Who is the Black Athlete, and why is he such a phenomenon in American society?
From Jack Johnson to Terrell Owens, the black athlete has been a mystery. Unable to be deciphered by his white counterparts, he is often ridiculed. But in more cases than not, he has become the measuring stick for greatness—as in the cases of Muhammad Ali and Jim Brown.
When I speak to the Baby Boomer generation and those born prior to it, they recall the atrocities many of the groundbreaking athletes faced. The Civil Rights movement had not reached its peak, so there was little resistance in the form of demonstrations, marches, etc. All those athletes had to fall back on was the support of one another.
However, the 21st-century edition of the black athlete comes out of the blast furnace of urban America, politically conscious and consumed in the hip-hop culture. While circumstance forges an unrelenting desire for greatness, the developmental tools needed to survive in today’s world are lost somewhere in their formative years.
This can be the case in any individual, but it is most prominent in the black communities.
Despite the media portrayal of most of today’s black athletes as selfish, highlight-seeking enigmas, they are undoubtedly some of the most gifted and popular athletes in the world.
With that in mind, let us look at the black athlete past, present and future.
Jack Johnson was boxing’s first black Heavyweight champion. Johnson carried himself with such a swagger that whites went as far as to put out a call for a “Great White Hope” in an effort to dethrone Johnson. That handle was placed upon former champion Jim Jeffries, who had retired three years earlier.
Jack London, author and journalist, wrote that, “Jim Jeffries must come out of retirement...the white man must be saved.” If the fate of the white race was in Jeffries' hands, he failed miserably in his defeat to Johnson. The fallout from this event was nothing less than barbaric—riots ensued as blacks were attacked and killed because whites were outraged that a black man had defeated a white man in the boxing ring.
Johnson continued with rub white America's nose in it. He went as far as to date white women openly, something that did not go over too well in a segregated America. Again, Johnson would come away unscathed.
At this point, Johnson is unstoppable in and out of the ring; so what happens next? You guessed it; the FBI launched an investigation into Johnson’s activities and found him guilty of transporting white women across state lines for immoral purposes.
Did he open a bordello? Or did I miss something? Johnson was an excellent athlete who dated white women and took them on the road with him. Where is the crime in that? Jim Crow was the unwritten law then. History would later prove the charges against Johnson were bogus.
Joe Louis was probably the most embraced black athlete of the first half of the 20th century.
He became heavyweight champion of the world at age 23. Louis was the anti-Johnson, passive, humble, and approachable; many view Louis as the greatest heavyweight champion of all time. Louis would have public support during his two bouts with German boxer Max Schmeling in 1936 and 1938. These fights carried a political overtone, due to Schmeling’s association with the German Nazi Party.
Jesse Owens found himself in a similar position during the 1936 Olympic games in Berlin, Germany. Owens and the rest of the world heard Adolf Hitler’s proclamation that the Aryan nation was a “superior race."
Owens would go on to win four gold medals in track and field, silencing Hitler in the process to the point where Hitler refused to award Owens his medals. Owens returned to the United States a hero, but was later stripped of his amateur status for refusal to run exhibition meets in Europe.
Joe Louis served in the United States Army from 1942 to 1945. During this period, he traveled through Europe fighting in exhibitions, giving back the money awarded to him during this time, demonstrating his faith in the war effort.
Upon retirement in 1949, the tables of good fortune would turn on Louis, placing a blemish on his legacy.
In 1950, Louis was harassed by the IRS (they took away his childrens' trust funds and money left to him from his deceased mother), forcing him to come out of retirement. Louis, a shell of his former self, would retire after a knockout loss to Rocky Marciano.
In his later years, Joe Louis became a fixture in the Las Vegas circuit. Broke and working as a greeter at Caesar’s Palace, Louis lived his last days in poverty. Longtime friend Frank Sinatra paid for a couple of operations that Louis needed, and even supported him financially.
In April of 1981, Louis succumbed to heart failure; buried in Arlington National Cemetery with full military honors, Max Schmeling funded Louis’ funeral. Schmeling and Louis developed a bond outside of the ring that lasted until Louis’ death.
The plight of Joe Louis’ life after boxing is infuriating to many of us. It illustrates how the United States used Louis and many other prominent blacks to their benefit. Once these individuals were no longer seen as assets, they were shown the door.
The true irony is that at the time the United States was no better than Hitler’s Germany; both practiced racial separation and used black athletes as major tools in their hypocrisy to give the world the impression that racial harmony was alive and well in the States.
Jackie Robinson broke baseball’s color barrier in 1947—America’s pastime represents a direct correlation between baseball and the black experience in America.
Segregation, degradation, and humiliation have followed the black athlete from day one, and Robinson endured all three as a member of the Brooklyn Dodgers. In ballparks across America, Robinson was the object of taunts, slurs, and anything else derogatory that can be hurled at someone.
Rarely drawing a complaint, Robinson’s decision to go about his business in this manner spoke volumes about Jackie Robinson as a man.
Jack Johnson, Joe Louis, and Jackie Robinson are examples of the segregation, degradation and humiliation that black athletes faced and ultimately overcame.
However, in the late 1950s and early 1960s, a new generation of black athletes was born. They did not come to bow down; they came to conquer, even if it meant sacrificing their livelihoods for their beliefs. These men and women were conscious of the social climate they were living in, and were determined to make a change.
Althea Gibson had to deal with the discrimination of being a black woman trying to break into a sport that was lily white. Tennis was an openly segregated sport, and Gibson could only participate in leagues governed for blacks only. In 1950, Gibson would receive the opportunity to play in the U.S. Championships in New York, but not without humiliation.
Gibson was forced to undergo tests to confirm that she was a woman.
Another example of how whites of that day continued to humiliate blacks, who just wanted equal treatment. Gibson would compete for six years without winning a tournament. However, in 1957 she would win Wimbledon, becoming the first black, male or female, to do so.
Gibson would also integrate the LPGA (Ladies Professional Golf Association) in 1964; too far along in age to be competitive, she only played for four years.
Muhammad Ali may be the most beloved individual on a worldwide scale this side of Jesus Christ. The most charismatic athlete of our lifetime entered the American conscious as Cassius Marcellus Clay.
After winning a gold medal in the 1960 Rome Olympic Games, he returned to his native Louisville, Kentucky. There he was refused service at soda shops and any other place where integration exists today. Confused and hurt, Clay wondered how he could fight for a country that did not give him equal rights. The gold medal at this point seemed tarnished, and he tossed it into the river.
Following his stunning knockout of Sonny Liston on March 5, 1964, Clay confirmed rumors that he was joining the Nation of Islam. Joined by Malcolm X, Clay revealed that he would be known as Cassius X, which would later be changed to Muhammad Ali.
The fallout from this event was great; many wondered how the new young champion could associate himself with a "hate group." The answer was simple—once anyone becomes conscious of injustice of any kind, there is going to be resistance. Moreover, Ali was pushing back with a weapon far more powerful than his hands…his mouth:
“I ain’t got no quarrel with those Viet Cong; no Viet Cong ever called me nigger.”
Upon selection for the military draft, Ali unabashedly let the world know where he stood on the Viet Nam conflict. It was not about dodging the draft, it was about conviction, and his would not allow him to travel half a world away to kill a people at as much of a disadvantage as his own.
Therefore, he had no beef with the Viet Cong; his beef was with the United States.
The same United States that he won a gold medal for; the same United States that at the height of the Civil Rights movement allowed police to sic dogs on men, women, and children of color, and those of no color who chose to stand with them. Finally, the same United States stripped him of his World Heavyweight Championship for refusal to play by their rules.
Ali would not fight for three years, but upon his return to the ring, he would defeat then-champion George Foreman, and win two of three epic battles with Joe Frazier while winning the world title twice more—displaying the power to lay down his career and resurrect it again, claiming that he was “The Greatest” along the way.
Ali would come full circle. In the 1996 Atlanta Olympic Games, the same man who was considered a traitor and a hatemonger stood at the Olympic cauldron, representing world unity. Around his neck was his gold medal from the 1960 Rome games, replaced by the IOC.
Who would’ve thought this back in 1965.
If Muhammad Ali was responsible for introducing us to self-awareness, then Jim Brown is given credit for restoring pride to the black man. Jim Brown was part Jack Johnson, part Muhammad Ali, and all man.
As a member of the Cleveland Browns, Brown would set the standard for NFL running backs. He was a force out of the backfield that the NFL had not seen before and hasn't seen since. Considered by many to be the greatest player in NFL history, Jim Brown represented a coolness that drew admiration from men...and women.
Brown is recalled by many as being a man’s man; he would not allow himself to be dictated to. His very retirement was the result of his refusal to be dictated to. Brown was in London wrapping up filming the Dirty Dozen in July of 1966, when Browns owner Art Modell insisted that he come to training camp.
Brown refused, and Modell countered with the threat of daily fines. Brown called Modell’s bluff and announced his retirement.
If you grew up in the 1960s, Jim Brown was the man that many young black men grew to idolize. He carried himself in a way that you he would not allow himself to be disrespected. He stood up to the system as a player in the NFL and in society.
Brown played an integral part in uniting black athletes in the sports world during the Civil Rights movement. He would go on to become cinema’s first black action film star. He shared a kissing scene with 1960s bombshell Raquel Welch, which caused quite a stir.
If men wanted to be Jim Brown, women just wanted him. Brown dated black women, white women; any woman that appealed to him was his.
There is the fabled story of Brown shoving his European companion off a balcony. That story has been denied by Brown and the alleged victim, but the stigma of being a womanizer sticks to Brown better than most tacklers did.
After football, Brown became founder of the Amer I Can foundation. This organization seeks to stop violence in the South Central Los Angeles community. Brown has been at the forefront of several truce meetings between the rival Crips and Bloods gangs, and remains an activist in black communities across America.
These are just some of the black contributors to sports and to society. There are many more to be mentioned—Fritz Pollard, Marion Motley, Larry Doby, Bill Willis, Dr. Harry Edwards, Bill Russell, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Curt Flood, Dick Allen, Joe Frazier, Arthur Ashe, Wilma Rudolph, Tommy Smith, and John Carlos.
In the 1960s and 1970s, the black athlete stepped to the forefront and laid the groundwork for much of what you see today in sports—free agency, black coaches in professional sports, and multi-million dollar contracts.
However, to gain the notoriety of millions, there was a price to be paid. It was paid in the form of fire hoses, German shepherds, billy clubs, lynchings, and a government that could care less. Progress has been made; but there are still areas in sports and society that have not been touched by our hands.
The question brought to me was how black athletes have influenced our children. It is easy to point to a crossover dribble or an end zone dance. But there is more to the black athlete than just entertainment value, and they need to be shown respect in that manner.
Before there was the black athlete, there was the black man and the black woman, who have suffered through many injustices that others could never imagine or comprehend.
Therefore, if I had to sit down in front of a class and explain this, I would talk about the resiliency of the black athlete to push forward despite roadblocks along the way.
The black athlete is strong mentally as well as physically; ask Bill Russell which was tougher, facing Wilt Chamberlain or explaining to his children why their white "neighbors" vandalized their home?
The black athlete holds his/her head high regardless the circumstances. Althea Gibson faced humiliating tests to prove that she was a woman, because she was such a dominant tennis player. Through it all, she was able to face the world and win her sport’s ultimate prize. Pride is an attribute that Jim Brown displayed when he told owner Art Modell that losing him would hurt more than his attempts to fine him.
The black athlete is a defiant individual; Jesse Owens proved to Adolf Hitler and the world that there is no "superior race," only the human race.
So in closing, if you want to know the influence the black athlete has on our children, realize first that these are men and women with extraordinary talent placed in inordinate situations, displaying the proper character needed to achieve success.
Therefore, when you look at LeBron James, Ryan Howard, LaDanian Tomlinson, and others, understand that they may not have gone through some of the same trials and tribulations as those before them—but believe me, at some point in their lives, they have encountered something that made them dig a little deeper inside themselves.
“We drink from wells that we did not dig.” – Fritz Pollard