The word “Black” seems to provoke some deep feelings culturally when it comes to athletes. Whether it be the excitement of an extraordinary athletic movement or a controversial stance on a societal construct, perhaps stereotype, perhaps not. Whether the individual athlete acknowledges it, embraces, shuns it, or outright denies it, each athlete of dark complexion is given a mantle, to speak, on behalf of those black and brown all over the planet.
Being a black professional athlete carries with it so many unspoken powers of social responsibility.
It’s a pressure that has been a millstone around their necks since the inception of black athletes in the professional ranks. Prior generations fought vehemently to receive the same privileges as their white counter parts, but now we find ourselves fighting for the ability to either participate in headline grabbing racial discussions or become the silent observer/consumer. As American born black athletes decide on what sort of protest of the American flag is appropriate for them, or whether protest at all, it is important to take a look at the historical aspect of the black athlete from a few different angles.
The American black male athlete has a complex love affair with American society.
For athletes who crossed over into professional sports like Jackie Robinson, Jesse Owens, Jim Brown, Muhammad-Ali and Kareem Abdul-Jabar there was a noisy and controversial introduction into popular culture. For the latter two athletes, their Muslim faith was extremely controversial in their era, and likely would be even today given our political climate. Each of these athletes had their own special way of dealing with the scrutiny of American culture and a spotlight that they may not have realized would be turned on them often in negative ways. Regardless of their method in addressing popular thought of their time, their stance was strong and pronounced. There was no other option.
Athletes such as Tommy Smith and John Carlos in the ’68 Olympic Games solidified themselves in American history by flying a black gloved fist on the podium during the playing of the National anthem. Colin Kaepernick has recently attempted to resurrect this same style of protest over the current issues of black culture in society today. Whether he garners sympathy, rage, or merely awareness over how he chooses to protest is only a secondary issue. Most importantly, he is exercising his 1st Amendment right, the privilege fought for and given to him as an American citizen, to bring attention to the Black Lives Matter movement as a black athlete. The role as a black athlete can be both a blessing and a challenge when the choice is made to use the position for social justice.
The American female black athlete has an even broader struggle to deal with.
American female black athletes not only get the inherent challenge of their race, but battle gender issues as well. Women such as Wilma Rudolf, Althea Gibson, Florence Griffith-Joyner, Jackie Joyner-Kersey, were the embodiment of champion female athletes. Women of color in athletics battle obscurity on a scale that is unparalleled by their male counterparts. Odds have it, at first glance, most can’t name the sport these women dominated in their time. Track & Field and Tennis for the record, with 9 gold medals, 4 silver, 3 bronze and 7 Grand Slam wins amongst them. These women, and countless others, push their bodies to the limits just as aggressively and fervently, yet don’t reap the same social, financial, or political benefits as their black male counterparts.
It took a well documented Op-Ed in the London Times from Venus Williams on the unequal pay of women tennis players before parliament forced one of the largest tennis tournaments in the world to pay their female athletes equally. This was just in 2007. The disparity of endorsement and salary dollars given to popular black female athletes is painfully apparent.
Take the WNBA’s superstar athletes. The black male NBA athletes would literally protest if they had to collect the yearly salary their female black counterparts take home. The majority of black female basketball players, mega star Britany Griner for example, must go over seas to places like China to collect an even close to comparable salary. She makes just over $100,000 in the WNBA, but makes over $600,000 playing in China according to the-net-worth.com. Clearly it’s not that they can’t make a working wage, it’s the dignity of reaping the rewards of championship effort in an equitable fashion that women of color have been denied.
The argument is not that black American athletes are denied access to extraordinary benefits from being in the public eye. They are, by all means, privileged in a way that the average black American may never accomplish. But, as with any privilege they are given the social responsibility to enact change and create a discussion that is more aware of the social disparity that lingers in American culture when it comes to the black American individual, athlete or not.
Images via CNN, CBS, NPR, Huffington Post.