Sports, Race, and the Law: A Reflection on Their Politics and Their Power

In Labor, NLLSA, Politics, Race, Sports on April 10, 2011 by Barbara

By NLLSA’s North Atlantic Regional Director, who studies human rights law because professional sports did not work out for him.

United States Olympians Tommie Smith and John Carlos at the 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico City, Mexico.  Also pictured is Australian Olympian Peter Norman who has an intriguing and little known role in support of the Black Power salute. Image source:

The New York Yankees have an organizational payroll that dwarves that of the Kansas City Royals…and the city of Kansas City.

Lord Stanley’s Cup was not awarded in 2004 for the first time since 1919 after the first “lockout” of an entire season for any professional sport in North America, which includes six Canadian cities.

The Rooney family may still sell their Pittsburgh Steelers franchise if a suitable bidder is found. The management of the Philadelphia Eagles signed Michael Vick despite public protests after his conviction and incarceration for involvement in dog fighting – and #7 jerseys have never sold better.

Cleveland was witness to their sports apocalypse with last summer’s airing of “The Decision”. “The Answer” is in question last seen playing in Turkey. Carmelo is finally a Knick, and CP3 may be joining him and Amar’e next season…if there is a season.

Sports are a business. Players work for owners. Fans cheer for laundry.

Of course, sports are also an integral part of society, a reflection of a collective value of competition and excellence. Of course, players compete for the quest of a championship, for the love of the game. Of course, fans root for their favorite teams, cherish their hometown heroes.

But, in the end, neither society’s values, players’ drive, nor fans’ loyalty compute in the marginal costs of managing a sports league – especially those of the magnitude seen in the United States.

The professional soccer leagues in Europe, and their multi-billion dollar teams, occupy comparable strata of financial clout. Yet, only in the United States have four professional sports leagues – Major League Baseball (MLB), the National Hockey League (NHL), the National Football League (NFL), and the National Basketball Association (NBA) – taken such a hold of markets in cities as financially disparate as Tampa Bay and Toronto with teams as financially disparate as those playing in Nashville and New York.

“I’m a Negro who speak up”, explained Carlton Chester Gilchrist [1]. Known as “Cookie”, Gilchrist was a 260-pound, six-foot three-inch record-setting fullback during the glory days of the American Football League (AFL). A lesser-known fact is that Gilchrist was also a labor organizer during the darkest days of the Civil Rights Movement. Gilchrist led the boycott of the 1965 AFL Championship Game that was to be hosted in New Orleans, Louisiana. Gilchrist organized dozens of top players, of color as well as white, to force the AFL to move the game from the city, which operated under unwritten Jim Crow policies.

Gilchrist’s initiative prompted other athletes to utilize the expanding celebrity of professional sports figures toward political ends. The silent protests by Tommie Smith and John Carlos during the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City were not spontaneous. They had been coordinated by other “athletes in revolt” as termed by former athlete and current professor Harry Edwards – the man who introduced the author of this post to the field of Sociology once upon a time.

Meanwhile, Muhammad Ali was stinging like a bee, becoming the flamboyant icon for such revolting sports figures and the pariah of the fearsome black athlete. His struggle against the United States government and popular media is well documented. Only recently has his courage and leadership been recognized by those who stripped him of this medal and robbed him of four years of his prime. Was it an evolution of heart by those who previously sought to banish him or the realization that “The Greatest” was no longer a threat, physically nor popularly. Ali, in the past fifteen years, had taken on a role as corporate spokesperson for companies seeking to get out from under racial discrimination litigation, namely The Coca-Cola Company. Nonetheless, his vibrant and unapologetic militancy, on matters of race, religion, and class, solidified athletes of color as figures who could be cheered on the court and feared in the street. After changing his name from Cassius Clay, Ali would taunt his foes, both inside and outside the ring, with his rope-a-dope line: “What’s my name, fool!”

Today, sports, race, and the law continue to intersect in ways more visible than decades prior. Last year, the Phoenix Suns, the NBA franchise in Arizona, offered a rare gesture of political solidarity by wearing jerseys that read “Los Suns”, Spanish for plural Suns, for their game against the San Antonio Spurs soon after Arizona’s state legislature had passed a bill that deputized local law enforcement as immigration officials and promoted racial profiling. Some saw the Suns’ move less as a political stand and more as economic opportunism to gain the favor of a booming Latino population in the metropolitan area. Nonetheless, the organization’s voice was an unexpected one in the polarizing debate where members of the Suns team and management made public comment against the legislation known as SB1070, including starting point-guard and two-time NBA Most Valuable Player, Steve Nash*.

In response to SB1070, immigrant rights advocates have also lobbied the MLB to relocate this summer’s All-Star Game from Chase Field, home of the Arizona Diamondbacks, to a city that will not sanction the reasonable suspicion stoked by local Maricopa County Sheriff, Joe Arpaio. MLB’s soon-to-be highest paid player and current Saint Louis Cardinals first baseman, Albert Pujols, has joined a series of other Latino and Latin American players and managers, such as the always outspoken coach of the Chicago White Sox, Ozzie Guillen, in repudiating the Arizona law and its copycat initiatives.

History repeats itself in Arizona where in 1990 the NFL rescinded its awarding of Super Bowl XXVII to Tempe, Arizona and relocated the nation’s most-watched televised event to the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, California. This controversial decision was made as a consequence of the state’s unwillingness to observe the new federal holiday honoring Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

This type of outspoken support by professional sports industry was not as evident in 2006 when millions marched throughout the country after the introduction of HR4437 by Representative Sensenbrenner from Wisconsin. Today, however, Wisconsin has taken center court in the fight of organized labor to retain their right to collectively bargain – a measure which impacts documented citizens as well as those currently undocumented seeking naturalization. In this fight, Wisconsin’s fabled NFL team and current Super Bowl champion, the Green Bay Packers, has voiced their support for state public employees. In recent weeks, Packer players, including former Heisman Trophy-winner and Defensive Player of Year, Charles Woodson, have spoken out against Wisconsin Governor Walker and for the rights of workers. The Packers, unlike the other 31 NFL teams, is the NFL’s only cooperative-owned franchise.

Fitting, if not strategic, that NFL players would take such a stand. Players, through their now dissolved union, the NFL Players Association (NFLPA), are currently in the midst of a lockout after negotiations for a collective bargaining agreement with their employer, the NFL, failed.

The NFL, the nation’s highest grossing professional sports league of the nation’s most popular sport, is coming off an unprecedented season of revenue in terms of attendance and television ratings. After a steady climb in popularity, the NFL has overtaken Major League Baseball as a league financial model and football has overtaken baseball as “America’s Pastime”. The current dealings and stalemates between owners, as management, and players, as workers, have been closely followed in popular press. Players are seeking the preservation of free agency and transparency in profit sharing while owners are seeking reduction of health care coverage and an expanded eighteen game season. The result of these negotiations impacts the looming negotiations of the NBA owners and its union of players, the National Basketball Player’s Association.

Athletics intersect with the law and labor relations with the inevitable companions of race and class. This is true in college athletics where efforts at organizing student athletes have been met with sequestering of athletes and threats of litigation by the National College Athletics Association (NCAA). While the racial integration of sports, amateur and professional, is celebrated by today’s generation of fan, athlete, and owner – with the exception of Donald Sterling of the Los Angeles Clippers – much integration remains to be seen in professional sports ownership where only one of the roughly 120 professional franchises is owned by a person of color – Michael Jordan of the NBA’s Charlotte Bobcats.

The fundamental issue, as always, is power – to employ staff, to televise games, to build stadiums, to relocate franchises, and to buy and sell athletes. It is a power that athletes, despite their multi-million dollar contracts and endorsement deal, cannot exert, rendering them “forty million dollar slaves” [2]. It is a power that fans, despite our multi-million dollar investment and support, cannot exert, rendering us the followers of those same forty million dollar slaves. This is true of all athletes and all fans – white, citizen, or otherwise – for sports is a business.

* Nash is Canadian and an immigrant himself – of the “brain gain” variety, of course.

[1] Zirin, Dave, A People’s History of Sports in the United States, New Press (2009).

[2] Jackson, Scoop, “NBA Power Shift? Don’t Blame Players”, (March 1, 2011).


Camilo A. Romero is a second-year student at NYU School of Law and serves as NLLSA’s North Atlantic Regional Director.


One Response to “Sports, Race, and the Law: A Reflection on Their Politics and Their Power”

  1. Camilo,

    Nice opening salvo. Look forward to more.

    – Louis

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