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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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4 (Un)Popular Resistance: Public Demonstrations and Sport as a Platform for Activism


Those who profess freedom and yet depreciate agitation are men who want crops without plowing the ground; they want rain without thunder and lightning. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters…Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will…The limits of tyrants are prescribed by those whom they oppress (Douglass, 1857, p. 1).

Despite popular persuasions that suggest sport is the epitome of liberalism and colorblind meritocracy, from its inception to the modern-day sport, has been and remains a contested political sphere (Cooper, 2019; Edwards, 1969, 1973, 1980; Hartmann, 1996, 2009, 2019; Wiggins, 1997, 2004, 2018). Dating back to physical activities and contests in Ancient Kemet to Ancient Greek Olympic games to the creation of organized sport within the U.S., sport has mirrored the ideological and cultural beliefs of the groups in power of the primary social institutions (e.g., politics, law, business, education, healthcare, and religion) (Miller, 2018; Sage, 1999; Wiggins, 2014; Yehudah, 2020). For Africans, the games fulfilled multiple cultural goals: (a) connections to spirituality to communal entertainment, (b) masculine social status affirmation, (c) physical and cultural expressions, (d) friendly and non-friendly competitions, and (e) survival. Therefore, it is important to acknowledge the purpose, structure, composition, and norms of sporting spaces in order to understand how, when, where, and ←167 | 168→why these milieu reflect, reproduce, or resist existing social, cultural, economic, and/or political inequalities (Coakley, 2017; Edwards, 1973; Sage, 1999). Given the hegemonic social order...

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