A Legacy of African American Resistance and Activism Through Sport

by Joseph N. Cooper (Author)
©2021 Textbook XII, 378 Pages


In recent years, there has been increased attention garnered toward activism in sport within the United States. In 2016, Colin Kaepernick’s activist act of taking a knee during the national anthem before National Football League games sparked a nationwide debate on the intersection of sports, race, and politics. Kaepernick’s actions were a part of a long lineage of activism in and through sport. Prior accounts of African American activism in and through sport have been limited in the following eight areas: (1) primarily focused on one type of activism (e.g., symbolic protests/boycotts); (2) a lack of differentiation between activism and borderline activist actions (e.g., agency, pioneering, and advocacy); (3) a lack of emphasis on hybrid resistance; (4) a focus on athletes and teams versus sportspersons (i.e., media, scholars, business leaders, and community members) and institutions (i.e., historically Black colleges and universities, athletic programs, and conferences) more broadly; (5) largely focused on one era of prominent athlete activism in the 1960s; (6) principally excluded and marginalized the importance of women’s role in resistance efforts (e.g., activism for social change); (7) primarily focused on activism at the intercollegiate and professional levels with less attention toward youth and interscholastic levels; and (8) a lack of theoretically driven analyses of the resistance efforts exhibited by African American sportspersons, teams, groups, organizations, and institutions. Instead of exclusively using the term activism, the author uses the broader encompassing term of resistance as the focal framework for this text. Resistance is defined as intentional and/or unintentional actions by individuals, groups, organizations, and/or institutions that challenge oppressive systems and ideological hegemony. Using adaptive race- and ethnicity-centric typologies and interdisciplinary theories, this book offers a critical analysis of African Americans’ intra- and inter-generational resistance actions where, when, why, and how sport has been utilized to express their humanity, preserve their cultural heritages, empower themselves and their communities, project political views, and pursue freedom, equality, and justice.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title Page
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Dedication
  • Contents
  • List of Tables
  • Acknowledgments
  • Introduction
  • 1 A Sociohistorical Overview of African American Resistance in the United States
  • 2 Theoretical Foundations for Understanding African American Resistance in and through Sport
  • 3 Complexity and Contingency: Borderline Activism and Hybrid Resistance in and beyond Sport
  • 4 (Un)Popular Resistance: Public Demonstrations and Sport as a Platform for Activism
  • 5 Resistance in Sport: The Pursuit of Institutional Reform
  • 6 Resistance through Sport: The Pursuit of Social Justice and Societal Change
  • 7 The Future of African American Resistance in and through Sport
  • Index


First and foremost, I would like to thank God my Heavenly Father, Jesus Christ my Lord and Personal Savior, and the Holy Spirit that dwells within me. Without Him, I am nothing, but with Him I am filled, saved, and redeemed. Thank you Lord for being my everything and for your infinite love, grace, and mercy. Everything I do seeks to glorify you. To my lovely wife and best teammate, Monique Cooper, thank you for loving me the way you do and growing with me as children of God, as adults, as spouses, as parents, and as professionals. Your incredible support means more than you know and I would not be the man I am today or the man that I am becoming without you. I love you, I love you more, NOT POSSIBLE!!! Our journey is just beginning and I look forward to our future together. To my adoring daughters, Nia Elise and Natalie Jewell, thank you for being amazing and an endless inspiration for Daddy. I am honored to be your father and dad. I love you all more than words can express and continue to strive to make you all proud and build upon the legacy of our family and ancestors for you all to extend upon throughout your lives.

To my parents, Mom (Dr. Jewell Egerton Cooper) and Dad (the late Armah Jamale Cooper, M.D.), thank you both for your unconditional love, sacrifices, and support. I am who I am because of you all and everything you instilled in me and role modeled to me. I love you both infinitely. To my brother, Adam Cooper, thank you for being the best big brother in the world. You have been there for me my entire life and I always strive to make you proud. To my grandparents, Mama Jo (the late Josephine Johnson Egerton Wilkins), Daddy Walter (the late Reverend Walter Eugene Egerton, Jr.), Mama (Izetta Roberts Cooper), and Papi (the late Henry Nehemiah Cooper, M.D.), thank you all for building a family legacy of faith, excellence, and resilience. I stand on your shoulders and honor you all for everything you did and continue to do in the lives of our family in life and death. To my extended family members, I love you all very much and I am grateful for our bonds. Each of you inspire me in a myriad of ways. Let us continue to use our lives to impact our families, communities, states, regions, nation, and world positively. To my friends, past and present, you all are great and the ways you live your lives have helped me be a better version of myself. We are all walking in our respective journeys and I have been blessed to cross paths and build meaningful relationships and memories with each of you.

To my colleagues, thank you for your efforts and contributions to our respective professions and the world. I draw inspiration from your work and stay encouraged to continue using our experiences, insights, talents, and resources to improve societal arrangements and outcomes grounded love, equity, and inclusion. To my students, thank you for being inquisitive, passionate, and diligent. I learn from you all every day we interact. Your futures are bright. Pursue your passion with unwavering focus, be willing to adapt to foreseeable and unforeseeable challenges, and always believe in the greatness that lies within you. Lastly, and certainly not least, to all the freedom fighters and social justice champions across every generation thank you for your courage, sacrifice, conviction, and efforts. Our collective resistance will result in ultimate redemption! The victory will be won through our struggle!

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The struggle for identity, for an authentic human existence which is the core of “our spiritual strivings,” is a radical effort to transform the world, to transform ourselves, and to give birth to a new humanity (Birt, 1997, p. 212).

In recent years, there has been increased attention garnered towards activism in sport within the United States (U.S.). In 2016, Colin Kaepernick’s activist act of taking a knee during the National Anthem before National Football League (NFL) games sparked a nationwide debate on the intersection of sports, race, and politics. Kaepernick’s actions were a part of a long lineage of activism in and through sport (Brown, 2020; Bryant, 2018; Cooper, Macaulay, & Rodriguez, 2019; Cooper, Mallery, & Macaulay, 2020; Edwards, 1969, 2016a, 2016b; Hartmann, 1996, 2009; Henderson, 2013; Miller & Wiggins, 2003; Moore, 2017; Wiggins, 1997, 2004, 2018; Wiggins & Miller, 2003; Zirin, 2008). Prior accounts of African American1 activism in and through sport has been limited in the following eight areas: (a) primarily focused on one type of activism (symbolic protests/boycotts), (b) a lack of differentiation between activism and borderline activist actions (e.g., agency, pioneering, and advocacy), (c) a lack of emphasis on hybrid resistance, (d) a focus on athletes and teams versus sportspersons2 (a range of individuals connected to sport such as media, scholars, business leaders, community members, etc.) and institutions (i.e., historically Black colleges and ←1 | 2→universities (HBCU) athletic programs and conferences) more broadly, (e) largely focused on one era of prominent athlete activism in the 1960s, (f) principally excluded and marginalized the importance of women’s role in resistance efforts such as activism for social change, (g) primarily focused on activism at the intercollegiate and professional levels with less attention towards youth and interscholastic levels, and (h) a lack of theoretically driven analyses of the resistance efforts exhibited by African American sportspersons, teams, groups, organizations, and institutions. As a result, there is need to account for the expansiveness and heterogeneity of African Americans’ resistance actions against oppressive forces in a society grounded in the ideology of White racism capitalism3 (wrc4). Using adaptive race- and ethnicity-centric typologies and interdisciplinary theories, the purpose of this book is to offer a critical analysis of African Americans’ intra-and intergenerational resistance actions where, when, why, and how sport has been utilized to express their humanity, preserve their cultural heritages, empower themselves and their communities, project political views, and pursue freedom, equality, and justice.

A vast majority of scholarship and analyses on African American sport involvement has been published in the following disciplines: historical (Ashe, 1988; Early, 2011; Henderson, 1939, 2013; Miller & Wiggins, 2003; Moore, 2017; Thomas, 2010; Wiggins, 1997, 2004, 2018; Wiggins & Miller, 2003; Wiggins & Swanson, 2016), sociological (Carrington, 2010; Cooper, 2019; Edwards, 1969, 1980; Hartmann, 1996, 2000; Hawkins, 2010; Smith 2009) and to a lesser extent in journalistic (Bryant, 2018; Powell, 2008; Rhoden, 2006; Zirin, 2008). This book seeks to bridge the gap between these respective disciplines. One of the foremost sport historians on African Americans is David K. Wiggins. He has published numerous edited and solo-authored texts documenting the history of African American sport participation and accomplishments. Building on the pioneering work of sport historians such as Dr. Edwin Bancroft (E.B.) Henderson, Sol White, Frank Fay “Doc” Young (journalist/sportswriter), Arthur Ashe, and Gerald Early, Wiggins has offered insightful analyses on the sociohistorical, socio-political, and socio-cultural contexts by which African American sport involvement has influenced U.S. society and international milieu. Wiggins’ work focuses on chronological accounts of significant events in sport such as pioneering achievements, the creation of leagues, teams, and organizations, championship victories, and select acts of activism (Miller & Wiggins, 2003; Wiggins, 2004, 2018; Wiggins & Miller, 2003; Wiggins & Swanson, 2016). Collectively, sport historians have provided a wealth of valuable archival information and critical examinations utilizing scholarly techniques unique to their discipline to assist us in understanding key aspects of African American history and culture within and ←2 | 3→beyond sport. Notwithstanding, a limitation of these historical analyses is the glaring omission of interdisciplinary theoretical lenses particularly race-centric frameworks, which offer multi-faceted insights into the historical and contemporary interplay between ecological factors and social phenomena.

In contrast, sport sociologists have incorporated sociological theories in their analyses but primarily focused on athlete protests during the Civil Rights Movement5 (CRM). This era has been described as The Golden Era of Black Athlete Activism whereby the sociopolitical and racial consciousness of the CRM (as well as the Black Power Movement (BPM) and Black Feminist Movement (BFM)) had an indelible impact on the Black athletes of the era (Bass, 2002; Edwards, 1969, 1980; Hartmann, 1996, 2009). Dr. Harry Edwards was the quintessential figure of the era who organized various grassroots and mass mobilization efforts to change unjust policies and realities both within sport and in society. Edwards’ legacy is an extension of his predecessor Paul Robeson and African American sportsperson activists of the early 20th century. Aside from the notable contributions in sport sociology, this literature has lacked longitudinal analyses of the recursive relationship between African American sport involvement and broader social movements from the early 1600s until the present day 21st century in the U.S. (Cooper et al., 2020). Relatedly, the works of William C. Rhoden, Shaun Powell, Howard Bryant, and Dave Zirin as well as several other sport journalists have offered insightful commentary on African Americans’ sporting accomplishments and the social, cultural, economic, and political impacts therein. William C. Rhoden’s 40 Million Dollar Slaves: The Rise, Fall, and Redemption of the Black Athlete is viewed as a seminal book that connects the complex history of race, sport, and power in the U.S. Despite the benefits of sport journalistic accounts, a limitation of these contributions is the lack of inclusion of scholarly research and theories germane to African American activism in and through sport. Consistent within their discipline and profession, these journalistic works rely heavily on media sources and individual interviews with less emphasis on academic sources. Hence, the review and infusion of scholarly research would expand the scope of analysis of African American resistance in and through sport.

Moreover, an overlapping limitation across sport history, sport sociology, and sport journalism contributions is the lack of clear and/or consistent definitions of and delineation between different acts of resistance (i.e., activism vs. advocacy) as well as a lack of interdisciplinary theoretical applications to facilitate a more nuanced analysis of African Americans sportspersons, groups, organizations, and institutions. To expand on the legacy work of these thinkers, this book presents operational definitions of resistance and activism. I argue that distinguishing acts ←3 | 4→of resistance is not only vital for engaging in more accurate examinations of the intent and impact of the actors (as opposed to only the latter), but also for empowering present and future agents of change who seek to utilize their respective talents, perspectives, and resources to fight for human dignity and freedom in a multitude of ways. Also, I incorporate interdisciplinary theoretical tools such as the African American sport activism typology (AASAT; symbolic, scholarly, grassroots, mass mobilization, economic, legal, media, music and art, and military6) and the African American resistance typology (AART; agency, pioneering, advocacy, hybrid, activism, social movements, revolution/social transformation, and sustained cultural empowerment) to engage in an expansive (albeit not exhaustive) analysis of African Americans’ impact on society (local to international levels) in and through sport. The integration of relevant interdisciplinary scholarship allows for a comprehensive examination of corroborating and conflicting data-driven theorizations of how, when, where, why, to what extent, and under what conditions certain phenomena occur.

In a related vein, another problematic issue with a lack of a clear definition of resistance acts such as activism in previous contributions is the misinterpretation of actions based on their impact while disregarding the actors’ intentions. I contend that all African American sport pioneers did not inherently engage in activism. In Chapter 3, I argue previous historical accounts of prominent African American athletes such as Jack Johnson,7 Jesse Owens, Joe Louis, Jackie Robinson, Althea Gibson, and Arthur Ashe (to name a few) would suggest each of them were activists. This homogenization of African American athletes can be explained by a concept from the political science literature called linked fate (Dawson, 1994). According to Dawson (1994), linked fate is a phenomenon among African Americans whereby there is an internalized belief that individual life chances are deeply connected to the fate of the race. In the case of African American sportspersons, their elevated social status as celebrities/sheroes/heroes, and representatives of the race (particularly during the early 20th century with Jack Johnson, Jesse Owens, and Joe Louis) has been strongly connected to the psyche of African Americans8 (Cooper, 2019; Early, 2008; Henderson, 1968; Powel, 2008; Rhoden, 2006; Wiggins, 1997, 2004, 2018; Wiggins & Miller, 2003). Their respective victories in sporting spaces have been viewed as symbolic indicators of racial progress regardless of their substantive impact in terms of policy reforms, restructuring of power relations, economic wealth redistribution, political influence, reduction or elimination of racial tension (across multiple levels of society – macro-, meso-, and micro- ), and related systemic changes. Since African Americans were (and to a large extent remain) censored and subordinated ←4 | 5→in nearly every facet of U.S. society, sport has served as a figurative battleground site where our humanity and dignity could be demonstrated and earned especially in interracial contests (Cooper, 2019).

Moreover, the prevalence of the muscular assimilationism philosophy (Henderson, 1939) along with the linked fate phenomenon (Dawson, 1994) among African Americans has amplified the significant role of sport in the collective identity and progress of the race – even if at times more symbolism than substantive (Cooper, 2019). Although not explicitly referencing either theory, Moore (2017) described the underlining idea of muscular assimilationism and its connection to linked fate among African Americans in the early and mid-20th century:

Thus, as a civil rights strategy, blacks hoped that by persistently fighting for opportunities to participate in sports and proving themselves with their play, athletic acclaim would win the day and bring about equality in society. (p. 2)

In other words, sport was (continues to be) viewed as one of many mechanisms by which the race could pursue equal treatment in the U.S. With this text, the application of AASAT and AART enables a critical re-examination of these presumptive assertions to consider how African Americans have engaged in resistance (not inherently activism) against certain aspects of the White9 hegemonic social order. These efforts have ranged from very moderate disruption grounded in interest convergence (e.g., accommodationist, integrationist, and/or gradualist efforts) to intense disruption rooted in direct confrontation (e.g., Black nationalist, Pan-Africanist, and/or separatist efforts). For example, in previous works the symbolic meanings attributed to African American sport pioneers have been clustered within a broader conversation of activism in sport (Edwards, 2016a; Miller & Wiggins, 2003; Rhoden, 2006; Wiggins, 2004, 2014, 2018; Wiggins & Miller, 2003; Zirin, 2008). However, I argue that all African American sport pioneers were not activists (particularly not self-identifying) and their sporting accomplishments as well as their out-of-sport actions had different meanings and impacts based on the context. As such, the important distinctions outlined in the AASAT and AART enables more nuanced analyses of African Americans’ connections in and through sport over time, space, and context as opposed to promulgating generalizations of individual and group intentions, conflating different actions, overemphasizing a specific ideology, and/or simplifying the collective struggle (discussed in greater detail in Chapter 2).

In concert with the AASAT and AART, I also incorporate interdisciplinary frameworks and theories such as Dr. Harry Edwards’ four waves of Black athlete activism (Edwards, 2016a), critical race theory (Bell, 1980, 1992; Crenshaw, ←5 | 6→Gotanda, Peller, & Thomas, 1995; Ladson-Billings & Tate, 1995), nine interrelated dimensions of African American culture (Boykin, 1986), and Black existentialism philosophies (Carew, 1997) to account for the racial, ethnic, cultural, and sociopolitical distinctiveness of African American resistance in and through sport. Various broader social movements and eras including the Black Liberation Struggle (BLS) in the Pre-Ante-Bellum through Post-Reconstruction era (the early 1600s–1890s), New Negro Movement (NNM) era (1900s–1950s), Civil Rights Movement (CRM), Black Power Movement (BPM), and Black Feminist Movement (BFM) era (1960s–1970s), Hip-Hop Movement (HHM) era (1980s–Early 2000s), and Black Lives Matter (BLM) Movement era (mid-2000s–2010s) are highlighted in Chapter 1 and throughout the book to contextualize acts of resistance within a broader ecological and sociological apparatus. Instead of organizing my analyses in chronological order similar to previous sport history scholarship (Moore, 2017; Wiggins, 2004, 2018; Wiggins & Miller, 2003), the structure of this book is organized based on the different types of resistance outlined in the AASAT and AART (Chapters 36). Also, Chapters 5 and 6 are distinguished based on whether the actions focused on reforming sport directly10 (e.g., policy changes within an organization, increased diversity representation in leadership positions, holistic support for athletes’ well-being, etc.) or more explicitly focused on changes in society beyond sport (e.g., federal or state laws, social policies, cultural norms, etc.), respectively. Using interdisciplinary theories and frameworks in conjunction with this distinct presentation emphasizes the interconnectedness between intra-and inter-generational acts of resistance. The summative benefits of infusing these research tools are the recognition of the diversity and complexity of how African Americans have leveraged (and continue to leverage) sport as a space and resource to exhibit individual and group agency, challenge mainstream ideologies and arrangements, and ignite proximal and broader social change during their respective eras and in perpetuity.

Important Distinctions between Resistance and Activism

The most visible type of activism is symbolic gestures in the form of protests and/or boycotts. In previous work, my colleagues and I defined symbolic activism or public demonstrative activist actions (PDAAs) as “deliberate actions exhibited by athletes11 designed to draw attention to social injustices and inspire positive change in political, educational, economic, and12 social sectors” (Cooper ←6 | 7→et al., 2019, p. 166). Despite the benefits associated with this type of resistance, the mainstream narrative suggests symbolic protests are either the only or most effective type of activism utilized by those seeking social justice. To challenge this myopic perspective and offer a more comprehensive understanding of activism across time, space, and context, the AASAT was created (Cooper et al., 2019, 2020). The 9 categories13 of the AASAT (symbolic, scholarly, grassroots, mass mobilization, economic, legal, media, music and art, and military) do not imply each type of activism is mutually exclusive, but rather each category emphasizes the different ways in which activist actions are enacted within and across distinct milieu. More specifically, the current text seeks to expand upon the seminal work of Edwards’s (2016a) four waves of Black athlete activism, by offering an analysis of activism, borderline activist actions, and non-activist actions in and through sport and how they have amalgamated to generate social change across multiple ecosystems (micro-, meso-, exo-, macro-, and chrono-systems) (Cooper, 2019).

Moreover, instead of exclusively using of the term activism, I use the broader encompassing term of resistance as the focal framework for this text. Resistance14 is defined as intentional and/or unintentional actions by individuals, groups, organizations, and/or institutions that challenge oppressive systems and ideological hegemony. I posit that all acts of resistance are counter-hegemonic in nature albeit to varying extents. The resistance typology (outlined in greater detail in Chapter 2) includes and delineates the following types of actions: (a) agency, (b) pioneering, (c) advocacy, (d) hybrid, and (e) activism. Also, the typology delineates higher levels of resistance, which includes social movements, revolutions/social transformations, and sustained cultural empowerment. Drawing from my previous work, I utilize the following operational definition of activism:

…engagement in intentional actions that challenge a clearly defined opposition and disrupt hegemonic systems perpetuating oppression, injustice, and inequity while simultaneously promoting empowerment among those historically oppressed, fairness/equity, human dignity, and demands for a shift in power relations in concert with broader social justice movements. (Cooper et al., 2019, p. 154–155)

The five key components or criteria of activism include the following: (1) intentionality for a collective aim, (2) clear oppositional forces, (3) concrete disruption of hegemonic systems, (4) explicit aims or demands for change/reform, and (5) connectivity to broader concurrent or prior social justice movements (Cooper et al., 2019). As a sub-category of resistance, activism is inherently counter-hegemonic. ←7 | 8→However, resistance is not inherently intentional, centered on collective progress or well-being, grounded in concrete demands, or clearly connected to broader social movements. To distinguish activism from acts that are not inherently activist in nature (based on the outlined criteria), I refer to agency, pioneering, and advocacy as borderline activist actions. These actions may promote cultural empowerment and/or social justice, but do not automatically meet the five criteria for activism. Within the context of the current analysis, I define non-activist actions or counter-activist actions15 as behaviors or expressions that intentionally undermine or disrupt Black collectivist empowerment while strengthening oppressive forces against this aim. Contrary to the notion that oppressor groups (often described as dominant groups) possess all power and those who are oppressed are powerless, I assert that all individuals and groups possess power to ignite change in society. The difference between hegemonic status quos and social movements and revolutions grounded in justice and equity is the presence of inactivated power versus activated power. Thus, throughout this text, I aim to highlight a myriad of ways in which African American sportspersons, groups, organizations, and institutions have activated their power to achieve social justice within and beyond sport.

From a historical standpoint, not all African American businesses and organizations that were established during the Reconstruction (1863–1877) and New Negro (1900–1950) eras when racial segregation was legally sanctioned were activist in nature, but a vast majority of them reflected some level of resistance against wrc. For example, the Negro Leagues and HBCU athletic conferences were reflective of mass mobilization, institutional, and economic activism whereas the Harlem Globetrotters were more illustrative of the borderline activist actions of agency, pioneering, and to a lesser extent advocacy. Regardless of the type or nature of the tactic, separately and collectively resistance actions play a critical role in creating a context where African American expressiveness and liberation can be pursued. Stated another way, I posit that both activism and borderline activist actions influence one another, and both are necessary for racial progress in the U.S. and globally.

Before exploring the AART in greater detail, it is important to define the three borderline activist actions. First, agency is defined as the use of personal choice and/or group actions to express a sense of individuality and/or disposition that is sociocultural and/or political in nature. As it pertains to African American resistance, agency often reflects culturally sanctioned ways of knowing and doing that contrast White normative standards (Boyd & Shropshire, 1998; George, 1992; Ogden & Rose, 2005). As a borderline activist action, agentic resistance is culturally grounded, but it does not inherently involve a focus on ←8 | 9→collective progress, include explicit or concrete demands, or clearly connect to broader social movements. Rather agentic resistance is often based on individual preferences or specific group aims rather than for a collective goal of uplifting the race. Prominent agentic resistance includes, but not limited to, behaviors reflecting the Black aesthetic (George, 1992) or a type of performative Black masculinities (Cooper, 2019) via distinct expressiveness. Historical examples of agentic resistance include the entertaining style of play among the famous Harlem Globetrotters (Green, 2005; Thomas, 2012) and Black baseball teams of the early 20th century (Lomax, 2003, 2014) as well as the fast-paced style of play among the New York Renaissance/Harlem Rens, Philadelphia Tribunes, Germantown Hornets, and several HBCU basketball teams during the early and mid-20th century (Grundy & Shackelford, 2005; Hawkins, Cooper, Carter-Francique, & Cavil, 2015; Henderson, 1968; Rayl, 1996). The unique forms of play disrupted the traditional norms of each sport, which were largely created and enacted by Whites. Although this disruption to mainstream16 normative cultural standards is noteworthy, the styles of play typically did not involve specific demands for social change as the case with activist actions.17 Also, the purposes of these actions were primarily for personal intentions, cultural expression, and/or economic and social entertainment, which can reflect a resistance under certain conditions. Yet, these actions cannot be deemed activism without further examination of the intent, meaning, context, and impact.

Modern-day examples of agentic resistance include former standout high school basketball stars such as Brandon Jennings, Jeremy Tyler, Terrence Ferguson, Darius Bazley, Jalen LeCleque, Anfernee Simons, LaMelo Ball, Roderick “RJ” Hampton, Jr., Jalen Green, and Isaiah Todd opting to forego the traditional route of attending a major Division I National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) school to play basketball. Instead, these talented Black players chose to either play professionally abroad, attend a prep school during their post-graduate year, pursue the National Basketball Association (NBA) Developmental G-League, or sit out a year before entering the NBA draft (Stein, 2018; Washburn, 2020). These acts of agentic resistance disrupted the NCAA’s exploitative system of profiting off their talents, but the intentionality behind the players’ decision was largely individual in nature. In contrast, the legal activism exhibited by former college athletes such as Ed O’Bannon who led a class-action lawsuit against the NCAA in 2009 or the Northwestern football players’ unionization efforts with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) in 2014 embodied a collectivist aim for all college athletes (Nocera & Strauss, 2015). Even though, not inherently activist actions, agentic resistance often overlap with and influence activist actions.

←9 | 10→

Furthermore, agentic resistance and activism, although related, should not be viewed as synonymous. It is important to note that many African American athletes who embody agentic resistance can and often do engage in activism in different situations. For example, since the increased commodification of Black athletes in mainstream U.S. sports since the late 1970s (Leonard & King, 2012; Thomas, 2012), Black cultural expression in sport is less activist in nature or disruptive to the wrc status quo (i.e., celebratory touchdown dances in football or dunks in basketball) compared to the PDAAs their predecessors in the late 1960s during the CRM (e.g., famous 1968 Olympic protests, Black athletes wearing Black Panther Party (BPP) berets, etc.). Rather, these cultural expressions since the beginning of the Hip-Hop Movement (HHM) in the early 1980s are more likely to be exploited for corporate profits and serve as a core aspect of the modern-day colorblind racist neoliberal cultural norms that reinforce rather than resist ideological hegemony (Cooper, 2019; Hawkins, 1998). Conversely, an example of agentic activism is when Paul Robeson decided to retire from football in 1922 at the peak of his athletic career to channel his energies towards championing human rights in law, music, art, and related public forums (Yehudah, 2020). Another more recent example of agentic activism via a public demonstrative activist action (PDAA) is when Kaepernick intentionally chose to wear his hair in a natural afro style while taking a knee during the 2016–2017 NFL season an ode to his activist predecessors from the 1960s when a critical mass of African Americans wore this hairstyle to challenge White standards of acceptable and desired physical appearance and features (i.e., Black Power mystique). In these instances, the activists’ personal hair style choice operated in conjunction with the BPM grounded in Afrocentric empowerment (Asante, 2003) as well as disrupted the White normative status quo that positioned all things African and Black as inferior or undesirable. White opposition to these hairstyles was commonplace in private and public settings including among professional, intercollegiate, and interscholastic sports teams (i.e., numerous African Americans were forced to change their hairstyle to remain on their respective teams and if they did not comply they were removed from these teams) (Henderson, 2009, 2013; Moore, 2017; Wiggins, 2004, 2018).

Another borderline activist action related to agentic resistance is pioneering, which refers to the experience of individuals or groups being the first person or person(s) of their social identities (e.g., race, gender, etc.) to accomplish a specific feat. Contrary to popular belief, African American pioneers do not inherently possess a desire to advance the cause of a collective group (discussed in greater detail in Chapter 2), but in their efforts for personal advancement, they often ←10 | 11→benefit groups that identify with them in terms of race, gender, and social class among additional social identities. Pioneers also can shift mainstream public attitudes regarding the capabilities of people of their social identity backgrounds. For example, when Jesse Owens earned four gold medals at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, Germany, his legendary accomplishment coincided with the ideological war between German nazism18 and American nationalism (Wiggins, 2014; Wiggins & Miller, 2003). Although Jesse Owens’s and Joe Louis’s remarkable feats in their respective sports of track and field and boxing during the early 1900s were symbolically important to African Americans, the lack of intentionality from each of them to be connected to broader social justice movements with their athletic endeavors specifically meant these resistance efforts (at least within sport) were not activism. This view of Owens’s and Louis’s accomplishments differs from previous accounts of Black athlete activism (Edwards, 2016a, 2016b; Wiggins & Miller, 2003; Zirin, 2008) whereby in my analysis both intent and impact are examined when determining whether an act is activism or not as oppose to primarily relying on the latter.

Relatedly, pioneering efforts at times can involve a clear opposition, but in many cases, these accomplishments were and are a result of inequitable interest convergence that reinforce hegemonic norms rather than mitigate them (i.e., Michael Jordan becoming the first billionaire athlete) (Bell, 1980, 1992; Cooper, 2019; Harris, 2000; Hawkins, 2010; Powell, 2008; Rhoden, 2006; Smith, 2009). Thus, pioneering cannot be considered as activism on the surface without a more in-depth examination. Moore (2017) explained how Whites strategically and deceptively utilized African American athletes as pioneers to create an illusion of racial inclusion in the U.S.:

The integration of the black athlete allowed many whites to perform a moral evasion of American racism. As long as a few black athletes received their opportunity, whites did not have to deal with the reality of structural racism or government intervention to combat racism. (p. xii)

The problematic nature of African American sporting accomplishments within a wrc context means all resistance actions are not activist in nature unless specific criteria are met. Moreover, the significance or impact of any resistance act is not based on whether it is activism or not, but rather based on time, space, and context. Along with Dr. Edwards’ four waves of Black athlete activism (Edwards, 2016a), the application of interdisciplinary lens such as the AASAT (Cooper et al., 2019, 2020), AART, CRT (Bell, 1980, 1992; Crenshaw et al., 1995; Ladson-Billings & Tate, 1995), nine interrelated dimensions of African American culture (Boykin, ←11 | 12→1986), and Black existential philosophies (Carew, 1997) allow for a more robust understanding of the complexity of resistance across time, space, and context. For example, CRT tenets such as the permanence of racism (also referred to as racial realism), interest convergence, and critique of liberalism (Bell, 1980, 1992) enable for a more precise analysis of how, when, where, why, to what extent, and under what conditions certain actions are activism (read: intentionally disruptive to the hegemonic status quo) or not. With this said, it is worth noting that being the first person of one’s identity to participate and/or win at any given level is a historical breakthrough for not only the people who identify with the sportsperson’s background but also for multiple powerful groups seeking to overcome discrimination and oppression (Ashe, 1988; Cooper, 2016; Smith, 1994; Stewart, 1996).

Advocacy refers to intentional actions taken by an individual, group, organization, or institution to generate awareness of social injustices, stimulate critical reflection, and offer support for addressing specific detrimental issues and/or conditions. A historical example of advocacy occurred in the early to mid-20th century when Dr. E.B. Henderson penned Letters to the Editor in Black newspapers championing various community uplift efforts in Washington, District of Columbia (D.C.) and Baltimore (Pearson, 2020). Although some of Henderson’s letters were activist in nature, there were several contributions that would be more appropriately described as advocacy (i.e., complimenting Miss Frances Murphy’s community clean-up campaign in 1939 in an article in The Baltimore Afro-American) (Pearson, 2020). Another historical example of advocacy is Althea Gibson’s efforts when she provided tennis trainings to youth in economically disadvantaged environments during the 1970s (Harlem World Magazine, 2019). A more recent example of advocacy is when LeBron James offered his support to Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton during her 2016 campaign (Bieler, 2016). It is not uncommon for athletes to publicly endorse political candidates as this phenomenon has occurred with African Americans dating back to the mid-20th century (e.g., Wilt Chamberlain, Jesse Owens, Jackie Robinson, Henry “Hank” Aaron, etc.) (Thomas, 2010). Relatedly, several athletes also sponsor philanthropic and charitable initiatives, which constitute another form of advocacy. As a type of resistance, advocacy efforts are important and contribute in various ways to the betterment of society.

In terms of distinctions, advocacy differs from activism the following ways: (a) does not inherently disrupt to the hegemonic status quo (i.e., depending on the context supporting a political candidate can strengthen or stabilize the status quo rather than disrupt or alter it), (b) does not consistently involve a clear opposition (i.e., lack of direct confrontation with oppressive systems – in fact in hegemonic ←12 | 13→societies advocacy is often championed by oppressive groups because these actions are viewed as less threatening to the deconstruction of social structures grounded in repressive ideologies), and (c) not consistently connected with a broader social movement (i.e., charities or philanthropies that adopt “apolitical” postures, such as health-related fundraisers are not often explicitly connected with social justice aims). Aside from these differences, advocacy efforts do typically include specific goals or demands for progress. As mentioned earlier, African Americans sportspersons can and do engage in both activist and borderline activist actions throughout their careers and lives. However, it is important to distinguish these acts as opposed to conflating them in order to acquire a better understanding of how social change manifests in society across time, space, and context. Regarding the aforementioned fluidity in actions, the term hybrid resistance refers to individuals, groups, organizations, and/or institutions that engage in a range of actions intended to foster social justice in society including agency, pioneering, advocacy, activism, social movements, revolutions/social transformations, and/or sustained empowerment across time, space, and context. All social justice champions and agents of positive change are what I call hybrid resisters against oppressive systems, beliefs, and structures. Both activism and borderline activist actions have been and remain integral to African American progress in a society grounded in wrc.

Understanding the differences and interplay between activism and borderline activist actions accentuates the vastness and value of diverse forms of resistance in the pursuit of social justice and equity across distinct milieu. More specifically, I argue that conceptualizing the differences between resistance actions is akin to differentiating human body parts, positions on a sport/athletic team, or tools within a toolkit. Each body part, position, and tool serve distinct purposes depending on the situation and their respective utility contributes to a larger function and outcome. The success of each component is largely contingent upon the effectiveness of the others and thus each of them is valued and necessary to fulfill their designated purpose. With each of these examples as well as with resistance efforts, the summative power is greater than each part or action separately. However, the mislabeling and/or misunderstanding of the utility of a body part, position, or tool can at a minimum result in ineffective efforts towards attaining a specified goal and at a maximum cause unnecessary and irreparable damage. Thus, the importance of these distinctions cannot be overstated, nor should the typology categories be viewed as a futile intellectual endeavor or superfluous over complexification of human behaviors. Rather, the AASAT and AART as analytical tools facilitate a comprehensive analysis of how various resistance actions including activism, borderline activist actions, and hybrid resistance influence social ←13 | 14→change in distinctive and overlapping ways; hence, highlighting their interconnectedness and interdependence.

Significance of Book

Unlike disciplines such as sociology, political science, and military science, the sub-field of sport sociology has primarily examined activism at the individual level and to a lesser extent grassroots and mass mobilization levels (Bass, 2002; Edwards, 1969; Hartman, 1996; Wiggins, 2000). Hence, the common usage of the term “athlete” activism. However, a glaring omission from the literature is the consideration for how institutions, organizations, and communities connected to sport have historically galvanized for collective social justice efforts. As a result, instead of using the term athlete activism, I incorporate the term sport activism. The term sport activism refers to “a more encompassing understanding of activism exhibited by, for, and through athletes (current and former) as well as individuals, institutions, and groups connected to sport” (Cooper et al., 2019, p. 154). For example, a preeminent scholar of athletic programs at HBCUs, Dr. Jafus (J.) Kenyatta Cavil has argued these institutions and their respective athletic departments should be viewed as entities that exhibit institutional activism given their historical and sociocultural foundations in a White racist society as well as their unique role within the landscape of intercollegiate athletics (Cavil, 2015, 2016). Beyond focusing solely on individual athletes who engage in activism, this book documents the pivotal role of sport activism exhibited by African American institutions (i.e., HBCU athletics), organizations (i.e., Negro Leagues), communities (i.e., Black enclaves throughout the U.S.), teams (i.e., Harlem Rens), and groups (i.e., Wyoming 14) from the late 19th century through the early 21st century (Chapters 36).

Another limitation of previous research is the primary focus of activism by professional and intercollegiate athletes. Numerous individuals and groups associated with youth, interscholastic, and amateur athletics have also utilized their respective platforms to generate positive social change locally and more broadly (Chapter 4) (Cook, 2017; Moore, 2017; Wiggins, 2018; Wiggins & Miller, 2003). I highlight the efforts of African Americans who have meaningfully contributed to social change in and through youth and interscholastic sport (e.g., Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) boycott demonstrations in the 1960s, youth and interscholastic national anthem protests in the 21st century, etc.) (Cook, 2017; Cooper, Cavil, & Cheeks, 2014). Also, a majority of the extant literature has ←14 | 15→focused on The Golden Era of Black Athlete Activism, which occurred during the CRM, BPM, and BFM in the 1960s and 1970s (Bass, 2002; Edwards, 1969; Hartman, 1996; Moore, 2017; Wiggins, 2000). During this time, in concert with these Black-centric social movements as well as the Anti-Vietnam War movement, African Americans in general and sportspersons more specifically became more emboldened to challenge the status quo. The impact of legendary sportsperson activists during this era such as Dr. Harry Edwards and Muhammad Ali have been well-documented in sport history and sport sociology scholarship (Ali & Durham, 1975; Edwards, 1969, 1980; Miller & Wiggins, 2003; Wiggins, 2004, 2018; Wiggins & Miller, 2003; Zirin, 2008) as well as the famous protests at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City, Mexico led by Tommie Smith and John Carlos (Hartmann, 1996, 2009; Wiggins, 2000, 2004, 2014, 2018; Wiggins & Miller, 2003).

The significant scholarly and mass media attention on this era is understandable given the magnitude of involvement and impact of the collective activist efforts. Yet, I argue that African Americans sport activism occurred before, during, and after the Golden Era of Black Athlete Activism. Building upon Edwards’s (2016a) four waves of Black athlete activism framework, I highlight African American resistance in and through sport dates to the pre-antebellum era (1600s–1860s) and continues through the modern-day 21st century. For example, using the AASAT and AART, I assert the period of 1900–1950 (also known as the New Negro Era (Early, 2008)) was The Golden Era of African American Sport Resistance. Instead of focusing exclusively on athletes and one type of resistance (activism), both typologies account for the impact of organizational, institutional, grassroots, mass mobilization, economic, legal, media, music and art, military, and multi-level (sub-, micro-, meso-, macro-, and chrono- ) resistance efforts across each era (Cooper, 2019; Cooper et al., 2019, 2020). The AART also highlights the intra-and intergenerational impact of borderline activist actions. This approach enhances our collective understanding of how social change occurs in concrete terms rather than abstract theorizations that do not account for the complexity of the interplay between ecological and sociological systems (Cooper, 2019; Hartmann, 2000).

Another gap in the literature this book seeks to fulfill is the inclusion and exploration of African American women athletes, administrators, coaches, and scholars in resistance movements in and through sport. Kittie Knox, Ora Washington, Lucille Townsend, Inez Patterson, Rose Wilson, Helen “Midge” Davis, Ruth Glover, Almeda Clavon, Lillie Purifoy, Leslie Givens, Lula Hymes, Alice Coachman, Toni Stone, Connie Morgan, Mamie “Peanut” Johnson, Althea Gibson, Wilma Rudolph, Wyomia Tyus, Eroseanna “Rose” ←15 | 16→Robinson, Audrey Patterson, Jackie Joyner-Kersee, Florence “Flo-Jo” Griffith Joyner, Serena Williams, Venus Williams, Maya Moore, Rebekkah Brunson, Seimone Augustus, Tina Charles, Elana Meyers Taylor, Toni Smith-Thompson, Charlaine (C.) Vivian Stringer, Dr. Doris Corbett, Dr. Tina Sloan Green, Dr. Alpha Alexander, Dr. Nikki Franke, Linda Green, Esquire, Dr. Robertha Abney, Dr. Ketra Armstrong, Dr. Anita J. Turner, Dr. Edythe Lavonia Allison, Dr. Jacqueline McDowell, Dr. Akilah Carter-Francique, Dr. Courtney Flowers, Dr. F. Michelle Richardson, Dr. Nefertiti Walker, Dr. Lori Latrice Martin, Dr. Krystal Beamon, Dr. Monique Smith, Dr. Janice Hilliard, Dr. Deborah Stroman, Dr. Joyce Olushola, Dr. Cherise Fine, Dr. Nameka Bates, Dr. Carrie Graham, Sanya Tyler, Carla Williams, Michele Roberts, Carolyn Peck, Dawn Staley, Misty Copeland, Simone Biles, Simone Manuel, Ariyana Smith, Jemele Hill, Ibtihaj Muhammad, Michelle Carter, Aja Wilson, and Ayanna Jeanne (A.J.) Andrews are among the African American women that are highlighted throughout this book for their resistance, sacrifices, and influence on U.S. society and the world. Few works have provided coverage of African American women’s contribution to sport (Carter-Francique & Flowers, 2013; Corbett & Johnson, 2000; Davis, 2016; Grundy & Shackelford, 2005; Moore, 2017; Richardson & Carter-Francique, 2020). However, there is a scarcity of scholarly contributions that situates their efforts within the context of activism in sport (Moore, 2017; Richardson & Carter-Francique, 2020). This book builds upon extant scholarship by providing an expansive inclusion and discussion of women’s role in intra-and inter-generational African American resistance efforts in and through sport. More specifically, this text disrupts the androcentrism in sports research broadly and African American sport research in particular.

In summary, all types of resistance have the potential to be influential in stimulating positive racial and cultural uplift. Contrary to popular assertions, I surmise that activism does not inherently lead to positive outcomes for African Americans. In other words, intent does not automatically translate into impact. This view complicates the belief that just because activism involves courage and typically some form of moral authority it inherently contributes to the greater good of a collective group facing oppression in substantive or concrete ways (either short-term or long-term). However, time, space, context, and the execution of an activist act greatly influence its impact. For example, there were stark differences in the responses and consequences associated with Tommie Smith and John Carlos’ symbolic activism during the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City, Mexico compared to their fellow U.S. Olympian peers Bob Beamon, Ralph Boston, Lee Evans, Larry James, Ron Freeman, and Wyomia Tyus who ←16 | 17→also engaged in activist gestures at the same event although far less disruptive (Moore, 2017). Along the same lines, it is important to delineate the reactions and outcomes of Colin Kaepernick’s initial kneeling during the 2016–2017 NFL season and the subsequent kneeling gestures of several NFL players and team owners for a different reason from the initial activist act. I also posit that borderline activist actions do not inherently contribute to net negative outcomes for Blacks who exist in oppressive spaces. Collective racial and ethnic progression and regression or more specifically African Americans’ existence of resistance cannot be understood via simplistic deductions that offer net sum outcomes or abstract calculations. Rather, understanding the interplay between diverse resistance actions, complex (and in many instances contradictory) responses to wrc, and the conditions of African Americans in specific milieu requires critical ecological and sociological examinations (Cooper, 2019). It is my hope the examination in this text results in both a deeper understanding of past African American experiences and outcomes within and beyond sport and more importantly strengthens and diversifies present and future resistance efforts centered on collective racial and ethnic uplift.


1The terms “African American” and “Black” will be used interchangeably to refer to the racial distinction associated with people of African descent within the United States who are descendants of their ancestors who were subjected to chattel slavery and intergenerational systemic racism within this region of the world.

2The terms sportspersons is used to refer athletes, coaches, managers, owners, media personnel, and all individuals who are connected to sport via formal means (e.g., title, role, position, responsibilities, etc.).

3In my previous work, I stated that the term white racism capitalism (WRC; later referred to as wrc) is more applicable instead of the term white supremacy to disrupt the misguided assumptions associated with the latter term (Cooper, 2019). I posited supremacy is not innate in any racial group whereas imposed superiority through violence, political exploitation, and other forms of oppression and human improprieties have resulted in socially constructed hierarchies, inequalities, and inequities. In contrast, wrc more accurately captures the interlocking nature of oppressive ideologies and the social institutions, groups, and individuals that enact them. I also recommend readers review the intellectual and Hip-Hop pioneer KRS-ONE’s (Knowledge Rules Supreme Over Nearly Everyone – birth name is Lawrence Parker) compelling articulation of the problematic issues associated with using the term White supremacy (Parker, 2016).

←17 | 18→

4In concert with CRT theorists Derrick Bell and Tommy J. Curry, I intentionally use lower-case letters to refer to the insidious ideology of whiteness and its accompanying systems of racism and capitalism. This post-structuralist and heuristic strategy are intended to destabilize and deconstruct the privilege and taken-for-granted acceptance of these oppressive ideas, beliefs, and systems. In other words, the lowercase and italics usage centers the voices and perspectives of people of African descent and those who identify as Black and have been subjected to heinous dehumanizing treatment intergenerationally.


XII, 378
ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2021 (March)
New York, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Oxford, Wien, 2021. XII, 378 pp., 3 tables.

Biographical notes

Joseph N. Cooper (Author)

Joseph N. Cooper is the inaugural Dr. J. Keith Motley Endowed Chair of Sport Leadership and Administration at the University of Massachusetts Boston. He earned a BA in Sociology, a BA in Recreation Administration, and a MA in Sport Administration from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC-CH). He earned his PhD in Kinesiology with a concentration in Sport Management and Policy from the University of Georgia. His research agenda focuses on the intersection between race, gender, sport, education, and culture with an emphasis on sport involvement as a catalyst for holistic development and cultural empowerment. He is the founding faculty member of Collective Uplift, an organization designed to educate, empower, support, and inspire Black holistic individuals to maximize their potential both within and beyond athletic contexts. His work has been published in peer-reviewed journals and he is the author of From Exploitation Back to Empowerment: Holistic (Under)Development Through Sport and (Mis)Education (Peter Lang, 2019). He received the 2009 John E. Billing Outstanding Graduate Research Merit Award from the UNC-CH (Department of Exercise and Sport Science), 2016 Outstanding Early Career Scholar Award from the UConn Neag School of Education, 2016 UConn African American Cultural Center Extraordinaire Faculty Award, and 2018 Sociology of Sport Journal (SSJ) Early Career Researcher Award. He has been cited in media outlets such as ESPN, New York Times, ABC News, Yahoo, Boston Globe, and Le Monde.


Title: A Legacy of African American Resistance and Activism Through Sport
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384 pages