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A Legacy of African American Resistance and Activism Through Sport


Joseph N. Cooper

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.

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2 Theoretical Foundations for Understanding African American Resistance in and through Sport


The emancipatory struggles of black people for authentic self-consciousness, for liberation from rigid identities and enslaving restrictions, is a struggle for humanity against thingification. But oppressed people cannot affirm their humanity except in resistance to the forces which dehumanize them (Birt, 1997, p. 210).

The depth of social movement research is expansive and incorporates a range of theories including social movement theory (Davis-Delano & Crosset, 2008; Morris, 2000), collective action theory (Buechler, 2007; Oliver & Marwell, 1992; Williams, 2007), resource mobilization theory (Jenkins, 1983), theory of strategy (Gamson, 1975), polity theory (Tilly, 1978), social psychological theory (Klandermans, 2007), emotional dimensions of social movements (Goodwin, Jasper, & Polleta, 2007), elite opinion theory and activated mass opinion (Lee, 2002), and collective identity (Hunt & Benford, 2004) to name a few. Each of these works has contributed to the broader understanding of how social movements are created, sustained, and quelled. However, given the unique focus on African American resistance in and through sport, there is a need for nuanced theoretical lenses that account for their distinct racialized positions, actions, and experiences within the U.S. and global ecosystems. Consistent with my previous work (Cooper, 2019), I assert the need for adopting theoretical pluralism to more fully explore and understand the complexity of social phenomena such as resistance efforts (individual and collective). Moreover, given the fact that the ←47 | 48→institution of sport in the U.S. is embedded within neoliberal ideals (Beyer & Hannah, 2000), many African American athletes and those connected to...

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