March 19th, 1966 started a new era in American sport history. The NCAA championship game, held in Cole Field House between Kentucky and Texas Western, became “the most significant game in college basketball history” (Wilbon, 2006). Don Haskins, the coach of Texas Western, started the first ever all-Black line up against openly racist Adolph Rupp’s all-White Kentucky team. Occurring within the backdrop of the Civil Rights Movement, this momentous event showed that African American participation in the prized American sport of basketball was no longer subject to the constraints placed on them by the color of their skin. It opened the eyes of the public and forged a new path for racial equality in sport. This country has made great strides in overcoming issues of racism, but the effects of racial inferiority and segregation still lingers. Despite living in a post-racist society, it is evident through contemporary sport that race continues have an impact in American culture.
Successes of African American athletes are oftentimes attributed to the enduring myth of the supposed “natural” black physicality. These Scientific Racism theories suggest that there are innate physical abilities that provide Black athletes with a competitive edge. By taking anthropometric measurements of the human body, it compares racial groups to show any superiorities or inferiorities (Schultz, 2008). When White Americans began loosing their footing over African Americans, they needed a method to rationalize the athletic success of Black athletes.
The widespread belief among whites that blacks were intellectually and physically inferior led many whites to view black athletes as a curiosity. Then, as black athletes gradually demonstrated their skills in certain sports, whites developed increasingly detail genetic explanation for black achievements. The more blacks achieved in sports, the more whites used those achievements as “proof” that blacks had animal-like characteristics, which made them socially inferior. (Coakley, 2000, p75)
Although they were considered socially inferior, Black athletes’ accomplishments in sport could not be denied. In order to justify their own defeats, White Americans claimed that the “primitive” nature of their African American opponents were the reason for their successes. Instead of accounting for the hard work and determination that would have been used to praise White athletes, society turned to biology to demean Black athletes.
The African American body is referred to as a “muscle-machine”, a belief that values the body over the mind. Black athletes are expected to play sports or hold positions that require strength and aggression instead of intellect and cunning. This belief dates back to the times of slavery where African Americans were characterized as primates and criminals.
The misrepresentation of athletes by sport category offers clear reinforcement of myths of racial difference. For instance, Black athletes were disproportionately represented in strength sports, especially boxing. Overrepresentation of Blacks in boxing reinforces the stereotype of Blacks as “brutes” and “savages.” (Hardin, 2004, p224)
African American athletes who do participate in sports involving more physicality and higher levels of aggression receive more attention from the pubic. It is acceptable for Blacks to gain exposure this way because they are already viewed as violent and abusive. African American athletes are thought to dominate in strength sports due to views of the genetic superiority of the body.
Sport is essentially one of the only areas where African Americans are accepted and praised when successful. The sporting environment creates a level playing field where African Americans have opportunities to display their athletic talents and outshine White Americans without public disapproval. In the past, the success of Black athletes was “seen as a threat to the dominant social order” (Schultz, 2008). White Americans feared that allowing African Americans into mainstream sports would result in a complete take-over of the games they treasured. However, those worries were nullified once it was realized that there were immense financial benefits to exploiting accomplished Black athletes (Coakley, 2000). In the past, this was displayed by the epic story of Jack Johnson and his journey of becoming heavyweight champion of the world (Schultz, 2008). Those same views are manifested today in collegiate sports where successful Black athletes are used to draw in media coverage and profits for universities.
Even though slavery ended a century and a half ago, racial slurs and derogatory comments are still too prevalent in sport. It is 2008 and Tiger Woods was just a victim of a highly offensive remark by a sports commentator (“Golf Channel”, 2008). Americans are known as rowdy spectators who love to taunt and distract athletes, but it is important for our society to be aware of where to draw the line. In sports such as basketball, where a good seat could mean minimal separation between the player and the spectator, it is easy to exchange words. Dikembe Mutombo, a relatively controlled NBA center, was verbally attacked during a game by an opposing fan.
I will not accept that. We are not in the '60s. People have paid the price for us to be where we are today. For him to call a black man a monkey in the middle of the game, he was in the second row, for him to stand up and call, `Mutombo the monkey,' is an insult. It insulted my integrity, my body, my family, my race. (Feigen, 2006)
Rarely is it ever appropriate to joke about race, and even then it is a very sensitive and uncomfortable topic. The racial remark made by the spectator and any others like it reverses the progress society has made over the past century. Unfortunately, it shows that the issue of race is still intertwined in sport and society.
American society has evolved since the days of slavery, but issues of race still arise in contemporary institutions such as sport. As enduring as beliefs of African American inferiority are, great efforts have been made to propel ideas of equality. In comparison to other countries all over the world, the United States is still young and growing. More time must pass before the racial beliefs of our past are rectified. Until that time comes, it is important for current and future generations to learn from history and be conscious of the negative effects of racism. Some day American society will fully embrace racial equality, and hopefully sport will create a nurturing atmosphere to foster that change.
Coakley, J. (2000). A look at the past: Does it help us understand sports today? Sport in Society: Issues & Controversies, pp. 55-80.
Feigen, J. (2006, October). Mutombo nearly goes into stands; Center provoked by racial slurs, wants NBA action. The Houston Chronicle, p.6 (LN).
Golf Channel anchor Kelly Tilghman suspended for ‘lynch’ remark about Tiger Woods. (2008). Retrieved February 23, 2008, from
Hardin, M., Chance, J., Dodd, J. E., & Walsdorf, K. (2004). Sporting Images in Black and White: Race in Newspaper Coverage of the 2000 Olympic Games. Howard Journal of Communications, 15(4), pp. 211-227.
Schultz, J.L. (2008, Spring). Module III: Lecture – Sport & the Emergence of Modern America, 1865-1920. KNES 293, University of Maryland: College Park, MD.
Wilbon, M. (2006, January 13). A Win for Texas, Western, A Triumph for Equality. Washingtonpost.com. Retrieved February 19, 2008, from
Scholarly Source Recommendations
Ferber, A.L. (2007). The Construction of Black Masculinity. Journal of Sport & Social Issues, 31(1), pp.11-24, 14p.
The Jack Nicklaus syndrome – racism in sports, The Popular Condition – Column. (1996).
Retrieved February 23, 2008, from