When race and sports in the USA are discussed it is normally centred around the past. In the UK names like Jesse Owens and Muhammad Ali are almost as well-known as David Beckham and Steve Redgrave. Across the Atlantic athletes like Jackie Robinson, Earl Lloyd and Joe Louis carry the same kind of recognition as African American sporting pioneers. We saw recently with the death of Ali the lasting legacy of these men who broke down cultural and political barriers in their pursuit of excellence in sporting arenas across the globe.
It is interesting then, that there is no modern Ali, no real sporting role model who has stood up to the continuing inequality in the United States. Of the names listed above, the Louisville Lip was the most outspoken. Owens actually criticised him in his 1970 book Blackthink and seemed to believe that race was not a barrier to success since he had overcome it without help from others. Louis, Lloyd and Robinson were all publicly quiet over race issues, as they wanted to avoid drawing negative press, something which had haunted the boxer Jack Johnson, first black heavyweight champion of the world, who had managed (if it was possible) to live a more extravagant and controversial life than Ali.
In the modern sporting pantheon, the most visible black athlete in America is probably the basketball superstar LeBron James, and to his credit he has stood against racial inequality on occasion. Following the murder of black Florida teenager Trayvon Martin in 2012 James, along with his then teammates on the Miami Heat, posed together in a photo mimicking the attire of Martin in an act of solidarity. Then, following the shooting in 2014 of Mike Brown in Ferguson, James took to Instagram to suggest that society needed to look at ways of preventing these things from happening.
When tragedies such as those in Ferguson do occur, there is a general outpouring of support from black athletes, but it rarely goes beyond a protest on Twitter and by and large is quickly forgotten, buried in an avalanche of other expressions of sorrow from various other influential people.
Perhaps there is less of a need for a strong sporting voice against racism in 21st century America. In the 1930s and 1940s Owens, Louis and Robinson may well have been the three highest profile black people in the country at the time, Ali shared stages with Martin Luther King, Malcolm X and Jesse Jackson. Now in the US there is an African American President, and many black political voices in Congress. In the media there are figures such as Chris Rock and Whoopi Goldberg who regularly comment on black issues. The richest self-made woman in the USA is not some CEO, but a black talk show host; there are now a plethora of black figures who can comment on wider issues of racism in the country.
However, this may not be the solution. The group that seems to face the most racially-motivated violence and prejudice are young black men and it should be questioned as to whether they see role models in people like Oprah Winfrey or even Barack Obama. It would be hard as a poor black teenager to relate to someone like Obama, who came from a mixed-race family with both parents being University graduates. Many prominent athletes like James, the football star Richard Sherman and 110m hurdles world record holder Aries Merritt come from backgrounds that probably more accurately represent the life of an everyday black teenager in the US.
Whilst people like Winfrey and Obama are deserving of praise, especially in how they have tackled the race issue in America, both are older and neither are necessarily ‘cool’. But sports stars are. Athletes like James, Serena Williams and baseball star Andrew McCutchen are all obvious idols for young black people in the USA, and all have a role to play in the ongoing battle for racial equality. Though there may no longer be as great a level of racism in sports (though the last vestiges still hold out in Russia, Australia and on English football terraces) there is still a huge amount of racism prevalent in the world, and the US is just one example.
It appears that the role models in the fight against racism no longer come from the sporting arena. Even though many of those affected by racism may claim their favourite sports stars as their idols, they no longer see these sports stars leading the fight against racism in wider American society. Similarly, sports stars cross political divides. When major Democrats like Obama and Winfrey (who backed Obama) speak out, it is easy for Republicans to dismiss them and say it’s merely a political argument. Sports stars can, by and large, remain above partisan political debate, and so if they were to begin speaking out against the racism in wider society it could make the same positive difference that was made by Owens, Robinson and Ali all those years ago. The nature of racism in the US has changed, and with this change comes the need for a new response.