African-American Discrimination in Sports: 1970-Present

I am excited to say that my next blog post will be operated a bit differently than in the past. This one will really dive into specific spectacles of racism within the past 40 years and truly shed light on how views really haven’t changed.

Baseball 1987 On the 40th anniversary of Jackie Robinson’s arrival into professional baseball, former Los Angeles Dodger Vice President Al Companis was invited to appear on ABC’s Nightline. During the interview, Companis was asked, “why he thought so few blacks were in management positions in baseball.” (ScienceSmith) Companis responded that he believed blacks do not have the necessities to be a general manager or field manager. He also went on to say that blacks were not as prominent in swimming due to a lack of buoyancy. Within 48 hours of his comments, Companis was fired. This action was critical since it revealed that it was highly embarrassing and unacceptable to reveal such views publicly. Because of the interview, reporters began to question around the league if others agreed with his comments. Shockingly, it turned out to be widely believed throughout baseball that blacks were not intellectually sufficient enough to hold such positions. 

Video of the comments ->

Football 1988 A year after the comments from Al Companis, another man was caught spewing controversial views on national television. Jimmy “The Greek” Snyder, a well known football commentator for CBS, took part in an interview on January 16th where he got on to the topic of black athletes: “The black is a better athlete to begin with because he’s been bred to be that way, because of his high thighs and big thighs that goes up into his back, and they can jump higher and run faster because of their bigger thighs and he’s bred to be the better athlete because this goes back all the way to the Civil War when during the slave trade … the slave owner would breed his big black to his big woman so that he could have a big black kid …” CBS immediately asked for Snyder to resign from the company, even though he had a year left on his contract. Snyder refused, forcing CBS Sports President Neal Philson fire him by phone all the way from Hawaii. Just like Companis’, Synder’s comments were highly controversial and offended the entire the black community. He would later apologize for what he described to be “foolish words”, but the damage had already been done.

Video of the comments ->

Golf 1997 Not only racist remarks come from people who just observed sports. At the Master’s Tournament, Tiger Woods, a young African-American golfing star, had just sealed his first of many victories there at Augusta. During Woods’ award ceremony, fellow competitor and former winner Fuzzy Zoeller was asked for comments about him by the press. They started off very complimentary. However, he went on to advise the press to tell Woods “not to serve fried chicken next year” (Yahoo) at the annual Champions Dinner. This was taken offensively since fried chicken was a stereotypical food associated with African-Americans. The media did not attack his comments for about a week until the hype over Woods settled down. He was dubbed a racist and his national image would be fully healed.

Hockey 2010 My final example of racial discrimination comes from the fans perspective and occurred not too long ago. During the 2010 NHL playoffs, the Washington Capitals and Boston Bruins were locked into a first round battle. Game 7 turned into an overtime slugfest. The two teams went back and forth until African-American hockey player Joel Ward fired home the game winner, sending the Bruins home early. Boston fans did not take to this lightly. Hockey was already regarded as predominately white sport and seeing an African-American score set these fans off. Thousands of Boston fans took to Twitter to unleash their frustration on Ward. Statements like “I can’t believe the n—– scored…” were a common theme of the racial backlash. Ward did not care for the attention he was receiving. After all, he was the one that got to move on to the next round. But, it was an ugly sight to see from Boston fans.

Whether its from executives, commentators, competitors, or fans, racial discrimination is still quite present in the sports world. African-American athletes have come a long way and through these past few decades. For the most part, they have earned the treatment they sought after for many years. The national image of racism is now seen as unacceptable and not tolerated, but it is apparent that the very nature of it still seeded inside a lot of us. Americans are still striving even further to correct this issue. This can be illustrated by my closing story…

Football 2003 Prior to the 2003 season, only 6 minority coaches had been hired in the NFL. Dan Rooney, the owner of the Pittsburgh Steelers and chairman of the league’s diversity committee, thought this was an issue and pushed for the NFL to take action. He was successful. Starting in 2003, all NFL teams would now be required to interview atleast one minority candidate for vacant head coaching and executive positions. Since then, several teams have ended up hiring these minority candidates including the Pittsburgh Steelers, who hired Mike Tomlin in 2007. “At the start of the 2006 season, the overall percentage of African American coaches had jumped to 22%, up from 6% prior to the Rooney Rule.” (Wiki) The rule is now referred to as the “Rooney Rule” due to the long history of the Steelers giving African Americans opportunities to serve leadership roles. Today, it is apparent the rule is not perfect since teams do not have to hire these minority coaches; but, just ensuring the opportunity is seen as a major victory for African-Americans trying to take a shot at a major position.

Works Cited


African-American Discrimination in Sports: 1940-1970

Baseball 1945 A talented young man from UCLA would set the wheel in motion for the biggest turning point in Professional baseball history. He was first athlete in school history to letter in four different sports and had shown promise playing in the American Negro League. He got the attention of Brooklyn Dodger’s GM Branch Rickey, who called him into his office that day in Brooklyn. It was there that Rickey chose Jackie Robinson to be the first African-American to play in major league history. Rickey believed that Robinson had not just the talent to take on such a challenge, but had the attitude and strength to overcome the inevitable racial taunts and actions. Jackie passed all of his tests in the interview and went off to start his memorable career for the Montreal Royals, and soon after, the Brooklyn Dodgers. His story and contributions turned him into the greatest icon of the de-segregation of sports. Baseball would never be the same.

Jackie Robinson

Basketball & Football 1954 Paul Hornung was the Heisman winner and the most influential player of Notre Dame’s football program. One day, Paul heard that a local restaurant owner refused to serve Tom Hawkins, a member of the basketball team, based on the color of his skin. Feeling like this kind of treatment was wrong and that white and black athletes have to stick together, Paul and a handful of teammates marched down to the restaurant and demanded that Hawkins would be served. The owner immediately backed down and gave in to his demands. Hawkins was grateful and never forgot those actions, even when he went on to become a professional basketball player. Small actions like these from white players started to rise up more and more often as larger pushes for racial equality swept the nation.

Football 1960 The Green Bay Packers, an up and coming team in the National Football League, acquired a black defensive end named Willie Davis. He was the first African American to represent the Packers. When he arrived at training camp, head coach Vince Lombardi wanted to send an immediate message to the rest of the team. He assigned Davis to stay with a white teammate, an action that was unheard of. Lombardi believed that color did not matter and that they were all in this together. Davis, Lombardi, and that rest of the team went on to turn the Packers into one of the most successful, storied franchises in pro-football history. Lombardi’s actions against racial segregation would just be a small part of the enormous legacy he would eventually go on to build.

All Sports 1964 On a quiet summer day in Washington D.C., one of the most important pieces of legislation was making its way through Congress. This was the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The law prohibited “discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex or national origin.” ( The House of Representatives passed the Senate version of the bill in the morning and was signed into effect by President Johnson that very afternoon. After decades of suffering, African-American athletes could now expect to be treated on the same level as whites legally. It showed that America had finally reached the next level for socially equality. But, segregation was not immediately banished. Problems with enforcing and abiding by the law would continue on…

Football 1965 Even with the passing of the Civil Rights Act, African-American athletes still experienced some segregation in southern states. This was evident during the American Football League All Star Game which was scheduled to be held in New Orleans in 1965. City officials had promised the league that the city was safe and ready for such an event. When blacks arrived, problems were immediately evident. Many were stranded at the airport as taxi drivers refused to serve them and those who did find transportation found difficulty attending night clubs and restaurants. Frustrated, all 21 African-American all stars met together and decided to sit out of the game. Soon after, a handful of other white players joined the boycott. The situation caused the league to move the game to Houston. The boycott “shined a spotlight on Congress’s ability to enforce the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and proved that if America was to desegregate, the culture needed to change its mindset and adopt a more progressive view of the human race as quickly as possible.” (PFHOF)

Conclusion The period between 1940 and 1970 saw rapid changes for African-Americans. In the sports world, players would end up at the point of equal treatment from every team. The treatment from people outside of sports, however, still was a looming issue that will continue on for years. The passage of the Civil Rights Act was a huge step but it would take time for people to finally change themselves and accept new social standards.

Works Cited ( (PFHOF)

African-American Discrimination in Sports: 1865-1940

1902 Basketball Considered as the first man to integrate professional basketball, Harry “Haskell” Lew came in to the sports scene early November in 1902.  It was by chance he was even given a shot. The local team suffered several injuries in the weeks before hand. People from around town were persuading the coach to give the negro from around the corner a shot. He was left with no other choice and took Harry in. It was predetermined that he would just be a bench warmer until an injury to one of the key players. So almost by force, the manager had to let Harry play. Harry went on to later say, “I went in there and you know… all those things you read about Jackie Robinson, the abuse, the name-calling, extra effort to put him down … they’re all true. I got the same treatment and even worse … I took the bumps, the elbows in the gut, knees here and everything else that went with it.” (MassMoments) Lew ended up staying with the team for a year before it disbanded. When it was all said and done, he was the one who paved the way for the first African-American to be drafted in 1950.


Picture from (IBHOF)

1910 Boxing In 1910, one of the most historic boxing matches of all time took place. Jack Johnson, an African-American boxer, challenged former heavyweight champion Jim Jeffries. Johnson was not a fan favorite at the time. Whites vilified him immediately when the former title winner returned to America in 1908. Johnson did not help his cause. He frequently drove fast cars and courted white women. So to put an end to his reign, Jeffries was named the man that could take him down. In a long 14 round bout, Johnson put down Jeffries in dramatic fashion. Riots ensued soon after and 20 people were reported dead because of the racial violence. Johnson, however, did not get the last triumph. In the months that followed the match, he was targeted by government agencies for carrying women across state lines. Even though most people would have gotten away with something like that, he was relentlessly pursued because of “who and what he was, not for what he had done.” (IBHOF)

1920 Baseball At the turn of the century, blacks were still culturally banned from competing in most professional sports. To compensate for blacks who were interested in baseball, Andrew Foster created the first American Negro League. This allowed African-American ball players a safe haven to play without discrimination and many were thrilled with the opportunity. It stimulated economic growth in black communities and brought a sense of pride for blacks. Just to keep the league afloat, Foster would donate his best players to hurting teams to keep it competitive and afloat. The league was considered a success until it folded in 1930 due to the Great Depression. Foster would go down as a true pioneer of the sport and a factor in the eventual integration of baseball.

1923 Football All long with some huge milestones, there were plenty of examples of misfortunate and abuse in this time period. In 1923, Jack Trice had successfully integrated the Iowa State football team. When he finally made the varsity team, they traveled out to play Minnesota in the second week of the season. Jack had to stay in a hotel away from the rest of his teammates. He didn’t seem to mind and just wanted to do his best regardless of how he was treated. The opponents had other plans on game day. Right at the end of his second play, he was gang tackled, causing him to break his collarbone. The coaches carelessly kept him in. Two days later, Jack died from internal bleeding and lung hemorrhage. This shook the school and 4,000 students reportedly attended his funeral. His story eventually led to the school naming the football stadium, making Jack Trice the only African-American to have a Division I stadium named after.


Picture from (Alabama)

1936 Track and Field In 1936, the German’s had the prestigious honor of hosting the Summer Olympics. This was right in the middle of some extreme issues for the European nation. In previous few years, Adolf Hitler had taken control of the nation along with the Nazi party. Great change was ongoing. Hitler was rounding up every person that he did not believe fit his perfect people, also known as the Aryan race. Thousands of men, women, and children with minority backgrounds (particularly the Jewish) were forced from their homes and faced extreme labor or even death. Because of this great discrimination going on, the Americans were hesitant of even competing in Berlin that summer. But nevertheless, they did. Meanwhile, Hitler was convinced this was a perfect opportunity to showcase how his Aryan race was the best in the world. To compete against Hitler’s Aryans, the U.S. called up some of the best athletes in the nation including African-American track star Jesse Owens. In his first event, Owens did not disappoint the large crowd that had assembled inside the Olympic Stadium. He equaled the previous world record in the 100m dash on the way to his first victory. The Aryans could not simply keep up. After the ceremony, it is custom for the leader of the hosting nation to shake hands and congratulate the winner. Hitler refused, asking “Do you really think I will allow myself to be photographed shaking hands with a Negro?” (PBS) But Jesse Owens seemed to not mind, going on to win several more gold medals including the long jump pictured above. It was an enormous victory against discrimination and African-American athletes back at home. Jesse Owens, dark skinned and proud of it, had dominated what Germany viewed as the master race.  He became a powerful symbol of greatness for the black community back at home and even went down as one of the greatest track athletes ever.

Conclusion: The early 1900’s showed the signs of eventual good things to come. Still, the era was the hardest an African-American could endure. These amazing athletes were able to overcome battles during the “Jim Crow” times that feature brutal violence and harsh racial language. Even though many did not fair well, their small contributions symbolically were larger than life.

Works Cited