A Member of the Team? Sports, Citizenship, and Race during the Twentieth Century

Type: Paper Session

Tags: Race; Social and Cultural; Sports and Recreation


In moments of crisis, U.S. citizens have turned to sports for comfort and a sense of national belonging. Following the end of the Civil War, newspapers promoted baseball as a force for national unity, bringing both the North and South together in their mutual love of America’s pastime. The 1980 Miracle on Ice reinvigorated the political potency of Cold War social propaganda, and after the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the Twin Towers, President George W. Bush famously threw the first pitch at Yankee Stadium for Game Three of the World Series, bringing a sense of normalcy back to the country. Historians have focused upon how sports are a symbol of unity and nationalism for Americans, particularly during the twentieth century as the country waged both cold and hot wars. These narratives remind academics and sports fans alike of the sheer collective power of sports. They do not, however, reveal how sports also exclude marginalized populations from participating in full citizenship; nor do they uncover the efforts made by those excluded to reshape ideas of American belonging. These questions have started to be tackled by historians.

Our panel, “A Member of the Team? Sports, Citizenship, and Race during the Twentieth Century” interrogates the connection between sports and ideas of nationalism, citizenship, and belonging. We present an understanding of how athletes and institutions were excluded from national narratives, and then highlight the fight to attain full citizenship rights via sports by minority populations. How wide was the chasm between perceptions of sport as a positive force for the good of the nation, and the lived reality of athletes struggling to be included in the most basic elements of play? How did mainly white sport institutions prop up exclusionary athletic programs, and contribute to racist and sexist understandings of American citizenship? Where was the space for non-white athletes to feel a part of a nation built upon the backs of their suffering? These are some of the questions we will ask and answer as we examine the place of sports in the creation and recreation of American citizenship and belonging.

Papers Presented

"The Big Toe of God”: Norman Mailer on Boxing and Blackness

Norman Mailer loved boxing. He knew the sport’s intricacies, sparred with friends and family, and befriended the light heavyweight champion Jose Torres. The spirit of combat further informed his public life, as witnessed by his intellectual jousts with William Buckley or James Baldwin, his New York City mayoral campaign, and his many physical altercations. Like his idol Ernest Hemingway, he held that boxing and writing both offered authentic tests of courage and truth. Mailer wrote about boxing, too: the 1962 bout between Sonny Liston and Floyd Patterson, the first Muhammad Ali-Joe Frazier fight in 1971, and the 1974 clash between Ali and George Foreman in Kinshasa, Zaire. His long magazine articles and short book were archetypes of the “New Journalism,” with detailed scenes of the wider milieu, reconstructed dialogue, and insertions of the author as a character in the drama. In each case, Mailer grappled with the state of race in America – and how he felt about it. He both accentuated and complicated the depictions of black boxers as racial symbols. At times he trafficked in stereotype. At other moments he supported boxers who satisfied his particular vision of progress. Yet he rendered the boxers more human and more real than conventional sportswriters could manage. This paper will investigate Mailer’s forays into sportswriting and consider their implications for the national discourse on racial politics. It seeks to contribute to an intellectual history of American sport.

Presented By
Aram G. Goudsouzian, University of Memphis

“When I couldn’t bedazzle them with brilliance, I bamboozled them with bullshit”: Harry Edwards, Black Power, and Countering the Mainstream Media’s Repression of the Revolt of the Black Athlete

Most scholars studying sports in black communities have assumed that post-Reconstruction black communities have almost singularly used sports as a means to demonstrate that as a group, blacks possessed manliness, the ability to contribute to the nation, to strengthen their claims to citizenship rights. While there is substantial evidence to support the assertion, scholars have failed to recognize that the assertion became dominant in American society during the early Cold War, because the state, including the mainstream media, highlighted the increasing visibility of black athletes as part of its Cold War propaganda that race was a declining factor in society. Consequently, the claim has eclipsed the other purposes of sports in the long Black Freedom Struggle. This presentation examines the Olympic Project for Human Rights, a campaign to organize a black boycott of the 1968 Olympics, and the state’s use of the myth of the black athlete to delegitimize the campaign in the public discourse. It demonstrates that although activists were at least partially able to respond, the state’s opposition shaped the public’s opinion of the OPHR, stymieing support for the boycott. It further demonstrates that because the myth was issued in the mainstream media, the public record, it continues to shape scholarly and popular perceptions of sports and Civil Rights. Lastly, the presentation calls attention to the need of scholars studying sports in black communities to ground their work in the social history of black communities and incorporate the primary sources of black athletes and intellectuals.

Presented By
Dexter Lee Blackman, Morgan State University

“The Only Thing Black About Ice Hockey is the Puck”: Whiteness, Blackness, and Ice Hockey during the 1970s

Ice hockey has long been considered a regional sport in the United States. Limited to wintery outposts huddled close to the Canadian border, ice hockey struggled to gain widespread popularity in the United States during the 1960s as sport media exploded alongside the advent of televised sports matches. Ice hockey was a Canadian sport, played overwhelmingly by white Canadians in the United States. The sport had little connection to the diverse group of Americans that followed football, baseball, or basketball in the warmer Southern climates. But then, curiously, in the 1970s ice hockey began to be touted as the next great American sport. Attendance grew at professional National Hockey League games, and newspapers waxed lyrical about the aggressive physicality of the game. The increase in popularity was also seen as a reaction to the rising black professional athletes in other sports. Media commentators were quick to compare ice hockey’s gains to professional basketball’s ratings slump, arguing that ice hockey represented a new, white sport for American’s to cheer for. This presentation examines the shifting popular understanding of ice hockey in the United States from a regional “Canadian” sport, to an inclusive, “white” sport. In doing so, the presentation examines how ideas of normalcy are attached to whiteness, while blackness remains a loud aberration. Citizenship and belonging are understood through the whiteness of ice hockey, while the increasing blackness of basketball is understood to alienate viewers.

Presented By
Alexandra Mountain, University of Wisconsin–Madison

Session Participants

Chair: Louis Moore, Grand Valley State University
Louis Moore is an Associate Professor of History at Grand Valley State University. He teaches African American History, Civil Rights, Sports History, and US History. His research and writing examines the interconnections between race and sports. He is the author of two recently published books, I Fight for a Living: Boxing and the Battle for Black Manhood, 1880-1915 and We Will Win the Day: The Civil Rights Movement, the Black Athlete, and the Quest for Equality. He has also written for a number of online outlets including The Shadow League, New York Daily News, Vox, and Vocativ, and has appeared on news outlets including NPR, MSNBC, and BBC Sports talking sports and race.

Presenter: Dexter Lee Blackman, Morgan State University
Dexter L. Blackman, PhD is the author of the forthcoming book We Are Standing Up For Humanity: Black Power, The Myth of the Black Athlete, and the Olympic Project for Human Rights and an Assistant Professor of History and African American Studies at Morgan State University. He has published academic articles and commentaries in The Journal of African American Studies, The Sports History Review, The Journal of Pan African Studies, and Black Commentator and held research fellowships at UCLA’s Ralph Bunche Center and the University of Chicago’s Black Metropolitan Research Center.

Presenter: Aram G. Goudsouzian, University of Memphis
Aram Goudsouzian is a Professor of History at the University of Memphis. He is the author of The Men and the Moment: The Election of 1968 and the Rise of Partisan Politics in America (UNC Press, 2019); Down to the Crossroads: Civil Rights, Black Power, and the Meredith March Against Fear (Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 2014); King of the Court: Bill Russell and the Basketball Revolution (University of California Press, 2008); The Hurricane of 1938 (Commonwealth Editions, 2004); and Sidney Poitier: Man, Actor, Icon (UNC Press, 2004). He is also the editor of Karnig Panian's Goodbye Antoura: A Memoir of the Armenian Genocide (Stanford University Press, 2015) and the co-editor, with Charles McKinney, of the essay collection An Unseen Light: Black Struggles for Freedom in Memphis, Tennessee (University of Kentucky Press, 2018).

Commentator: Katherine Mooney, Florida State University
Katherine Mooney is James P. Jones Associate Professor of History at Florida State University and the author of Race Horse Men: How Slavery and Freedom Were Made at the Racetrack (Harvard 2014). She is presently at work on a brief biography of the jockey Isaac Murphy and a project on the history of the "horse girl."

Presenter: Alexandra Mountain, University of Wisconsin–Madison
Alexandra Mountain is the Allan H. Selig Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She is currently working on her book manuscript concerning race, labor exploitation, and youth sports.