This archived article was written by: Robert Young
February is Black History Month. This is a time when Americans of all origins can celebrate the traditions and history of African Americans. One area where African-Americans have exhibited greatness, although not the only one, is sports.
In today’s modern world we all seem to be familiar with the likes of Michael Jordan, the Williams’ sisters, Tiger Woods, and even Jackie Robinson, who broke major league baseball’s color barrier when he joined the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947.
However, just as in other facets of the world, there are a vast amount of other blacks that have been pioneers in the world of sports.
Before Venus and Serena Williams were dominating tennis, Althea Gibson paved the way, winning Grand Slam tennis championships in the 1950’s.
Similarly, Arthur Ashe did the same in men’s tennis. He was the first African Americans selected to play for the prestigious American Davis Cup team. In a career that spanned ten years, Ashe won an astounding 800 matches and attained three Grand Slam titles, including a championship at Wimbledon.
Perhaps you may be familiar with Bill Russell. Russell led the Boston Celtics to ten NBA championships including eight straight wins beginning in 1959. While a Celtic, Russell won a then record five NBA most valuable player awards. All the while, he was the star on a team of basketball legends, Russell was hated by the city which he represented.
Despite all he did for them, the Boston faithful never did accept Russell. Because of his race, Boston fans constantly booed Russell, in addition to yelling racial insults from the stands. He was even unable to attend his own jersey retirement ceremony because he was unwanted by the fans.
The mild-mannered Russell never attempted to retaliate. Instead, he continued to perform at an elite level and always carried himself with dignity and class.
Anyone, sports fan or not, can appreciate the perseverance of Wilma Rudolph. The twentieth of twenty-two children, Rudolph was born with Polio and other diseases. Because of her ailments, she had leg problems that initially led doctors to believe she would never walk. In fact, she was forced to walk with the aid of leg braces until she was eleven years old when she finally walked under her own strength one Sunday in church. Overcoming overwhelming odds, In 1960 Rudolph would go on to become the first woman to win three gold medals in a single Olympics.
Let’s not forget about Muhammad Ali. Recognized as the greatest boxer of all-time, Ali did things his way. Winning an Olympic gold medal, multiple heavyweight titles, and having been the headliner for many of the greatest sporting events in history, Ali may be known even more for his captivating personality. Amidst all the misconceptions concerning Ali’s character, perhaps the truest reason people loved to hate Ali was that he stood for something in a time when others were afraid to. Now regarded as one of the great faces of the civil rights movement, Ali is finally being recognized for the exceptional man.
Jesse Owens gave perhaps history’s greatest exhibition of heroism in a sports performance. Rarely recognized, Owens accomplished incomparable feats in the face of evil. Prior to the 1936 Olympic games in Munich, Germany, Nazi leader Adolph Hitler intended to use the games to prove the theory of a dominant Aryan race. As Hitler sat in the stands and looked on in dismay, Owens won four gold medals and single-handedly proved Hitler’s theories wrong. By the end of the Olympics, German fans cheered for the triumphant Owens.
Those are just some of the tales of outstanding African-Americans in sports. They began the fight for equality in sports. However, the struggle continues. New barriers continue to be broken. In 2003, Sylvester Croom was introduced as the head football coach of Mississippi State University. Croom is the first African American head football coach in the history of the Southeastern conference.
Despite the fact that 67 percent of the NFL’s players are African-American, only 3 of 32 head coaches in the league are Black. That’s less than 10 percent, dismal in comparison to the percentage of the league’s Black players. An even lower percentage of Blacks hold executive positions in NFL organizations.
Perhaps the best example of color blindness in sports is the National Basketball Association. The NBA boasts several Blacks in executive positions in addition to currently having 7 of 29 teams having Black head coaches. In fact, the NBA has had 12 African-Americans serve as head coaches in the current season alone. Additionally, for the first time in major sports history does a professional sports franchise, the NBA’s Charlotte Bobcats, have an African-American, Black Entertainment Television (BET) founder Bob Johnson, as its majority owner.
What does all this mean? Black history is more than acknowledging the hardships African-Americans have faced. Blacks are responsible for many great accomplishments, not just in their own history, but in American history itself, as exemplified by these sports heros. There is also evidence that more ground has to be covered and many barriers have yet to be knocked down. February is more than a celebration of Black history. It’s a celebration of courage, perseverance, and most of all, life.