FAIRFAX, VIGINIA —-- It seems like sport sociologists have been attempting to answer the question, "Why does sport appear to be more important within the African American community than education?" for ages. FAIRFAX, VIGINIA —-- It seems like sport sociologists have been attempting to answer the question, "Why does sport appear to be more important within the African American community than education?" for ages. I would venture to say that for African American sport sociologists, there exists a personal sense of urgency to finding the answer to this question. This column is by no means my attempt to answer the question of why sport appears to be more important to the African American community than education. What I will attempt to do is place a joint emphasis on sport and politics, thereby creating a lens through which to examine the importance of sport to the African American community. The omission of education from this examination is intentional.
I recently came across an article, "Affirmative Reaction" (1995), which was a dialogue between Mr. Cornel West and Mr. Henry Louis Gates, Jr. on the subject of affirmative action and the status of the African American community. One of the many significant points in the article, and the one that encouraged me to address this subject, was a question posed by Mr. West to Mr. Gates:
CW: "Isn't it interesting that sports and music have been the two major contexts in which Blacks have been able to compete fairly?
HLG: "…when you look at the place of play in the human experience, it's very difficult for the structures of unfairness to be actually at the center of that play, or it's not really play."
This short discourse between these two African American academicians ignited a match within me. As the flames flickered in my consciousness, my love of sport, coupled with my "love" of investigating anything political, began to become less of a mystery. I began to wonder how many other African Americans have this dual fascination with sport and politics.
Mr. West's question/statement on sports as one of two major contexts in which Blacks have been able to compete fairly and Mr. Gates' response/explanation "turned the lights on" for me. The stories told over and over by older African Americans about how feelings of community triumphed whenever Joe Louis defeated an opponent became clearer. The triumphs of the "Brown Bomber" were not just athletic. They were political. In the ring, the rules are established. This explains why Jack Johnson's triumphs over opponents were so reviled by political powers. In sports, the rules must be enforced or the subsequent victory is tainted. So, for African Americans, victories in sports, especially against White opponents, were in essence political victories. As long as the political victories remained in the ring, they were accepted by the political powers.
When African American athletes began to raise their voices against social injustices, the ramifications for the athletes were severe and pervasive. Some examples of this phenomenon are the lives of Paul Robeson, Muhammad Ali, Tommie Smith and John Carlos.
The attack on Paul Robeson began when he stepped outside of the arenas of both music and sports. Martin Duberman's extensive 1988 biography of Mr. Robeson allows readers to experience adoration with Paul Robeson when he was singing and acting, as well as to experience his frustration and disappointment in living as a second-class citizen of the United States. We know today of the magnitude of Paul Robeson's intellect. This fact is well published. What many of us do not know is that when he exercised his rights to freely speak against social injustice his ability to make a living as a singer/actor here in this country was taken away. In addition, his passport was taken away, thereby prohibiting him from traveling abroad to perform.
In a similar fashion, Muhammad Ali's refusal to be inducted into the United States armed forces was a pol