Has anyone ever wondered how the world of sports had turned out different if it was not for African-American athletes? We are very fortunate to live today in this time and in this country, the United States which revolves and lives around individual and team sports. But are we cognizant of the origin of sports in this country? Are we aware of the discrimination and segregation that African-Americans had to face not only when they tried to participate in sports, but in the day-to-day life? The world of sports today in the United States is living a really good moment, people can argue about the different levels of any particular team compared to other eras, but the truth is that in the aspect and entrepreneurship and the business side of things, the ratings, television contract deals and salaries for the players American sports are the highest and among the best in the world.
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Let’s think about the best athletes in all different sports in America, we can all acknowledge that every athlete that wants to be at the highest level has to have an extremely good work ethic, a discipline for the sport they play, and an attitude and mind to perform every time to their best level. But allow me to name another variable to the equation of sports, race. Since the beginning of the 1900s African-American athletes started to come out and being able to play in different sports, I am not saying that every sport had the inclusion of black players into their teams and leagues, what I am saying is that black athletes wanted to play and participate long before we had African-American professionals getting paid and being part of an organization.
But there were a lot of black athletes that we don’t know and we have never heard of them, maybe because their story had not been documented similar to the story of Jackie Robinson, or maybe because their inclusion to a professional team in a sport was not as special and important. In this paper I am going to take a trip to the past and explore the barriers and problems that African-Americans had to face in order to be included in American sports, as well as take a look at what these athletes had done in the past years and recent years to be considered important and a necessity for the major sports and how they have changed the way athletes train, think and perform inside the bubble of the all the Unites States’ major sports.
Brief history of American Sports
Nelson Mandela once said “sports have the capacity to transform the universe. It has the ability to motivate. It has the ability to bring individuals together in a manner that nothing else can. It addresses young people in a dialect they apprehend. It can create a trust where once there was just misery. It is more powerful than state machinery in eliminating any form of discrimination or racial stereotypes” (Das 6). While he was alluding to his encounters in South Africa, this was also evident in the United States. It was difficult, and it unquestionably didn’t happen rapidly. Over time sports gave individuals of various backgrounds a distinctive test.
Sports have been a vital part of the way of life of the United States since its inception. The natives were playing games like lacrosse before the colonial era. Historians believe that Lacrosse was invented over ten centuries ago to express appreciation, commendation, and delight to the divine beings (Roediger 4). On the other hand, the Puritans did not have confidence in sports because they believed it was a wicked exercise in futility. However, the southern states relished sports. They believed it was a way for men to demonstrate their eminence and potency. More significantly, only the rich could take part in well-known games, for example, fox racing (Sutton par.4.).
In order for games and recreational activities to become a culture, there must be recreation time and affluence (Roediger 14). The industrial revolution played a significant part in the enhancement of recreation time. As less and less time was needed to make ends meet, individuals in the United States had more time to take part in leisure activities and games. Moreover, salaries in the United States rose sharply to an extent that there was more money to spend in recreational activities and sports. Tennis and golf initially showed up in the mid to late nineteenth century. However, they were just relished by a few until as of late (Roediger 15).
Even though informal games were enjoyed across different cultures, it was until the mid-19th century that the U.S. formalized sports and enacted laws to regulate the industry. Around then, there were numerous unprofessional teams in the North Eastern region that would come together and play frequently. As the nation went through Civil War, the games spread as the troops moved from one state to another. The first professional team was established in 1870 (Roediger 15). Until the early 1890s, there were very few African-Americans on expert baseball teams.
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Bud Fowler, Lynn Live Oaks’ player, might have been the first African-American to be included in a professional baseball team. There is a ten-year history of African-Americans who played in semi-professional and professional leagues. After that period, a memorandum of understanding was signed that barred black players from taking part in the major baseball leagues. By the end of 19th century, only whites were allowed to take part in professional baseball leagues. This continued until 1946 when Dodger included Jackie Robinson in their team (Roediger 16).
Before 1946, baseball reflected the American society where whites and blacks had their own leagues. Whereas there was no law forbidding blacks from taking part in major baseball league, no club would sign them (Lahman par.2.). In the early, 1940s, Kenesaw Landis who was a commissioner in major baseball league started an anti-segregation campaign. It was through his efforts that Jackie Robinson was allowed to take part in the Major Baseball League. Unfortunately, he died in 1944 (Lahman par.4.).
Branch Rickey, Dodger’s general manager, was the first to include a black player in his team. Branch Rickey, who was the general manager believed that the first black to take part in the Major Baseball League would be an individual with exceptional talent. He would be better than his white counterpart to justify his inclusion in the team. Also, this player would need to have personality and trustworthiness. Nevertheless, he knew the player would face numerous hurdles and troublesome times. For this reason, he would need to be an individual who could cope under such circumstances. Jackie Robinson was the perfect fit (Sutton par.6.).
Jackie Robinson had encountered racial prejudice since his childhood. They were the only African-American in their neighborhood. Their experience mad them grow closer and stronger (Sutton par.6.). Jackie exceeded expectations at games from a youthful age and remained so even in college. While at the University of California, Robinson became the first sportsperson to excel in four sports. The bigotry he encountered followed him from his childhood life to college, as well as in army profession. While in the military, he was taken to an army court in light of a racial episode on a bus (Sutton par.7.).
In the wake of being respectably released, Robinson went to play in the Negro league. When Branch Ricky heard of Robinson, he felt he was the perfect fit to break the racial barrier (Sutton par.7.). He believed Robinson was tough enough to handle a racial crowd, competitors, and fellow team members. When signing his contract, Rickey made sure that Robinson had agreed not to respond to racial insults that were aimed at him. Robinson kept his word. He remained throughout his baseball career. His character and personality are what made him be accepted by his team members and the league as a whole. He earned numerous honors, including newbie of the year, group MVP, and in the end, a World Series flag (Sutton par.8.).
African-Americans who made a mark in the world of sports
While Jackie Robinson is famous for battling prejudice in games, each game took its own path in fighting racism. The first sport to embrace African-Americans fully was wrestling. Nevertheless, Robinson became the first African-American to win a title in 1908, and he was unreservedly outspoken (Lahman par. 8.). When he helped his team to become the U.S. champions in 1910, race uproars were in full swing all over the nation. Personally, Robinson got numerous death threats. He infringed numerous segregation laws, for instance, using washrooms meant for whites and being with white women (Lahman par. 9.).
In 1936, Jessie Owens became the first African-American to win Olympic gold medal in different field events. Hitler, humiliated by the accomplishment of somebody he believed was second class, turned his back amid the award function. Owen became an idol when he returned home. Hitler’s conduct was condemned by both whites and blacks. Since Jessie Owen’s era, African-Americans have been competing in every Olympic Games (Eitzen 10).
Many people referred to him as Jackie Robinson of ice hockey (Dufur 35). Fans in Boston appreciated O’Ree. However, he faced numerous racial intolerances on and off the field. He would battle as is ordinary in hockey, yet it was on account of insults he got from players from the opposing teams; some would cross check or spike him with their hockey sticks. He only played for two years in the national hockey league with modest achievement but was very successful in the minor league. He encouraged youngsters, especially from the poor neighborhood to join local clubs (Dufur 36).
William Richmond became the first African-American to become a professional boxer in 1805. Richmond also faced racism on and off the ring. As a matter of fact, when he lost his first match against Tom Cribb, the crowd was delighted merely because he was black (Evans par.10.). For the African-American, boxing had its high points and low points. Race became a major issue as boxing became more popular and a highly paid sport. Joe Gans became the first African-American to win a global title in boxing. He won his first title in 1902. Gans gave hope to many black boxers seeking for an opportunity at the global boxing arena in all categories aside from the heavyweight title. The heavyweight title was reserved for whites only. As a matter of fact, most white heavyweight boxers refused to fight African-Americans (Evans par.11.).
John Arthur Johnson was the first African-American to take part in the heavyweight category. He earned his first victory against Joe Choynsky in 1901. From 1901 to 1903, Johnson won twenty-three fights and lost one. Johnson opened a door of opportunity for many black heavyweight fighters including Mohamed Ali, Joe Frazer and George Foreman who went ahead to become undisputed heavyweight fighters (Sutton par. 9).
Another African-American to transform the world of sport is Tiger Woods. His influence on the game was phenomenal (Batchelor and Coombs 58). According to Batchelor and Coombs, Tiger brought the game back to the masses (58). The publicity he commanded brought the sport back to the mainstream and created an incredible legacy. Woods made people of different colors appreciate the game (Batchelor and Coombs 59).
Michael Jordan also changed the face of basketball with his athletic prowess and ability to market the game. Jordan’s contribution helped to enhance the status of the game to a new level. Jordan and his characteristic stunts are nowadays an American symbol and have made him one of the best athletes ever. He helped the United States to win an Olympic gold medal in 1984 and 1992. He was named the most valuable player five times and voted on the NBA’s all-star teams more than ten times (Batchelor and Coombs 60).
Like Tiger Woods, the William Sisters (Serena and Venus) have elevated status of female tennis. Their influence has seen a growing number of women joining the game (Batchelor and Coombs 60). Before they emerged on the scene, female tennis was not popular, especially among non-whites. Their emergence brought passion, fashion, and style into the game. When the future historians look back on the women’s tennis, they will assuredly indicate one occasion that changed the course of the sport more than ever before, that is, when the William Sister’s emerged on the scene in the late 90s. The work turned out to be more than getting play in progress; it turned into a weapon (Batchelor and Coombs 61).
According to Batchelor and Coombs, the William sisters are powerful athletes who developed to command ladies’ tennis and transformed the game (62). Their hard serves along with intense ground strokes introduced a period of powerful athletes to which ladies’ tennis had never witnessed. They have both been ranked number one on more than one occasion. Venus might hold the speediest documented serve, but Serena’s serve is effective, as well as predictable, easy and exact. The both have won 88 titles between them, which includes 22 Grand Slam titles, 2 gold medals, and 13 Grand Slam doubles championship (Batchelor and Coombs 63).
Sports have been a vital part of the way of life of the United States since its inception. The natives were playing games like lacrosse before the colonial era. Historians believe that Lacrosse was invented over ten centuries ago to express appreciation, commendation, and delight to the divine beings. On the other hand, the Puritans did not have confidence in sports because they believed it was a wicked exercise in futility. However, the southern states relished sports.
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The world of sports today in the United States is living a really good moment, people can argue about the different levels of any particular team compared to other eras, but the truth is that in the aspect and entrepreneurship and the business side of things, the ratings, television contract deals and salaries for the players American sports are the highest and among the best in the world. The industrial revolution played a significant part in the enhancement of recreation time. As less and less time was needed to make ends meet, individuals in the United States had more time to take part in leisure activities and games.
The American Sports have come a long way; from an era where people of color were not allowed to join major leagues, to an era where there considered American icons. Kenesaw Landis was the pioneer of the anti-segregation campaign in sports. This is partly attributed to the fact that baseball was the most popular game in the earlier times. It was through his efforts that Jackie Robinson was allowed to take part in the Major Baseball League. The African-Americans who dared to take part in major leagues experienced all forms of racial prejudice on and off the field. Currently, we can confidently say that African-Americans have made a significant contribution to sports. Individuals like Michael Jordan, Tiger Woods, and William sisters have changed the course of the game than it has ever been witnessed before.
Batchelor, Bob and Danielle Coombs. American History through American Sports: From Colonial Lacrosse to Extreme Sports. California: ABC-Clio, 2012. Print.
Dufur, Mikaela. African-Americans in Sports, New Jersey: Transaction Publishers, 1998. Print.
Eitzen, Stanley. “American Sport at the End of the Twentieth Century.” Annals of American History 4.1(1999):6-22. Print.
Evans, Stella. Civil Rights and Sports: The Athletes Who Changed the Face of Sports. PDF file. Web.
Lahman, Sean. A Brief History of Baseball. 1995. Web.
Roediger, David. Colored White: Transcending the Racial Past, California: University of California Press, 2002. Print.
Sutton, Charles. The Civil Rights Movement’s Impact on Sports. 2012. Web.