Racism has invaded various segments of society and it remains pervasive despite epic strides made by people of color. In the world of sports, however, racism of a vicious sort continues to fester and often goes largely unchecked, most recently exemplified by the Donald Sterling situation.
Racism in sports was the norm at one point, as sports were segregated across the board. Black athletes often had to play in minor leagues or inferior environments compared to their white counterparts, or they weren’t even allowed to play.
Olympic track star Jesse Owens excelled at the 1936 Summer Games in Berlin, Germany. While Nazi leader Adolf Hitler promoted the” superiority “of the Aryan race, Owens went on to win four gold medals. But even with Owens’ success, then President Franklin D. Roosevelt failed to acknowledge the achievement.
Negro League Baseball was born in the late 1880s because White teams wouldn’t allow Black players to suit up, giving rise to a variety of small Black-owned leagues in the 20th Century. In Latin America, players of color didn’t face those barriers but leagues there didn’t have the reach or exposure of major league baseball.
Yes, Jackie Robinson’s historic moment desegregated the major leagues in 1947, but did very little to erase the ugliness of bigotry. Robinson faced taunts and death threats, but stuck to his agreement with Dodgers general manager Branch Rickey to ignore the insults. Robinson lasted two years before finally responding, becoming a champion of equal rights for players and decrying Jim Crow laws.
Tennis great Althea Gibson was the first Black woman to win Wimbledon. She predated the Williams sisters by 40 years but also dealt with the same racist beliefs that the sisters experienced. In the 1950s segregation was still practiced in American and despite winning championships, Gibson was denied rooms at hotels and shunned at restaurants. Still, her pioneering accomplishments paved the way for Arthur Ashe and Venus and Serena Williams.
Though segregation in sports is no longer the rule, racism is still prevalent. When Georgetown University great and NBA legend Patrick Ewing debuted for the Hoyas in 1983, a “fan” threw a banana peel onto the court. In 2007, Don Imus’ infamous “nappy head ho’s” quip aimed at the Rutgers University women’s basketball team resulted in his firing.
This year, Montreal Canadiens’ defenseman P.K. Subban was pelted with trash after a game-winning goal against the Boston Bruins. Bruins fans were so angered they made the n-word a trending topic on Twitter, despite the Bruins own organization denouncing them. Subban has been criticized by his Canadian hockey peers for his “cockiness,” which can often be coded language for racial enmity.
In Europe, soccer players of color are routinely insulted in some of the sport’s premier leagues. Papakouli Diop, a player with Spanish league La Liga’s Levante squad, was recently peppered with chants calling him a monkey after his team defeated Atletico Madrid in their home arena. Diop began to dance in response, and later said in the media that the chanting “has to be stopped.”
But FC Barcelona standout Dani Alves, a Black Brazilian player, may have had the last word on the issue of racism. When a banana was thrown on the field in his direction during a game, he picked it up and took a bite. Still, soccer players of color have long complained that the governing bodies of European leagues have done little to stamp out the issue.