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Past and Present

Confronting Racism In Sports

Mike Licht / Flickr / Creative Commons

As a fan of the National Basketball Association, and as someone who does research in African American history, the recent Donald Sterling debacle reminded me that former President Dwight D. Eisenhower was correct when he stated that laws and court decisions can’t necessarily change what’s in the hearts of individuals.

Yet, notwithstanding public revelations about Sterling’s attitudes regarding blacks, to me, the most important aspect of this story was how African American NBA players responded to these revelations. According to some sources, players discussed the possibility of boycotting the NBA playoffs if league officials didn’t move quickly to punish Sterling for his racist remarks.

From a historical standpoint, this would not have been the first boycott conducted by African American professional athletes. In 1965, black players boycotted that year’s American Football League All-Star Game to protest the discriminatory treatment they suffered in New Orleans hotels, restaurants and drinking establishments. Ultimately, the American Football League moved the game to Houston to placate its African American star players.

A related by-product of black NBA players’ response to Donald Sterling’s intemperate remarks was that several of them spoke publicly about racial issues. During the 1960s, many African American athletes were active participants in the black freedom struggle. It was refreshing to see that today’s black athletes are not totally disconnected from that legacy.