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American Studies Today On-lineThe Changing Status of the Black Athlete in the 20th Century United States

by John C. Walter

John C. Walter

From Jesse Owens to Magic Johnson, Black Athletes have always been in the news, but their path to fame and fortune has never been easy. Only today are they beginning to gain their rightful place in sport's Hall of Fame. Despite this, problems still remain. In this article, John C. Walter, Ph.D. Professor of American Ethnic Studies and Director of the Blacks in Sports Project at the University of Washington in Seattle explains why.


In the United States since World War II, the world of sport has undergone dramatic changes. The first decade after the war witnessed the resurgence of baseball as the national sport, particularly with the return of hero-athletes, the formation and development of the National Basketball Association, and the transformation of professional football into a powerhouse organization vying with baseball as the national sport. That competition continues to this day, with the profound irony that in some quarters the Black athlete is now seen as "saving" baseball1.* In the pre-World War II years, the Black athlete was restricted from competition in all the professional sports. Only in the Olympics, because of its international nature, were Black athletes allowed to compete unrestricted.

This situation reversed the mores of the later 19th and early 20th centuries, where in football, basketball, and horse racing, for example, black and white athletes competed against each other. But as Black athletes increasingly began to dominate their sports, as was clearly the case in bicycling and horse racing, white athletes and managers decided to ban interracial competition. The contemptuous posture and defiance of superb Black heavyweight boxing champion Jack Johnson only fanned the flames of fear and resentment among whites. After his defeat in 1915, white champion boxers refused to fight a Black man until 1936 when Joe Louis defeated Jimmy Braddock to become boxing's world champion.

To mask the real fear of loss to Black competitors in sports and elsewhere, the white population fabricated a number of myths about Black people, claiming Blacks suffered from low intelligence, criminal tendencies, and inferior physicality. These sick myths that served white skin privilege began to explode when Eddie Tolan and Ralph Metcalfe, distinguished themselves in the 1932 Olympics, as did Jesse Owens (most famously), and Metcalfe, among other Black athletes were to in the 1936 Berlin games, where Nazis were, like many White Americans, claiming to be of a superior race.

It was bitterly ironic, perhaps even farcical, that these Negroes should disprove abroad the very theories that confined and oppressed them at home. Yet nothing at home changed upon their return -- except that no longer could the myth of Black people's laziness and lack of ambition be promoted unimpeachably, since the historical record was clear internationally.

Consequently, when Joe Louis defeated Primo Carnera in 1935, a reporter wrote, "Something sly and sinister and, perhaps, not quite human, came out of the African jungle, last night, to strike down and utterly demolish the huge hulk that had been Primo Carnera, the giant.".2*

In addition, the New York Sun noted that the "American Negro was "a natural athlete.".3*

It is perhaps symptomatic of the times that a syndicated newspaper columnist, Hugh S. Johnson wrote, in 1938 , "The average of white intelligence is above the average of Black intelligence, probably because the white race, is several thousand years farther away from jungle savagery. But, for the same reason, the average of white physical equipment, is lower. .4*

Similarly, in the Atlanta Journal, commenting on Jessie Owens' exploits at the Berlin Olympics, O.B. Keeler wrote, "Our fastest runners are colored boys, and our longest jumpers and highest leapers. And now, our champion fighting men with the fists is Joseph Louis Barrow.".5*

It is testimony to the pervasive view of the Black athlete as somehow subhuman, that both Northern and Southern U.S. newspapers and commentators shared the view that the "new" strong Black athlete was now so because of his jungle ancestry. That view is still largely held, but perhaps better concealed amidst intonations that Black athletes are simply, naturally "athletic," as opposed to being intelligent, critically astute practitioners of an intense work ethic which makes possible their excellence in the aesthetics of athletic play and competition.

Even as recently as September, 1995, Roger Bannister, the first man to break the four minute mile barrier, was reported to have said that Black sprinters "have certain natural anatomical advantages.".6*

The Demise of Segregated Sports

After World War II, the attitude of Black people changed dramatically. The war had improved the lot of the "uplift" organizations, the National Urban League, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, as well as the Congress of Racial Equality, which had conducted bus rides throughout the South in the war years in an attempt to regain those rights that had been taken away from African Americans after the end of Reconstruction. In addition, African Americans had gained entry into the American Federation of Labor and other labor unions, and these organizations exerted additional political pressure on public institutions and on the larger population to treat Black people as equal citizens.

Similar pressure increased on professional sporting organizations which had seen a significant rise in popularity, with concomitant increases in attendance at games and revenue from radio and the new medium, television.

The signing of Jackie Robinson by baseball's Brooklyn Dodgers in 1946 is well chronicled, as is his debut in the major leagues in 1947. For most people, Robinson has the honor of integrating professional sports; however, in fact, two years before he made his debut, the National Football League had integrated when the Los Angeles Rams signed two African-American professional players, Kenny Washington and Woody Strode, the latter of whom became an outstanding movie star. Similarly the very next year, in 1946, the same year that Jackie Robinson was signed by the Brooklyn Dodgers, the All American Football Conference team, the Cleveland Browns, signed two Black players, Bill Willis and Marion Motley. In 1948, the New York Giants signed Emlen Tunnel, who enjoyed a distinguished career, finally retiring in 1961.

These initiatives of the 1940's certainly were assisted by other developments in the nascent struggle for Black civil rights that began to peak in the 1953 Supreme Court Decision, Terry v. Adams, which ordered that Blacks be allowed to vote in primaries and all elections, and the landmark 1954 Supreme Court decision, Brown v. the Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas, et al., which ordered school desegregation. These tremendous leaps forward reinforced the confidence of Black people in their efforts to gain and exercise full citizenship and its social freedoms and intensified the desire to excel in interracial sporting competitions. In this political atmosphere then, the professional leagues as well as the colleges and universities began to realize that they were experiencing a watershed in American history and efforts had to be made to achieve full integration in sports, if not in everyday life.

What is generally missed by many sport historical writers is that virtually all these players who broke the perennial color line distinguished themselves on the field as well as in their personal lives. All of them were cautioned, as Joe Louis had been, not to transgress social barriers while they broached the barriers of the professional sports. The well-worn phrase was that these people knew that their behavior on field and off was to be a "credit to their race." These men, therefore, had to carry the burden of double circumspection, to play better than white players and also to conduct a life that was far more exemplary than both their white on-the-field counterparts and the ordinary white citizen.

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An Uneven Progress

Tennis and golf are major sports today, but in the period of World War II, they had not yet reached the prominence they have gained in recent years. In those two sports, the "whites only" policy was the rule long after baseball, football, and basketball had integrated their ranks. It was not until 1959 that the Professional Golfers of America integrated their ranks, as a consequence of a lawsuit which started as far back as 1943.

In 1969, one of the first African Americans allowed on the tour, Charlie Sifford, won a major tournament, the Los Angeles Open, signaling a tentatively broken color line. Yet, today, there are still no more than two Black players on the regular tour, and three on the Senior Tour. This paltry number is not necessarily a consequence of discrimination in the P.G.A. or the "Tour" itself, but rather emblematic of the continued discrimination and impoverishment of approximately of two/fifths of the Black population, which makes it impossible for young Black men and women to afford the equipment and the training to participate in golf.

A similar situation is characteristic of tennis. Althea Gibson was the lone standout as a Black woman in the 1950s, and Arthur Ashe as the lone Black male champion during the period of 1960-77. Since then, there have been few African American players, male or female, in the U.S. Lawn Tennis Association Tournaments, and for precisely the same reason there are so few professional Black golfers.

The integration of Black athletes into the college sporting scene picked up the pace in the 1950s for the same reasons that integration occurred in the professional leagues. Jim Brown, who starred at Syracuse University in football from 1953 through 1956 and went on to a distinguished professional career, was seen as the quintessential Black college athlete. Particularly in Northern schools, there were a number of other football, basketball, baseball and track stars who were nearly as distinguished as Brown.

Nevertheless, subjected on these campuses to subtle and overt forms of racism, most were instructed by their coaches to do two main things: remain passive in the face of racial insults, and above all, do not date white women. For the most part these admonitions were respected until the 1960s.

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Black women

In the history of sports, as is true of African American sports, the emphasis has mostly been on male athletes. It is interesting to note, though, that Black women today, although they do not play professional football and baseball (though there appears to be a new professional women's basketball league in the making), have achieved parity with Black male athletes and their white female counterparts in participation in college sports for women and in the Olympics. The enormous early success of Black women track stars in intercollegiate and Olympic competitions was the result of Tuskeegee Institute's Athletic Director, Cleveland Abbot..7*

Abbot initiated the Tuskeegee Relays in 1927, which included two events for women. Three years earlier, in 1924, the National Amateur Athletic Union, (AAU) held its first National Championship for Women. This was, of course, mostly for white women; however, ten years after Abbot's initiative for African American women, Tuskeegee won its first National AAU Championship. From Abbott's work and successes at Tuskeegee, the mantle was passed to Tennessee State University, so that by the time of the 1948 Olympics, a significant number of Black women represented the United States. Virtually all the women on that Olympic track and field team came from these two schools. By the 1950s, Tennessee State dominated women's track and field until the 1970s.

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The role of Wilma Rudolph

Wilma Rudolph died last year, but few who were alive in 1960 will forget the profound effect she had on the world at large. In that year's Olympics, Rudolph won three gold medals, and her grace, charm and sheer athleticism captivated the world's press. Back in the United States, her performance profoundly affected Black teenagers, especially girls, with many taking an interest in track and field. This resurgence continues to this very day, but the high point was reached at the 1984 Olympics where Black women --who accounted for only 6% of the U.S. population-- won 75% of all the track and field medals won by American women..8*

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1968 and after

The integration of college and professional sports in the U.S. went hand in hand with the Black assertiveness that began during World War II. And if the period 1960-62 is called the Civil Rights Era and the Second Reconstruction, those nomenclatures were most dramatically demonstrated in the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City, where John Carlos and Tommy Smith raised their black-gloved fists and bowed their heads solemnly while the U.S. national anthem was played during the medal ceremonies. The majority of the American public viewed extremely negatively this adamant, though brief, gesture, and these two men and others presumed to have been in conspiracy with them, suffered discrimination after the 1968 Olympics in the form of disproportionate difficulty finding good jobs. Nevertheless, Willie Whyte, five-time Black woman Olympic broad jumper, testified that their demonstration unified the athletes, both Black and white, into one team..9*

It is difficult to say whether the gesture by Carlos and Smith made for the improvement of the Black athlete's condition. Yet in 1991, when Sports Illustrated convened a roundtable and asked a number of outstanding Black and White athletes if things had been better for them in the 1970s and 80s, most agreed that a number of things had improved. The roundtable consisted of such luminaries as Hank Aaron, Anita De Frantz, and Bill Walton. Relationships between Black and white players and between Black players and management on professional teams seemed, in the panelists' eyes, very similar to the past. They noted that the most significant progress had been made in large salaries that were paid to bona fide superstar African Americans, notably, at the time, Magic Johnson in basketball, Bo Jackson in football and baseball, and Dwight Gooden in baseball. Expressing overriding concerns beyond considerations of current salary figures, the roundtable pointed out that generally Black athletes, because of poor college preparation, were not prepared for life after professional sports.

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Black athletes in managing, coaching and executive positions

It is true that Black athletes face enormous obstacles in obtaining positions in the coaching, managing, and executive ranks of professional sports as well as in college and university ranks. These obstacles are not reduced by the number of Black athletes who graduate with marginal skills, who do not graduate at all, or who play successfully in the professional leagues. In short, there is little correlation between the excellence of athletic abilities and the mobility many white athletes have between the playing field and the coach's clipboard.

In the professional leagues, the sporting organization that has done best in hiring Black coaches has been the National Basketball Association (NBA). In the NBA, Black players approximate 70% or more of those on the court. And as recently as 1995, the NBA had only 5 Black head coaches, and only one team, Denver Nuggets, had partial Black ownership. In 1996 the "winningest" coach in NBA history is an African American, Lenny Wilkens, currently the head coach of the Atlanta Hawks, who won his 1000th game in 1996. An African American, John Lucas, serves as Coach, General Manager, and Vice President of the NBA's Philadelphia 76ers.

Nothing approximates this in baseball or football. Although Bill White, a Black man, served as President of the National League of Professional Baseball, from April 1989 to February 1994, very few Black men have ever had the opportunity to manage baseball teams. Larry Doby, one of the two earliest Black managers, was hired by the Chicago White Sox in 1978, but soon was demoted to hitting instructor after his team lost 50 games. Unlike most of his White counterparts, he was not given a second chance..10* The only Black baseball manager of any tenure was Frank Robinson, who retired in 1992 after twenty years as a manager in the major leagues.

As the 1996 season begins, there are only three Black managers (or head coaches) in professional baseball: Don Baylor of the Colorado Rockies; Dusty Baker of the San Francisco Giants; and Cito Gaston of the Toronto Blue Jays. There are, however, a number of assistant coaches or assistants to the assistant coaches; but it is customary that Black members of a coaching staff are passed over for the leadership roles while less experienced, less celebrated white players are chosen as general managers and coaches. In professional football there are no Black owners, no Black General Managers, and at present, only two Black head coaches, Dennis Green of the Minnesota Vikings and Ray Rhodes of the Philadelphia Eagles.

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Elevating the game

Closely related to the prejudice against Black athletes and against Black men and women as coaches and managers is the age-old perception or belief that the African American is naturally more "athletic" than intelligent in comparison to white people. Critic Nelson George argues in his book, Elevating the Game, that with professional basketball's desegregation, Black men such as Bill Russell, Magic Johnson, Julius Erving, and others have completely transformed the game of basketball..11*

More recently, the film "Hoop Dreams" and a flurry of books have documented the meanings basketball carries for youths living in impoverished ghettoes. Also documented is the physical and intellectual alacrity required to play on the ghetto playgrounds, the proving ground for many of professional basketball's best Black athletes. It bears repeating that one can travel miles through any number of predominantly Black neighborhoods in the United States and see no swimming pools, golf courses, tennis courts, or baseball fields. Performance and excellence on a concrete, outdoor court has brought more than several players out of their neighborhoods to college campuses and, in some cases, into the NBA.

As younger men have become more interested in basketball since its desegregation, they have preferred the sort of artful, virtuosic play that Black people first brought to the game. Thus, the ethos of basketball has bloomed far beyond any expectations of the 1960s. Indeed, a recent feature on sportswear marketing suggests that Black basketball players have also revised notions of fame, style, and business competition. The sometimes fierce marketing battle in recent years between Nike and Reebok has escalated the earning potential for athletes who appear in product advertisements, augmenting the $3.9 million salary of the highest paid player, Michael Jordan, with over $36 million in endorsement earnings during 1996..12*

It is "Jordan's appeal," writes Fortune magazine reporter Kenneth Labich, "that changed sports marketing forever." Indeed, once Shaquille O'Neal, of the Orlando Magic NBA team, signed on to endorse Reebok products, "the start of the war between Nike and Reebok for the hearts, minds, and feet of the American public" had begun in earnest. The Black athlete had been central to the definition of this style "war" and also became central to a widespread question of social style altogether. Labich cites an advertising executive commenting that "These ads changed the economics and mechanics of everything we do. They redefined what is celebrity.".13*

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The present status of black athletes

While the position of Black athletes at the college ranks is not as well studied and documented as that of professional athletes, the most cursory inspection shows that all colleges and universities, except for marginal, and perhaps, denominational schools have to some degree integrated since 1960. In all these areas, Black college athletes have excelled in tandem with their counterparts in professional sports. There are more Black quarterbacks in college football than ever before. Although there is a prejudice in the professional ranks against Black quarterbacks, many argue that the greater numbers of them in the National Football league draft will increase pressure to change the current, fearful attitude toward Black men in leadership roles. Significantly then, in this year's championships of college basketball, the majority of the players there who reached the Sweet Sixteen and the Final Four, were overwhelmingly Black. The Most Outstanding Player in the final game between the University of Kentucky and Syracuse University, Tony Delk, is a Black player. In track and field, particularly in the coming Olympics, the overwhelming number of Black American athletes in proportion to white Olympians is radically disproportionate to the Black population in overall U.S. society.

Apart from numbers in the professional leagues, one index of the changing status of Black professional athletes is their income. In the 60s and 70s, the case could be argued that the Black athlete was financially and otherwise undervalued to a point that made arbitration and serious salary negotiations impossible. The dean of American sports writers, Sam Lacy, sports editor of the Baltimore Afro-American, noted in 1967 that "the African American player was much quicker to sign a contract than white players, and in comparison, was woefully under paid.".14*. During the 1980s and 1990s, the situation changed dramatically. In 1991, for example, Sports Illustrated noted that Eric Dickerson of football's Indianapolis Colts had just signed a $10.65 million dollar contract over a four year period, making him one of the highest paid players in football..15*In 1990, the twelve highest paid players in National Basketball Association were all Black. In baseball another story has unfolded in the 1980s and 90s.

In 1990, the number of Black professional baseball players continued to decline, reaching only 17% in 1992 while Black attendance also declined. But of the remaining Black players, a significant number commanded more than ordinary salaries. In 1991, Dwight Gooden signed a contract with the New York Mets for three years and $15.4 million to become baseball's second-highest paid player. Since 1991, at least 4 Black players have exceeded Gooden's salaries. For example, Cecil Fielder, Barry Bonds, Frank Thomas, and now Ken Griffey, Jr. all earn in excess of $7 million annually in multi-year contracts. The average of Griffey's salary earnings, spread over his 4 year current contract, is $8.5 million per year, making him the single highest paid baseball player in history..16*

Salaries alone do not tell the entire story. Increasingly, an expanding group of African American athletes receive additional income far in excess of their salaries for endorsing products from breakfast cereals to automobiles. This was not always the case. In fact, the first Black athlete of the football Chicago Bears, Walter Payton, did not appear on the Wheaties box until 1986. Now, in 1996, Michael Jordan of basketball's Chicago Bulls and sports' highest paid athlete is expected to earn 90% of his $40 million through endorsements. While this situation does not characterize the majority of Black athletes, it does include a significant number, and is in happy contrast to the 1960s and before, when the picture of an African American on a breakfast cereal box was simply unthinkable.

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1 See Peter Richmond. "Ken Griffey, Jr. Saves Baseball." Gentleman's Quarterly. April 1996, p. 198-205.

2 Chris Mead, Champion: Joe Louis, Black Hero in White America, New York: Penguin, 1985, p. 62.

3 Ibid. p. 64.

4 Ibid. p. 158.

5 Ibid.

6 Seattle Post-Intelligencer, September 14, 1995.

7 Arthur Ashe, Hard Road to Glory, A History of African American Athlete, Since 1946. New York: Warner Books, 1988. p. 75.

8 Ibid. 205.

9 John C. Walter, interview, Chicago, September 8, 1995.

10 U.S. News and World Report, July 27, 1987, p.54.

11 Nelson George, Elevating the Game: The History and Aesthetics of Black Men in Basketball. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1992.

12 Seattle Times News Service. "For The Record: His Airness Is Said To Earn Princely Income." December 4, 1995. p. D4.

13 Labich, Kenneth. "Competition: Nike vs. Reebok." Fortune Magazine. On-line edition. September 18, 1995. p. 2.

14 Sam Lacy. Negro History Bulletin, Nov. 1960. p. 30, 1960.

15 Peter King. "Why is this man smiling?" Sports Illustrated Aug. 12, 1991, p. 13-14.

16 Bob Filligan, "Junior, leader of the Pack." Seattle Times, Feb. 1, 1966, p. E1

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