Race, Power and American Sports

Race, Power and American Sports




Politics and sports have been intertwined for decades, starting from the era of the civil rights movement in the United States. Since then, athletes have used their position and influence to speak out on politics and issues of social injustice. African-American athletes played a significant role in the fight for racial inequality during the times of slavery to the current times. Some argue that athletes should confine their opinions to the field and refrain from social causes, but this cannot be the case since they too experience a lot of injustice in their communities. They have a responsibility to speak up. Stereotypes and prejudices continue to rear their ugly heads in sports even with enough information to demystify them, and it is the collective responsibility of all people to respect the dignity of their fellow humans and do away with judgments based on race, ethnicity, religion, gender, or any other factor.

Sport is a unifying factor that brings people from all kinds of different backgrounds together, be they religious, racial, ethnic, or political backgrounds. Today, sports figures have become important voices in politics and other important areas of life, such as racial and religious discrimination, education, healthcare, among others. However, things were not always like this in the sports world, neither do all people accept the increasingly influential voices of sports personalities. During the late nineteenth century and a significant part of the early twentieth century, race and color defined sports. People of color could not play with white athletes, as was the norm in almost all areas of life at the time. Since those early days, notable athletes playing different sports have come out to speak against discrimination and fight for equality. The voices of these influential individuals have become even more powerful in today’s social issues.

Question 1

Muhammad Ali is a world-renowned figure in boxing, and he used his fame and success to fight for the rights and equal treatment of the black community. Born Cassius Clay in 1942, Ali had a long and illustrious career with many boxing titles as well as achievements in other areas of his life, such as music. Muhammad Ali won his first major title at the age of 18 at the 1960 Summer Olympics. Outside the boxing ring, he grew to become a significant activist on social issues. His first notable achievement in this front came when he refused to be drafted to the Vietnam War in the year 1966, explaining that the war went against his religious and personal convictions. He famously defended his stance, saying, “I’m not going 10,000 miles from home […] to continue the domination of white slave masters of the darker people the world over.” (Zirin & Jhally 2013) This act of defiance sparked a movement amongst black people to fight for their freedom; the Civil Rights Movement. Ali became a symbol of pride in the black community and inspired them to fight for what was right. After 9/11, Ali also spoke out against Islamophobia. Ali’s fight for social, religious, and political equality spanned decades, and many remember him for his fearlessness, standing up to racism and oppression at a time when his community needed it the most.

Jackie Robinson is another prominent sports personality who fought against racial barriers and made a mark in history. Robinson was the first black player to play in the Major Leagues, at a time when many whites were opposed to integration. This historical game happened on the 15th of April, 1947, at the height of segregation and racial discrimination in and out of the sports field. Robinson began his fight against inequality and racial discrimination during his high school years when he demanded the release of his African-American friend held unlawfully by the police. He also faced racial discrimination in his professional capacity; for example, his application to the Officer’s Candidate School, alongside that of many other black applicants, were rejected based on race. He was later drafted into the army, but in 1945 he went back to professional football. He endured racial abuse from fans as well as other teams, but he was always calm and poised in the face of such difficulties. He inspired other athletes such as Colin Kaepernick to fight for equality. Robinson expressed his awareness of institutionalized racism in his autobiography, “I cannot stand and sing the anthem. I cannot salute the flag; I know that I am a black man in a white world.”

In the documentary, ‘Race, Power and American Sports,’ Dave Zirin speaks or the contributions that various African-American athletes brought to social and political change. One such athlete is Bill Russell, a famous basketballer as well as a prominent civil rights hero (Zirin & Jhally 2013). He has received multiple awards, including the Arthur Ashe Courage Award for those who stand up for what they believe, no matter what it costs. Russell played in the 1960s but famously refused to sign autographs, and instead actively spoke out against discrimination. He supported Muhammad Ali during his speech against being drafted into the army, joined the NAACP and spoke out in support of the 1965 Voting Rights Act as well as another landmark piece of legislation, the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Russell also visited several African countries to conduct basketball clinics. Before a basketball in Kentucky in 1961, a restaurant refused to serve Russell and other black members of his team, and this made them boycott the game. Russell suffered through many instances of racism, and he fought for the recognition of the black community as individuals, not just by the color of their skin. AS a result of his outspokenness, vandals invaded his home, defecated on his furniture and walls, writing racist terms. Despite all the abuse he endured, Russell remained strong and inspired many people to stand up for their rights as well. Now 85 years old, he remains a celebrated icon, a fighter against racism and inequality to date.

Question 2

Today more than ever, athletes are speaking out against social injustices, and many people find this to be very uncomfortable. Some have argued that athletes should do their job on the field, and not interfere with other issues. However, this is a problematic stance. Every person has the right to speak out on any issue, and athletes have taken advantage of their power and influence to speak on behalf of the oppressed whose voice is unlikely to be heard in the country and around the world. Despite the progress made on issues of racial, religious, and other forms of discrimination, many people are still oppressed. Denying the existence of these issues is a form of oppression in itself. Silence on the challenges faced by many amounts to support of the institutionalized discrimination perpetrated against minorities, especially in the United States. The idea that players should simply ‘shut up and dribble’ is an unpalatable, reprehensive idea that should be eliminated.

One of the reasons why athletes should keep speaking up on issues of social injustice is because of the critical contribution that athletes have made on social justice throughout history. As Dave Zirin explains in the documentary, sports can be used to analyze almost every issue in society, including education, health, war, economics, and politics, among others. Athletes have been important voices throughout historical events in the fight for equality and human rights, such as the civil rights movement. Without their influence and contribution, it might have taken much longer for people to integrate and get fair and equal treatment in society. Athletes such as Muhammad Ali and Bill Russell inspired change during their time.

Athletes should also speak out on issues of social justice because of the significant influence they wield in and out of the field. Today, sports have become a big part of popular culture. Sports stars have become celebrities in their own rights, with millions of fans across the world. Colin Kaepernick is a modern-day athlete speaking out against racism, and because of his influence, there is a lot of awareness on the issue. His story has been covered by major news channels, newspapers as well as online articles. Nike capitalized on the controversy surrounding Kaepernick’s activism and earned millions from their collaboration with him. Kaepernick’s stance of taking a knee during major games earned him support and hate in equal measure (Martin 2018). This shows that he is an influential figure, and people listen to him and value his opinion. His activism has also encouraged many other athletes to speak out on causes close to their hearts. More athletes should use their influence and popularity to advocate for fairness and against inequality and discrimination of any kind.

Athletes also have a responsibility to lend their voice to important causes as they are role models for many, especially young people in society. Because of their star power, many people are likely to listen to popular athletes. Every individual in society has the responsibility to speak out against wrongdoing, and those who have more power and influence bear their responsibility even more than others. Many of the socially-conscious athletes come from minority groups, and they realize that they are in a better position to speak about the challenges that their communities face. An example of this is Raheem Sterling, a soccer player for the British team, Chelsea, who spoke against the racist treatment of soccer players. There have been many incidents where soccer players have been the subject of racist slurs from their fans, and football associations, as well as clubs, have done very little to protect their players. Renowned basketball icon LeBron James has also been the victim of racism as the gate to his home was defaced with racist slurs in 2018 (Coombs & Cassilo 2017). This shows that no one is safe from racism, and athletes have to come out, share their own experiences, and hopefully inspire change and a demand for fair treatment of all people.

Question 3

There are many stereotypes in sports, most based on race and ethnicity. One of them is that black athletes are better at sports because of their biology, rather than any mental or physical training. It is no secret that many African-American athletes are the best in their field in sports, especially in areas such as basketball. People present the theory that persons of African descent must have some unique capability attributed to their genes. This is a false narrative for several reasons. Dave Zirin addresses this controversial stereotype in the documentary. He explains that if this assumption is valid, then African teams should do perform perfectly in basketball games during international competitions such as the Olympics. Additionally, he explains that Spain is a basketball powerhouse despite the fact that many of its players are European (Zirin & Jhally 2013). Another persisting myth is that African and athletes of Africa descent to better than others in track events. Long-distance races have long been dominated by runners from Kenya and Ethiopia, and many have dismissed these athletes as having special abilities based on their country of origin. Famous names in this field include Mo Farah and Haile Gebrselassie from Ethiopia, and Eliud Kipchoge and Paul Tergat from Kenya. These athletes have many world records under their belts and have cemented their place in athletics history. However, some of the greatest long-distance runners of all time come from other countries outside Africa. These include Emil Zátopek, a Czech national, and Finnish national, Paavo Nurmi, who won an astounding 453 races in his career and remains the most decorated runner of all time (Van Sterkenburg et al. 2010). Many factors contribute to the success of an athlete on the field, including training, hours of practice, facilities, talent, and many others. A person’s skin color or background does not predispose them to success.

Another stereotype is that sports do not require any intellectual input; it is merely a matter of muscles (Kobach & Potter 2013). This assumption could not be less accurate. Dave Zirin explains that sports require a high level of intellectual capability. Players have to use strategy in the field to achieve any level of excellence and good performance. To ensure this, players have to muster a lot of material, and Zirin says that doctorate students might find such amounts of material daunting. Players also have to work together with their teammates, and this requires them to think ahead. A player on the filed knows that his or her move will influence what happens next, and ultimately hos their team fares in the competition. The enduring stereotypes and prejudice in sports is a refusal to acknowledge the hard work and effort that athletes put into their work, which eventually catapults them into success.

Question 4

Race continues to be an issue in sports because, more often than not, we tend to identify and judge people first by the color of their skin, and then later for the person they are. Race is a central issue in all other areas of life, such as health, education, employment, and sports is no different. Athletes want to be identified and acknowledged based on the hard work that led to their success (Bimper & Harrison 2013), but this is usually not the case. For example, when a person sees a basketball team with a majority of black players, they assume that it is because black people have a natural ability for basketball. Most people do not stop to think of the endless hours of practice and training that goes into becoming a successful athlete, regardless of skin color. This has led to a lack of respect for athletes’ efforts and achievements. Race also continues to be an issue in sports because many players of color have been subjected to racial attacks and discrimination, and they have come out to speak about their experiences. Despite their efforts to fight for equal treatment, players continue to face racial stereotypes and discrimination. Players in all kinds of sports experiences either overt or subtle forms of racism which has become a common issue in American society. Athletes have come out to demand equality for themselves and for their communities, and this is why race has become a longstanding issue in sporting circles. In the past, players might have been afraid to speak on racial issues for fear of repercussions. However, in today’s world, they are increasingly becoming aware of the star power they wield, and the crucial contributions they stand to make.

As a society, we have a responsibility to how we treat athletes, especially when it comes to race and ethnicity. Most of the time, people tend to attribute athletes’ success to their racial and ethnic backgrounds, and this is wrong. Stereotypes and prejudices remain rife in sports and this remains a significant challenge. For example, a person may look at an athlete and think of how tall or muscular they are, and decide that these characteristics are the reason why they are successful. For one to succeed in any area of life, they have to spend time putting in the effort and also take advantage of all the opportunities available to them. This is exactly true for sports personalities as well. A boxer might be quite muscular, but this is the result of hundreds or even thousands of hours of intense workouts. They built up the muscle they need to fight in the boxing ring, but it is not all about the muscle. They also need a lot of intellectual effort both in and outside the ring to win. Attributing athletes’ success to race or ethnicity undermines, belittles, and devalues the work they put into their craft.

In conclusion, issues of sports, power, and race are intertwined, especially in the United States. Sports and athletes have been at the center of many revolutionary events, uniting people from different backgrounds. African-American athletes have been at the forefront of the fight against racism and racial discrimination since the twentieth century. Notable personalities such as Muhammad Ali, Bill Russell, and more recently, Colin Kaepernick and LeBron James have been the advocates of equality, having experienced racism despite their privilege. Athletes put a lot of effort into their work, and people should recognize them for the dynamic human beings they are, and not just for their physical capabilities. Athletes should continue to use their voices to speak on social justice, especially in current times where there is still a lot of discrimination and disparities, based mainly on race. We should use sports as an avenue of unity and advocacy for positive change rather than as a means to throw punches at each other.


Bimper, A. Y., & Harrison, L. (2011). Meet me at the crossroads: African American athletic and racial identity. Quest, 63(3), 275-288.

Coombs, D. S., & Cassilo, D. (2017). Athletes and/or activists: LeBron James and Black lives matter. Journal of Sport and Social Issues, 41(5), 425-444.

Kobach, M. J., & Potter, R. F. (2013). The role of mediated sports programming on implicit racial stereotypes. Sport in Society, 16(10), 1414-1428.

Martin, L. L. (2018). The politics of sports and protest: Colin Kaepernick and the practice of leadership.

Van Sterkenburg, J., Knoppers, A., & De Leeuw, S. (2010). Race, ethnicity, and content analysis of the sports media: A critical reflection. Media, Culture & Society, 32(5), 819-839.

Zirin, D., & Jhally, S. (2013). Race, Power & American Sports.