Politics, professional sports, and racism

The put-down of ‘shut up and play’ and ‘stick to sports’ has been used to try and silence athletes, especially black ones, who have taken stands against police brutality and other forms of injustice. In his excellent book The Heritage about black athletes and politics that I reviewed earlier, Howard Bryant writes about how this has always been the case against any black athletes who dared to take a political stand that was not submissive to white power.

In 1949, Paul Robeson gave a blistering denunciation of American racism and called out patriotism for the sham it is.

In the spring of 1949, Paul Robeson, radical, anti-capitalist, PanAfrican, gave a speech at the Paris Peace Conference and dropped a bombshell that in many ways would change American history. If the United States were drawn into a war with the Soviet Union, he said, American blacks should not fight. “Why should the Negroes ever fight against the only nations of the world where racial discrimination is prohibited, and where the people can live freely? Never! I can assure you, they will never fight against either the Soviet Union or the peoples’ democracies.” (p.34)

That speech led to Robeson being stripped of his passport in 1950, greatly harming the international performing career he had created for himself after his playing days ended. He was also hauled up before the infamous House Un-American Committee in 1956. Bryant describes what happened at that hearing,

It was Robeson’s commitment to black people, both in the United States and around the world, combined with his popularity in Russia and his belief in anti-capitalist economic systems that drew the suspicion of the committee.

“The reason I am here today, you know, from the mouth of the State Department itself is: I should not be allowed to travel because I have struggled for years for the independence of the colonial peoples of Africa,” he told the committee. “I stand here struggling for the rights of my people to be full citizens in this country, and they are not. They are not in Mississippi. And they are not in Montgomery, Alabama. And they are not in Washington. They are nowhere, and that is why I am here today.”

The committee asked if he was Communist. Robeson invoked his Fifth Amendment rights six times.

Robeson addressed the committee with the recklessness of the condemned. He was, as the kids like to say today, out of fucks to give. He laughed at them, these nine white men who had already’ made up their minds that he was the enemy of the state. They told him his appearance was not a laughing matter. “It is a laughing matter to me,” Robeson said. “This is complete nonsense.” They were disdainful of him (“The witness talks very loud when he makes a speech, but when he invokes the Fifth Amendment I cannot hear him.”), and he was disdainful back (“I invoked the Fifth Amendment very loudly. You know I am an actor, and I have medals for diction.”). The chairman was Francis E. Walter, the Pennsylvania Democrat. “You,” Robeson said, “are the author of the bills that are going to keep all kinds of decent people out of the country.”

“No,” Walter responded. “Only your kind.”

Robeson told the committee that while visiting the Soviet Union, he had never faced the type of discrimination he faced in Mississippi, or the type of hostility he now faced from them. The Ohio Republican Gordon Scherer, known for his racism, for being a committee pit bull, threw the old America, love it or leave it saw at Robeson, the line so many whites would use over the years to treat black American citizenship as a charity unearned, which they could revoke easily, and at their leisure. “Why,” Scherer asked, “do you not stay in Russia?”

“Because my father was a slave, and my people died to build this country, and I’m going to stay right here and have a part of it, just like you,” he responded. “And no fascist-minded people like you will drive me from it. Is that clear?”

The combat ended with Walter abruptly adjourning the hearing (“I’ve endured all of this that I can.”), but not before Robeson told the committee, “You are the non-patriots, and you are the un-Americans, and you ought to be ashamed of yourselves.” (p. x, xi)

However Bryant says the US was ever willing to use black athletes to serve its own propaganda purposes when it suited them, as was the case with Jesse Owens and Joe Louis being used as ‘good Americans’ against the Nazis.

Nazi Germany grew tired of hearing America moralize about concepts of “good” and “evil,” and reminded America, through newspaper articles and rhetoric, that for all the talk, the Land of the Free wouldn’t let white and black people drink out of the same water fountain. So, when America needed its national ideals defended, it didn’t want to stick to sports. It demanded the black athlete. Even before Jesse Owens stood down Adolf Hitler’s white supremacy by dominating the 1936 Berlin Olympics, Owens had been asked by American Jews and the Communist newspaper the Daily Worker to consider boycotting the games in solidarity against Nazism on the grounds that Jews were suffering in Germany under the similarly legal and extralegal methods used to subjugate blacks in America. Owens refused. In order to claim a favorable contrast with Nazism, America needed Owens to be a spokesman on the black social condition. Owens would nm for the United States and be an ambassador for its virtues. America wasn’t perfect, he would say, but at least it allowed the possibility of a meritocracy, especially through sports. “The Nazis often point out that American Negroes are victims of discrimination, but Negroes are not barred from our Olympic teams,” wrote syndicated columnist Westbrook Pegler in the Washington Post in the summer of 1936. “Many of them have worn the American shield in the past, and some of the most formidable athletes on this year’s squad are colored.” (p. 31, 32)

Black athletes were also used as propaganda by the US during the Cold War.

As early as 1937, the Communist Party’s Daily Worker ran a story quoting the great Satchel Paige saying that organized baseball should be integrated. Far more urgently and consistently than the American mainstream press, it was the Daily Worker, specifically its sportswriter Lester Rodney, who continued to press the argument that without integration, America was really no different than the regimes its soldiers were fighting. The Communists were calling America out on its racial hypocrisies. The Russians argued that the United States had a hell of a lot of nerve acting as the world’s moral conscience when African Americans and whites often did not have their babies delivered in the same hospitals, and the same athletes honored for winning Olympic medals and lauded for defending American principles couldn’t even play sports on the same field with whites within the borders of their own country. The government responded to Communist claims that minority groups in the country were growing impatient not because their basic rights were being denied them but because good, hardworking black communities comfortable with their place had been infiltrated by Communists-and would set out to prove it. (p. 34)

Colin Kaepernick embodies the spirit of the Heritage begun by Robeson and, like Robeson, is paying the price for not playing the political game in the approved ways, including being undercut by fellow black athletes who seek to ingratiate themselves with the white power structure for their own benefit.

It is for this reason that Colin Kaepernick engenders so much anger: he is not a peacemaker. He did not seek the approval of the white public for his beliefs. He did not try to make them comfortable. There were no ride-alongs with cops or PR experts massaging the words until they found just the right tone that didn’t offend the mainstream or the cops. For his fidelity, the NFL punished Colin Kaepernick just as the US government had punished Robeson and Ali, by eliminating his ability to work, in this case closing off the American pro football world to him. The blueprint of dealing with the Heritage had not changed. Activist players before him had all paid the price, and now it was his turn.

Invariably, it was the black players who provided the league cover. Michael Vick said Kaepernick’s job search could be aided by cutting his hair. Ray Lewis said Kaepernick needed to “shut his mouth.” If Donald Trump provided the truth serum that embodied the backlash against eight years of a black president, Colin Kaepernick provided the truth serum for an unevolved sports industry. He exposed the limits of the Heritage and, perhaps most importantly, 125 years after Reconstruction, revealed America’s unchanged valuing of the black body over the black brain.

The black body is so important that the NFL allowed Vick a pathway back after he did a year and a half in Leavenworth. When Vick, murderer of animals, was released from prison, the NFL awaited. He played for Philadelphia, which steadfastly withstood the protests against Vick, then with the New York Jets and Pittsburgh Steelers before retiring. He was then hired by the Kansas City Chiefs organization. Michael Irvin, who as a player was busted for cocaine and settled out of court for sexual assault, is one of the most prominent faces on the league’s television house organ, the NFL Network. Irvin was nearly sent to prison for twenty years after an altercation with a teammate could have resulted in a possible parole violation before the Dallas Cowboys owner, Jerry Jones, intervened to broker a truce.

Jones is the same man who threatens his players against kneeling and worked behind the scenes to adopt rules forcing players to stand for the national anthem. The year before, Jones signed defensive end Greg Hardy, who was found guilty of beating and threatening to kill his girlfriend.

How could Vick and Lewis even be employed after what they’d done, let alone feel emboldened to offer Kaepernick advice on how to behave? Or how could an anonymous NFL executive say in 2016 Kaepernick was as hated a player as Rae Carruth, the former Carolina wide receiver sentenced to life in prison for ordering the murder of his pregnant girlfriend- and have virtually no players come to his defense? How could the football public accept such a vulgar incongruity? In a sense, it was easy: Vick and Lewis fit the stereotype of what a black man is supposed to be: violent, aggressive, criminal. It was easy for Steve Bisciotti, the owner of the Ravens, to navigate Lewis. Black male anger sold. It was what the public expected from them, and it allowed white male owners to seem benevolent without having their power threatened. The players were troubled, and paternalistic owners would provide post-playing careers for three convicted felons. (p. 226, 227)

Racist attitudes are alive and well in American professional sports, despite the immense financial success of a few black athletes and nowhere is it more apparent than in the way black athletes who speak out against injustice are treated.


  1. says

    That speech led to Robeson being stripped of his passport in 1950

    Because “free speech” right? And I’m sure all the gun-toting constitutional literalist gibberers came out en masse to defend Robeson, right?

  2. mnb0 says

    “he had never faced the type of discrimination he faced in Mississippi”
    Then he hasn’t looked around properly. Wikipedia has a lemma on racism in the Soviet-Union; all kinds of ethnic groups were discriminated against.
    Of course this does not contradict Robeson’s criticism of the USA. Unfortunately things weren’t (and to a too large extent aren’t) that much better in The Netherlands either. This picture is from 1996:


    No prices for guessing correctly who received the blame for this example of segregation.

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