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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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5 Resistance in Sport: The Pursuit of Institutional Reform


The history of the Negro in sports is in many ways a microcosm of the history of the Negro in America. For a long time our talents were hidden or ignored. When we received the opportunity, we showed that we would compete and could excel. That is all the Negro is asking, in sports or in society – the opportunity (Jackie Robinson cited in Henderson, 1968, p. xiii).

Dating back to the start of organized sport in the U.S., many African Americans adopted the philosophy of muscular assimilationism (Henderson, 1939) whereby the belief was that success in sport would translate to improved race relations and quality of life conditions for the race overall. In other words, gaining access to sport participation and leadership positions would serve as symbolic evidence that African Americans are deserving of equal and fair treatment as human beings and citizens of the U.S. (Moore, 2017). From the late 1800s through the modern-day 21st century, reforming rules of mainstream sport has been a focus for African American sportspersons. These changes have ranged from inclusionary policies (e.g., eligibility criteria, representation in leadership, etc.) to rules of games (e.g., dunking in basketball, equitable compensation for college athletes, etc.). In fact, Edwards’ (2016a) four waves of Black athlete activism framework largely references sports-based reform efforts with broader societal implications (e.g., the first wave focused on gaining legitimacy (1900–1945), the ←219 | 220→second wave focused on acquiring political access and positional diversity (1946–1960s), the third wave focused on...

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