Jackie Robinson faced innumerable challenges when he broke Major League Baseball’s color barrier in 1947. His teammates complained, and some refused to take the field with him. Robinson overcame these obstacles to earn the Rookie of the Year award and stole the most bases in the National League that year. Throughout his career and post-career, he advocated for more minority participation in MLB. Robinson was inducted into the prestigious National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1962—his first year of eligibility. He opened the door for African-Americans to play professional baseball.
Robinson’s case represents one of many athlete activists in the post-World War II era. Since the rise of the New Left, more athletes—such as Muhammad Ali, Tommie Smith and John Carlos, and Billie Jean King—gained off the field prominence for their social and cultural advocacy and activism. They helped fuel the counterculture movement and gave it more mainstream popularity. Today, athletes and sports organizations continue to support progressive efforts to rid society of discrimination and promote equality. For instance, NASCAR, the Carolina Railhawks, and the NCAA recently joined the long history of sports activism to speak out against House Bill 2 (HB2), the anti-transgender legislation that Governor Pat McCrory passed into law this past March.
Over the past two months, a fight for transgender rights started in North Carolina, which started when the city of Charlotte passed anti-discrimination laws. Before they went into effect, Governor McCrory summoned a special House session to pass House Bill 2, or HB2 as it is now called, on March 23, 2016. He signed it the same day. Its purpose is to discriminate against the LGBT community under the guise of better protecting women and children from being assaulted in restrooms. McCrory called it city overreach for Charlotte to pass legislation that made anti-discrimination laws stricter than the state’s policies. The reactions from sports organizations to HB2 display the importance of sport history in academia.
Cary, North Carolina’s soccer community raised objections against HB2. Both the Carolina Railhawks and its supporters’ group, the Triangle Soccer Fanatics, released statements discussing the continuance of their policies to not be discriminatory towards anyone and their rejection “of all forms of discrimination.” The team’s fan base reiterated its commitment to “all people who desire to join Triangle Soccer Fanatics shall be considered eligible to become members.” These fans might include gays, lesbians, or transgenders.
Other sports’ administrations and members of their community also joined American soccer in solidarity with the LGBT community. Charles Barkley has urged the NBA to reconsider hosting the 2017 All-Star Game in Charlotte. NASCAR officials later announced their opposition to the bill. NCAA then informed the public of its new policy to not hold tournaments in locations where no anti-discrimination laws exist. Unfortunately, all have yet to back up their opposition with firm repercussions although the federal government might enforce the first punishment.
Last week, the Department of Justice wrote letters to Governor McCrory and the University of North Carolina to inform them that HB2 violated both the Civil Rights Act and Title IX. How might this violation impact sports? Well, the colleges and university that receive federal funding for their sports programs likely would lose that money for athlete scholarships and other financial needs. How should North Carolina remedy this previously non-existent problem? It needs to follow and support the work of LGBT-friendly organizations.
Over the past decade, activists have worked hard to make the sporting world a more inclusive environment for not only the LGBT community, but everyone else too. Civil rights organizations, such as You Can Play and Athlete Ally, have formed with this mission to specifically improve sport inclusivity. Athlete Ally recently started its #EveryFan campaign. You Can Play also supported a Kickstarter project called Pride Tape, a rainbow duck tape product for hockey players to wear on their sticks to show support for the LGBT community. If politics reject the LGBT community, then someone needs to rise up and be the better person—why not the sporting world? Everyone deserves equality and the ability to publicly love whomever they choose—heterosexual, homosexual, bisexual, transgendered, queer, etc.
In the past, sports have proven to be a useful avenue to promote inclusion and anti-discrimination. Cassius Clay changed his name to Muhammad Ali in 1964 when he converted to the Nation of Islam. During the Vietnam War, the United States Army drafted him, but he refused to enlist due to religious and political convictions. Ali said, “No Vietcong ever called me N——-.” They arrested him and took away his boxing license. He appealed the case, and the Supreme Court later overturned it. Ali returned to boxing in 1971 with the “Fight of the Century” against Joe Frazier. For the rest of his career, he advocated better African-American treatment and publicly denounced the at-large racist white society.
Also in the late 1960s, Tommie Smith and John Carlos displayed their racial nationalism. The two sprinters attended the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City. During the award ceremony, Smith (gold) and Carlos (bronze) donned their uniforms with added Olympic Project for Human Rights badges on their chests, but without their shoes to show black socks and wore a single black glove. As “The Star-Spangled Banner” played, they performed the Black Power salute. The IOC then expelled them and revoked their medals for the political statement. The silver medalist, Peter Norman, also wore the badge to support them.
Billie Jean King contributed her own advocacy, but for gender equality. In 1973, she competed against Bobby Riggs in the famous “Battle of the Sexes,” a tennis exhibition match. He previously beat Margaret Court, another female tennis player, which inspired King to take the offer Riggs proposed earlier. She won against Riggs and brought attention to women’s tennis. King later came out as a lesbian in 1981. Readers should note that Renee Richards, a transsexual woman, also fought for transsexual rights in the 1970s and won an important court case in 1977 regarding the Barr body test.
Within the past four years, Robbie Rogers, African-American football and basketball players, and the United States Women’s National Soccer Team all have advocated for equality in sexual orientation, race, and gender.
In February 2013, Robbie Rogers retired in England and came out as a gay man. Then in May, he moved back to the United States and signed with the Los Angeles Galaxy of Major League Soccer. He became the first openly gay active male athlete in top American professional sports. Rogers later joined Athlete Ally’s advisory board to help promote LGBT inclusivity in sports. Jason Collins and Michael Sam, who both came out in 2013 and 2014, also advocate for LGBT rights.
In 2012, LeBron James and the Miami Heat wore black hoodies to protest the shooting of Trayvon Martin. The media released a photo of him wearing a hoodie during the trial of George Zimmerman for the murder of Martin. Two years later, the St. Louis Rams football players (now Los Angeles Rams) walked on to the field with their hands up to protest the murder of Michael Brown. LeBron James, Kobe Bryant, Kevin Garnett, Derrick Rose, the University of Notre Dame women’s basketball team, and the Georgia Tech men’s basketball teams all wore t-shirts with the words, “I Can’t Breathe,” in response to the Eric Garner murder. These athletes displayed political statements to show support for racial equality and the Black Lives Matter campaign.
After the 2015 FIFA World Cup, the United States Women’s National Team (USWNT) returned from Canada and began negotiations for a new CBA agreement. A wide disparity exists between the wages of the USMNT and the USWNT as the five female players, Alex Morgan, Carli Lloyd, Becky Sauerbrunn, Hope Solo, and Megan Rapinoe, noted in their lawsuit against the United States Soccer Federation in March 2016. They receive much lower pay though and bonuses for World Cup qualification and participation. These prominent women brought even more publicity to the fight for equal pay for men and women.
As shown in each of these cases, the athletes brought heightened mainstream attention to the fight for racial, gender, and LGBT equality. For this reason, sport history needs to be taken more seriously in academia and the general public because of the political statements made by athletes. They use their positions as celebrities and household names to advocate for various organizations, movements, and reforms. That continues to the present, where sports activism makes an ongoing impact in places like North Carolina, and holds the potential to effect positive change in places where discrimination is prominent.
Patrick Salkeld is a M.A. Candidate in History at the University of Central Oklahoma. His research focuses on soccer’s rise in American football territory from the 1960s to 2005. He also writes about the LA Galaxy for CaliSports News and Rayo OKC for Turnpike Soccer. You may contact him via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @patsalkeld.