In the late nineteenth and early twentieth century African Americans were involved in the major popular sports like baseball, football, boxing and horse racing. As America embraced segregation, African Americans were evicted from professional sports despite their outstanding and superior skills. With the formation of sports unions and associations, African Americans were barred from participating in the major and minor leagues. Historically African Americans were barred from competing in whites sports because of the segregation practice between the whites and the blacks and because it was believed that African Americans were inferior to whites and therefore posed no significant challenge on the athletic field, Gary Alan Sailes (1998) quotes Davis (1991).This Davis argued was fear generated within the white status quo of maintaining control of American economic, political and educational institutions. After the integration, the African Americans excelled in basketball, baseball and football, the stereotype changed to one of intellectual inferiority.
The official involvement of blacks in professional football began with the entrance of Charles W. Follis. He played right-half back for the Shelby Athletic Club, he displayed exceptional sports skills. He frequently got a lot of verbal insults and physical abuse from white fans and opponents but never resorted to open hostility. He sometimes became a target because of his skills and the opponents tried to use dirty tricks to put him out of the game. He led his team to many wins until he retired from the professional football. Despite his contribution to his team and professional football, he was never recognized. Between the years 1919 and 1933, a total of thirteen black players had taken part in sports by playing for several professional teams. In the year 1934, blacks disappeared from the rosters team as the Association banned all Colored players. They reappeared in 1946 participating in the All-America Soccer Conference. (Ross 1999).While many people have written several books about Robinson and the integration of blacks into white baseball, the integration of blacks into white football after the second world war has been ignored significantly,
The Original Celtics basketball team was formed in New York by Frank McCormack. Professional basketball was brought to the attention of the whole nation. Teenage players were used from the west side of Manhattan. The team played many games and won many among them. It was the first basketball team to ever sign exclusive contracts for players. The Celtics are praised very much for coming up with most manoeuvres in basketball as we know them today. The original Celtics refused to play in the NBL, now known as the NBA because the teams mostly comprised of whites.
In 1966, Don Haskins broke colour barriers in basketball. He started an all black line-up and went on to win over the Kentucky Wildcats of Adolph Rupp which changed college basketball. There was a big change in the recruitment of blacks or African-Americans in basketball and sports in general. Although Hawkins downplayed the significance of his decision, it set the motion in the desegregation of college basketball teams in the south. African Americans participation in Basketball changed the game after they started dominating as the style of playing changed. Things such as slam dunking, aggressive rebounding and dribbling and passing style were adopted from the ghetto style the blacks played with in the parks and playgrounds. These are the standards the game is currently defined by and therefore the integration of blacks in the game revolutionized the game. There is a lot of dominance by the blacks in the college and the professional basketball now.
Jackie Robinson broke the racial barrier in so far as baseball is concerned. He was the first black player to play in a Major League Baseball game for the Brooklyn Dodgers. The NFL had officially banned African Americans from playing from 1934 until 1946 Anna Marie Frank (2003) quotes Polidoro (2000). The blacks then formed their own league the Negro League in 1920 formally the National Association of Colored Professional Baseball Clubs which helped develop African American players .With the inclusion of African Americans in professional league teams, it ceased to exist but had a major impact on the history of sports.
There had been a lot of resistance to the integration but Robinson and Branch Rickey who was head of the Dodgers helped to make the significant change. After Robinson was integrated into the Dodgers, other players of black origin were signed into the team. They included Roy Campanella. Other teams too started signing American African players. Total integration of the game at the level of players was done in 1959. However, this integration did not work well for the all-black teams. These teams had been formed because of the great segregation that had rocked America following slavery. Since blacks had been noted to have much talent in the sport, those with top talent were looked for and signed into the whites’ teams. It led to disbandment of most teams originally formed by the blacks for the blacks.
Moses Fleetwood Walker also broke the colour barriers in baseball. He was the first black player to take part in major leagues. His father was Dr. Moses W. Walker. Moses Fleetwood Walker was enrolled into college in 1878. He attended Oberlin College where he played on the college’s baseball team in 1881. Moses was then moved to the school of law at Michigan University. Walker took part in the Michigan varsity baseball in 1882. He is not mentioned much today though he contributed a lot in the struggle to break racism in sports. Walker played baseball at a time when much of the equipment used today was not in existence. (Zang, 1995)
Arthur Ashe was the first black to ever get selected to play in a white tennis team. He won the NCAA singles title in 1965. He helped the UCLA to win the championships. While at UCLA, he initiated into Kapa Alpha Psi fraternity’s Upilson chapter. In 1068, Ashe won the Amateur Championships and the first United States Open. He contributed greatly to the team victory in the United States Davis Cup being the first player though African to have won both of these championships in the same year. Ashe contributed in the formation of the Tennis Professionals Association. (Towle, 2001)
The integration however has its down side as Anna Marie Frank (2003) puts it. She argues that since the integration, the blacks had shown their prowess in the sports and so the universities and colleges wanted them in their teams. Previously most African Americans had competed on the historically black college teams but with the integration the predominantly white universities with high profile teams wanted them in their teams. The exploitation came in because there was no consideration for the African Americans ability to succeed academically in the institutions of higher learning. Admission to the universities colleges and high school are subject to certain standards like the Scholastic Aptitude Test(SAT),American college Test(ACT) and the Students High school grade point average(GPA).The academic standards for blacks were however lowered to allow them to compete for the institutions. Many institutions therefore exploited the athletes for the benefit of the program and not the athlete as the graduation rate of the sportsmen was low. However there some athletes who sports might have been their only way to advance in education as they were awarded college scholarships and successfully completed and earned their degrees.
Even with integration, discrimination still persisted in the game itself. There are positions that African Americans could not play since they did not possess the intelligence to play the positions. They were often given positions considered as work horse which needed more physical strength like running backs and receivers than mental strength like the quarterback, Anna Marie Frank (2003) argues. This has however changed with time which can be attributed to the changes in the coaching strategies.
The perception that African American athlete is mentally and intellectually inferior to the white athlete has led to the discrimination of the African American from getting leadership and decision making roles in the college and professional sport positions. As Gary Alan sailes(1998) puts it whites are reluctant to hire African Americans into management and head coaching positions in professional and major college sport because they do not have confidence in the intellectual capabilities of African American to manage or coach professional or major college clubs. He goes on to cite the Former Executive for the Los Angeles Dodgers, Al Campamis who made an assertion on national television that African Americans may not have “necessities” to be managers in professional baseball.
The integration of African American in sports played a major role in breaking the racial barrier in the country. They have gone on to represent America in the international games such as the Olympics and brought a lot of honour to the country. However there are still areas that the barriers have not been completely broken such as leadership issues but may be with time it can be achieved. Through sports African Americans have succeeded in life in terms of financial and educational status. As Martin Luther King stated, integration of African Americans in sports has helped them to be judged not just by the colour if their skin but by their character and ability thereby making sports a very important medium of social change.
Charles K. Ross, Outside The Lines: African Americans and the integration of the National Football League. New York and London: New York University Press, 1999
David W. Zang, Fleet Walker’s Divided Heart Lincoln, Nebraska: University of Nebraska Press, 1995
Frank, M. Anna, Sports and education: A Reference Handbook (Contemporary Education Issues), ABC-CLIO, 2003.
Howard W. Rosenberg, Cap Anson 4: Bigger Than Babe Ruth: Captain Anson of Chicago Arlington, Virginia: Tile Books, 2006.
Sailes, A. Sailes, African Americans in Sport, Transaction Publishers, 1998.
Towle, Mike. I Remember Arthur Ashe. City: Cumberland House Publishing, 2001