In 2016, USA Today asked Baltimore Orioles’ center fielder Adam Jones why no Black baseball players mimicked football player Colin Kaepernick’s protest of the national anthem. Jones declared that Black players “already have two strikes against us.” Compared to basketball and football, Black Major League Baseball players constitute a miniscule number. “They don’t need us,” the Baltimore outfielder said. “Baseball is a white man’s sport.”
One year later and 70 years after World War II veteran Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in Major League Baseball, Boston, Mass., spectators confirmed Jones’ assessment and wasted a bag of peanuts in the process. During a May 1 contest between the Orioles and the Red Sox, Jones reported being “called the n-word a handful of times” and having a bag of nuts thrown at him.
An assortment of athletes, including Jason Heyward of the Chicago Cubs and Golden State Warriors teammates Draymond Green and Stephen Curry, immediately disclosed that they’ve endured similar abuse from racist sports fans. The fact that the Cubs and Warriors have each hoisted recent championships in their respective leagues suggests the pinnacle of athletic achievement fails to shield Black athletes from anti-Black racism.
During the 1950s and ’60s, Bill Russell secured 11 titles for the Boston Celtics while describing the town as “a flea market of racism.” Chris Yuscavage writes that the hoops legend was conflicted about “how he was supposed to feel when he was routinely cheered by some of those same” white New Englanders who expressed unadulterated contempt for Black life before and after Celtics victories.
It’s likely that Jones’s verbal assailants badgered him while simultaneously reveling in the current playoff run of the overwhelmingly Black Celtics team.
University of Texas professor John Hoberman authored “Darwin’s Athletes: How Sport Has Damaged Black America and Preserved the Myth of Race” in part to explore the contradiction of racist sports fans patronage of Black-dominated athletics. He reminds readers that historically, white culture declared white women and men intellectually and athletically supreme. Hoberman explains how the “emotional stake” in maintaining the lie of white superiority demanded that generations of Jackie Robinsons be barred from competing with white students or athletes.
What began with “Black firsts” like boxing champion Jack Johnson and tennis prodigy Althea Gibson, has, according to Hoberman, swelled to the point that, “A lot of whites, if they’re sports fans, they are going to have to consume a lot of sports entertainment that is going to feature people who do not look like them, who do not have white skins.”
The billion-dollar global sports conglomerate verifies the insatiable appetite — and market — for Black athletes. Hoberman submits that stale racial stereotypes helped a number of whites digest the never ending serving of Black athletic triumph. He writes, “The myth of Black hardiness and supernormal vitality has been the crucible of our thinking about” Black bodies and often a leading justification for their enslavement. The antebellum delusions about Black endurance and pain tolerance that made people with melanin ideal candidates to be shackled conveniently explained the athletic brilliance of Black people. Laboring in white-owned fields with a ball or bail of cotton is our genetically predetermined destiny and limited range of expertise.
However, for multitudes of white sport fans, thinking of Black athletes as mutli-million-dollar slaves has made it no easier to stomach a sports world where Black ballers reign. In “The History of White People Hating LeBron James,” Chris Osterndorf writes that whites “are able to appreciate [Black athletes], to rely on them, but we’re not necessarily able to separate that from the belief that they work for us.” Black athletes aren’t role models or human beings, they’re white folks’ servants. Osterndorf says this mentality explains how racists hail the accomplishments of Black players on their favorite sporting teams, “all while calling him a ‘n—-r’ in the same conversation.”
During a NPR 2014 interview, U.S. Congressman James Clyburn used his daughter’s college homecoming football game to explain how devotion to the system of white supremacy is compartmentalized during heated sporting events. Representative Clyburn’s daughter, Mignon Clyburn, observed a white motorist with a bumper sticker promoting University of South Carolina football player George Rogers’ Heisman trophy campaign. She doubted the driver would sport a bumper sticker endorsing her father for Congress. Ms. Clyburn recalled that during the ballgame, the white fans who jeered and heckled the Black homecoming queen loudest were the most vocal in praising every yard gained by Rogers. She synthesized those events into a succinct conclusion: “It’s all right for us to entertain, but they don’t want us to represent them.”
Many Black people, including athletes like Hall of Fame football player Kellen Winslow, erroneously assumed white consumption of Black sports figures signified the wane of racism and the power of interracial athletics to lessen racial hostilities. Winslow has since publicly acknowledged his error.
When he was a physically gifted star on the gridiron, he was “treated and viewed differently than most African-American men in this country.” His Black life mattered. Racism was not a problem. “Then, reality came calling,” writes Winslow in the forward for the 1996 book In Black and White: Race and Sports in America by Kenneth L. Shropshire “After a nine-year career in the National Football League filled with honors and praises, I stepped into the real world and realized, in the words of Muhammad Ali, that I was ‘just another n—-r.’”
Gus T. Renegade hosts “The Context of White Supremacy” radio program, a platform designed to dissect and counter racism. For nearly a decade, he has interviewed and studied authors, filmmakers and scholars from around the globe.