women’s fashion and announced that he would be interning at Vogue magazine. A brutal player on the ice, Avery often shoots his mouth off indiscriminately. Still, his continued participation in fashion events does suggest that male athletes perhaps can openly have interests outside the realm of the macho.
When Jim Thorpe, dubbed a “Redskin” in a contemporary New York Times headline, won Olympic gold in 1912, athletes were supposed to just get out there and play. Rarely were they expected to comment on their performance or the culture at large. All that has changed. After the 1960 Olympics in Rome, American sprinting sensation Wilma Rudolph became a face of civil and women’s rights. When 1968 Olympians Tommie Smith and John Carlos gave a Black Power salute on the medal stand, Jesse Owens, an African American champion of an earlier generation and 1936 Olympics star, disparaged the act.
One hundred years after Thorpe’s Olympic triumphs, the walls of prejudice continue to fall. Faced with 24-hour news, today’s athletes have to pick their battles and watch their words. Sean Avery’s advocacy for gay marriage and his indifference to being called gay makes him an aberration among contemporary male athletes. But when a TV camera caught basketball star Kobe Bryant mouthing an anti-gay slur during a game, the NBA, in a sign of the changing times, fined him $100,000. In terms of civil rights, sports may have some catching up to do, but no game is played outside of its time.