Intersected: the great Black athlete

By Sophia Porter

In 2017, I visited my sister in Washington, D.C. While she was at work, I spent five hours at the National Museum of African-American History and Culture. I lingered at every plaque and marveled at every photograph. It was a cultural and historical repository unlike anything I’d ever seen before.

“Leveling the Playing Field,” the sports exhibit, shared stories of athletic excellence, resilience, and progress. It celebrated the heroic achievements of Jackie Robinson, Jesse Owens, the 1965-66 Texas Western basketball team, and many others who fought for equal rights. Our hearts break for the difficulties they faced.

The museum also featured current standout athletes — Serena Williams, LeBron James, and Simone Biles, to name a few. As I walked, I reflected on the progress that’s been made, but I also grew more aware of the continued perception of standout Black athletes in America.

They are dominant. They are exceptional. They have pierced through white glass ceilings. And they are also often viewed as the other.

During a discussion on “Jesus, Justice, and Revival,” Pastor Michael Wright from Christ Tabernacle Church in Austin, Chicago, shared an anecdote from an AAU basketball tournament. A white team had just beaten a team of all Black players. After the game, he overheard a white kid excitedly tell his Dad that they somehow beat an all Black team, and they both couldn’t believe it. 

In my countless hours at summer basketball tournaments in air condition-less gyms, I bore witness to this same sentiment. It’s subtle, but it shows that Black athletes are viewed differently. 

They are viewed as dominant and exceptional, but in a way that makes the mainstream culture question whether Black athletes belong in the same group as them.

At the professional and collegiate levels, Black athletes have been simultaneously praised for their performance and disparaged for their racial identity for years. Why will fans root for players every week but question their experience as a Black person in their community?

The murder of George Floyd and the ensuing protests have prompted athletes to use their platforms. As they begin to speak out, how will their fans respond?

Why will fans root for players every week but question their experience as a Black person in their community?

My all-time favorite college football team made headlines earlier this month when players voiced their support for Black Lives Matter and shared their experiences of being Black in central Iowa. The state of Iowa is more than 90% white, and the Iowa Hawkeye football team is certainly more than 10% Black. 

In a state without a professional sports team, the fans expect the Hawkeyes to perform their craft to perfection. When they don’t, they are chastised. When anything other than football hits the news, the athletes are delegitimized. But as they speak, it’s important that we all listen.

After all, activism is deeply embedded in the history of sports. A comprehensive list of demonstrations dating back to 1883 is cataloged here

One particular event worth highlighting right now is the 1968 protests by Tommie Smith and John Carlos on the Olympic podium at the Mexico City games. After placing in the 200-meter dash, they took off their shoes, put on their gloves, and raised their fists as the National Anthem played to peacefully protest racial discrimination in America.

Forty-eight years later, Colin Kaepernick knelt in his San Francisco 49ers jersey during the National Anthem before playing the Green Bay Packers. He was quickly ousted by the NFL; no team showed interest in taking on Kaepernick if it meant his opinions and demonstrations were coming with him.

In 2020, Kaepernick remains unsigned. Only this month in the aftermath of the widespread outage over the murder of George Floyd did Roger Goodell publicly encourage teams to consider adding Kaepernick to their lineup.

Protests around the American flag have always been contentious, so it’s important to share a few facts about how the National Anthem became a pre-game staple in sports. 

The National Anthem was first played at a baseball game in 1862, one year before the Emancipation Proclamation. The National Anthem continued to play throughout the 19th century on the opening day of baseball season. It wasn’t regularly played across sports, including football, until the 1918 World Series between the Boston Red Sox and Chicago Cubs, which took place two months before the end of World War I and during a global pandemic. 

Playing the National Anthem at sporting events then became commonplace for nearly everyone, but some institutions with strong pacifist ideals abstained from the practice. It’s likely that this group of dissenters will continue to increase. As athletes continue to share their experiences, we should show support through more than cheering them on from the sidelines or from our couches. 

What are some methods of support you’ve employed this past year? Or as a Black athlete yourself, what are some of your experiences? Comment below!