AuthorTenjido, Daniela


Most popular sports in the U.S. today are dominated by Black athletes. The professional Black athlete today has opportunities that the majority of his non-athlete counterparts do not. (1) Judging objectively, professional Black athletes "made it." Lucrative lifestyles and international fame, however, has come at a high price in recent years. In the era of the Black Lives Matter movement, a domestic race war, and the increase unleashing of violence against the Black community by police, (2) Black athletes are caught in the middle.

Athletes are natural born leaders. This has led to the strong convictions and rightful protest by many of them during times of turmoil. This Note aims to highlight two in particular--Muhammad Ali and Colin Kaepernick. Part I offers a brief history of African Americans in sports and the impact of professional sports on American society. This then sets the stage for why Black professional athletes are perhaps the perfect class of individuals to highlight and discuss racial subordination in the U.S.

In part II this Note then uses the stories of Muhammad Ali, Colin Kaepernick, and others alike, to debunk three main ideas in Part III. First, it aims to highlight why we do not live in a post-racial America. Second, it criticizes a belief that suffering by racial minorities comes exclusively as a result of class rather than race. This is where the racial subordination of class privileged minorities plays a role in highlighting the other, non-economic, ways in which class privileged minorities continue to experience "otherness." It does this in the context of Black professional athletes. Lastly, it uses the Black professional athlete to highlight other forms of racial subordination endured by class privileged African Americans and people of color that are non-economic.


    i. The slave-athlete

    The history of sports for Black athletes can be traced back to slavery. Abolitionist Frederick Douglass was perhaps one of the first to talk about slavery and sports. In his autobiography Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, he portrays why the topic of sports transcends just its cultural impact. (3) Sports in American history have been the source of political and social constructs since early on. (4) From slavery, Tom Molineaux and William Greene arose amongst the first recorded Black professional athletes in the U.S. thus highlighting how the Black professional athlete has been an establishment in American society since early on. (5)

    ii. Segregation in sports

    Then "[o]n December 18, [1865], the [Thirteenth] Amendment was officially adopted into the Constitution--246 years after the first shipload of captive Africans landed at Jamestown, Virginia, and were bought as slaves." (6) It provided that "neither slavery nor involuntary servitude... shall exist within the United States... ." (7)

    The abolishment of slavery granted Black professional athletes a new world of access and possibility. From slavery to freedom, Black athletes had emerged, grown, and made waves in the sports world. (8) This small access to professional sports was short lived, however, and once slavery was abolished, legal segregation served to replace it by becoming the law of the land. (9) Despite the passing of the Civil War Amendments, (10) America's attitude towards African Americans remained unwavering. (11) The once slaves were now free but by no means equal. The effects of segregation touched every aspect of American life, including sports. Although sports had been one of the first institutions to allow access to African Americans, even before the abolishment of slavery, it gave into public pressures and the national norm of segregation. (12)

    The story of Jack Johnson exemplifies what was going on in the U.S. at the time. Johnson was a boxing champion and the first Black athlete to challenge segregation. (13) In 1908, Johnson defeated White boxer Tommy Burns. (14) A Black man had defeated Burns and with that victory, the U.S. set out to restore "white pride." (15) This would lead to the July 4, 1910, prime time fight between White boxer James Jeffries and Johnson in Reno, Nevada. (16) When Johnson defeated Jeffries, segregated sports went into a frenzy. (17) Segregated America was not ready to see a Black man as the "physical symbol of manhood." (18) With Johnson's win, race riots erupted throughout the country. Once again, "the ability of sports to manipulate racial predispositions had manifested itself in an unprecedented style and manner." (19)

    Since Jack Johnson, racial and political issues have continued to walk hand in hand with sports in American society. By the 1930s, names such as Jesse Owens and Joe Louis emerged against the backdrop of the rise of Adolph Hitler. (20) At the highly political Berlin 1936 Olympics, Jesse Owens, a Black man, emerged an unlikely champion by winning four gold medals and setting new world records for the U.S. (21) Then, in the 1940s, Joe Louis, the "Brown Bomber" became one of the most recognized American athletes when he defeated Italian and German boxers at a time of political turmoil in Europe. (22)

    iii. The end of the color line in sports

    World War II and Pearl Harbor marked the next significant turn in American sports. During the war, organized baseball was bleeding with low numbers of quality players available. Team owners continued refusing to hire Black players despite the success of the Negro Baseball League. (23) Then enters Jack (John) Roosevelt Robinson. (24) In 1947, Robinson became the first African American signed to a Major Leagues' Baseball team, ending the color line in the sport. (25)


    The historic impact of Robinson in integrating sports in America paved the way for the greats we know and love today. It created a platform for athletes to continue the legacy that once led to the desegregation of sports. While Robinson bridged the racial gap in sports integration, the work towards equality was just beginning. Since then, athletes and sports have continued to undergo many changes. For some athletes, continuing Robinson's legacy has meant protesting and taking a stance towards justice and equality. For these athletes, this has come at great personal costs. It is against this backdrop of sports as a catalyst for change and athletes as activists that the next portion of this Note introduces two stories--Muhammad Ali's and Colin Kaepernick's. It does so in light of their protests before finally turning to the racial subordination experienced by these two Black athletes at two different times in American history.



      In July of 1964, President Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act into law ending de jure segregation. (26) With some of the most influential years of the civil rights movement occurring, it is only fitting that the athlete of the time personified the political and social movement happening. (27) Muhammed Ali, born Cassius Marcellus Clay Jr., became the heavyweight champion of the world in the 1964 fight against Solly Liston where the phrase "float like a butterfly, sting like a bee" was born. (28) Ali, nicknamed "the Greatest," has been recognized as the second best heavyweight of all times, second only to Joe Louis. (29) He is, without a doubt, one of the best athletes of all times. Outside the ring, he proved, once again, that sports transcend just the game and shape the political and social norms of the time. He was an outspoken Black Muslim with strong convictions. (30) "His defiance of the system during the Black Power movement of heightened black conscious; his sacrificing of financial security for personal convictions in the prime of his career, and his public stand against the unpopular Viet Nam War all combined to make him an idol among blacks and the world's best-known athlete." (31)

      Against the backdrop of the Vietnam War, Muhammad Ali won his first heavyweight championship title in 1964. (32) It was also around this time that the Greatest changed his name and joined the Nation of Islam as a convert Muslim. (33) At the prime of his career, young Ali was also a contender for the draft. (34) In 1967 he showed up for his scheduled induction into the U.S. Army but refused to serve--categorizing himself as a conscientious objector and citing his religious beliefs. (35) This began what became one of the biggest political demonstrations by an athlete in American history. (36) Its impact was felt all over the world. (37)

      In 1966, Ali was classified as 1-A and thus found eligible for military service. (38) Following this classification, Ali filed a Special Form for Conscientious Objector with his local draft board which was to no avail. (39) Then, through various appeals, the Kentucky Appeal Board directed his case to the Department of Justice for recommendation. (40) In conjunction with the Department of Justice, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, through a hearing Officer, conducted meetings and interviews with Ali and close family, friends, and religious leaders to determine the veracity of his conscientious objector claim. (41) The Hearing Officer, having heard from Ali's closest allies, determined that Ali's claims were sincere. (42) Nonetheless, the Department of Justice, who assigned the investigation by the Hearing Officer, recommended to the Kentucky Appeal Board that Ali's request be denied--which the Board did. (43) After many more appeals to the local board, on April 28, 1967, Cassius Clay reported to his local board for induction but when called by his birth given name, refused to answer and declined induction on the grounds of his religious beliefs. (44)

      Less than a month later, Ali was indicted for violating 50 U.S.C. [section] 3811 which reads in part that anyone "who otherwise evades or refuses registration or service in the armed forces...

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