Black athletes are Black men, women first, by David W. Marshall

6/27/2024, 6 p.m.
During a recent Fox Sports pregame show appearance, Major League Baseball Hall of Famer Reggie Jackson was asked about his …

During a recent Fox Sports pregame show appearance, Major League Baseball Hall of Famer Reggie Jackson was asked about his return to Birmingham, Ala.’s Rickwood Field, where he played 114 games in the minor leagues. His powerful response was a stark reminder of how sports, as a social institution, is not immune to the darkest side of bigotry. To appreciate Jackson’s response, we must remind ourselves of the simplicity of sports in general and the complexity of sports when it is intertwined with a community’s prevailing social order, defined as the tendency of a social institution to resist or regulate change.

Sports plays a significant role in shaping an individual’s personal growth. In addition to the benefits of physical fitness, sports are instrumental in building a person’s character, developing strategic and analytical thinking, leadership skills, risk-taking, becoming self-disciplined and making personal sacrifices. With sports comes the type of social interaction where the concepts of teamwork, unity, brotherhood, and camaraderie are molded, shaped and refined. It was the brotherhood and camaraderie from teammates that made it possible for Jackson to endure the onslaught of racism in the Deep South.

“I wouldn’t wish it on anyone. At the same time, had it not been for my white friends, had it not been for a white manager, and [Joe] Rudi, [Rollie] Fingers and [Dave] Duncan, and Lee Meyers, I would never have made it. I was too physically violent. I was ready to physically fight some – I would have got killed here because I would have beat someone’s ass, and you would have seen me in an oak tree somewhere,” Jackson said.

Society identifies and then defines individual athletes as either a sports hero or a sports villain. The reality facing the Black athlete extends from the fact that the color of a person’s skin can at any time be used to label and target them as a sports villain. Sports fans, through their racial hate, can turn an arena and stadium from a sports venue into a hostile and harsh environment of hate. 

In 1983, Georgetown University basketball head coach John Thompson pulled his team off the court after Villanova fans displayed multiple racist signs targeting star player Patrick Ewing. Fans held up signs reading “Ewing is an Ape” and “Ewing can’t read,” while another student wore a T-shirt reading “Ewing Kant Read Dis.” One fan threw a banana peel on the court when Ewing was announced during the pregame introductions.

Bill Russell holds the record for the most NBA championships with 11 titles. He is widely considered to be one of the greatest basketball players of all time. He changed the league landscape through his defensive brilliance and lightning–quick passes that initiated the Celtics’ fast-break offense.

The racism Russell endured would sometimes spill into his personal life when, in 1963, he returned home only to find it broken into and vandalized with racial slurs and feces on his bed. Such instances solidified Russell’s belief that his greatness and success as an athlete would never overcome societal racism. Regardless, he remained determined not to let the racial slurs deter his on-court performance.

“That was never a factor. Fans all over the country were racist and obnoxious, some places more and some less, Russell said. “But I never permitted that to have an adverse effect on my playing.”

Bill Russell and Patrick Ewing’s professional careers exemplify their character and resilience to excel as players despite the harsh racial adversity they faced. One can easily say that the verbal taunts they received motivated them to be better players on the court.

Black athletes are Black men and women first. The motivating factors behind those in the stands yelling racial taunts or carrying offensive signs come down to how they view a Black man or woman who they feel has something to offer that will benefit them personally or benefit the causes they publicly support.

The writer is the founder of the faith-based organization TRB: The Reconciled Body.