The Black Rebel Athlete: Spectacle and Protest

As more and more protests make clear, the bodies of Black people playing sports are not outside history. Indeed, they never have been.

On August 26, during the 2020 NBA playoffs, the Milwaukee Bucks, who were preparing to face the Orlando Magic, did not warm up for the game as normal. Instead, they remained in their locker room. The Bucks only emerged to announce they would not be playing that night. What warranted the public’s attention instead, the Bucks made clear, was police violence, Black death, and racial animosities and dehumanization in the United States. Three days prior, police in Kenosha, Wisconsin, had shot Jacob Blake, a 29-year-old Black man, seven times in his back as he walked to his car. Three of his children were sitting in the car while two officers attempted and failed to discharge their stun guns against Blake. The children remained in the car as the police shot their father while he opened the door.

The spectacle of Blake’s shooting circulated because of an eyewitness’s cellphone video. The Bucks and their NBA colleagues utilized their enormous global platform—basketball is one of the most popular sports worldwide, and the NBA the sport’s premier professional league—to instigate a wildcat strike, drawing further attention to racist police misconduct. Standing in unison before cameras, and broadcast internationally, Bucks players addressed the injustice of the police attack on Blake. Their walkout was a display of exceptional Black athletes critiquing state-sanctioned anti-Black violence.

Two previous NBA walkouts illustrate how Black players have publicly acted against anti-Black racism. In 1959, the Minneapolis Lakers traveled to Charleston, West Virginia, to play an exhibition game against the Cincinnati Royals. The Lakers’ star rookie, Elgin Baylor, and the other two Black Lakers were denied rooms at the team-designated Kanawha Hotel. They refused to play the exhibition match, in protest against the segregationist policies in Charleston. In 1961, Bill Russell and several other Black Boston Celtics refused to play at an exhibition in Lexington, Kentucky, when two of their Black teammates, Sam Jones and Satch Sanders, were denied service at a coffee shop near the Celtics’ hotel. At the time, Russell said he “would give up basketball for rights,” and he drew criticism for refusing the racist status quo. In a similar vein, critics of the 2020 NBA protesters and of other athletes “talking politics” told players to “shut up and dribble” rather than enter the realm of political discourse.

In Sporting Blackness: Race, Embodiment, and Critical Muscle Memory on Screen, Samantha Sheppard uses the term “sporting blackness” to refer to intersections of race and athletic ability that implicate both the astonishing Black athlete and the everyday Black person. Sheppard argues for reading the political aspects of representation in sport and sports films. Her analysis of Black documentary film and sports-documentary practices considers the concept of “critical muscle memory” to describe contestations of predominant structures that treat Black sporting bodies as ahistorical or extraordinary. Sheppard seeks to disrupt contrived narratives of sports films and instead “focus on content and form, processes of cinematic representation, and depictions of racial differences and subjectivities.”

Sheppard’s exploration of documentary sports films connects to how audiences view and understand contemporary Black athletes’ public articulations of dissent. Highlighting the real and perceived representations of Blackness expressed through film allows a recognition of the fundamental response to racial bias and antagonism that pervade sports; it also foregrounds the ways these portrayals articulate resistance to racial injustices.


Sport and Protest

International competitions such as the Olympics and the FIFA World Cup abound in national imagery. The various polities compete through their teams of ur-citizens, who act as expressions of a nation’s relative strength, virility, and power. It was no accident that Hitler propagated German-Aryan supremacy at the 1936 Berlin Olympics. The United States boycotted the 1980 Moscow Olympics during the last decade of the Cold War, and the Soviet Union responded in kind when Los Angeles hosted the 1984 Games.

The magnitude of such events—the eyes of the entire world looking upon the indomitable physical prowess, steely nerve, and mental acumen of sporting heroes—illustrates the political nature of sport. Beyond political disputes, idealized notions of fortitude are represented by athletes themselves. The racial stereotypes associated with Black athleticism combine with other traits associated with Blackness: threatening, dangerous, and violent.1

Black athletes who compete internationally for non-African or Caribbean nations inhabit a unique space in the political imaginaries of Western ones. US basketball has benefitted immensely from the talent, diligence, and athletic drive of Black players. France won two World Cups because of the “black, blanc, beur” constitution of its teams—sons of west Africans and Antilleans, Algerians and Senegalese, and white Frenchmen from Nice or Marseille—whose dynamism and verve characterized the 1998 and 2018 tournaments.


Counterhistories of the Sport Stadium

By Frank Andre Guridy

These teams, however, found opposition from influential Far Right figures in France, particularly the father and daughter leaders of the National Rally (formerly the National Front), Jean-Marie and Marine Le Pen. Even so, images of swaggering champions Kylian Mbappé (born in Paris to an Algerian [Kabyle] mother and Cameroonian father and raised in the commune of Bondy), Paul Pogba (born in the commune of Lagny-sur-Marne in Paris’s eastern suburbs to Guinean parents), and N’Golo Kanté (born in Paris to Malian parents) hoisting the cup in the Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow in 2018 both resisted French racial hostilities and embodied the African element of French football supremacy.

The Black power salute at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics—black gloved hands raised by American sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos on the medal podium to honor their respective first- and third-place finishes in the 200-meter race—is legendary within sporting lore. For two Black men to stand at the pinnacle of their sport—while simultaneously defying the racial politics of exclusion, subordination, and racist indignity of the United States—was an epic moment, one that reverberated beyond the Estadio Olímpico Universitario. Decades later, Colin Kaepernick continued this public demonstration of dissent: holding the United States accountable for racial injustice by taking a knee during the playing of the national anthem before NFL games.

Using the 1968 Olympics as an example, Sheppard explores sports films’ “raced tropes and representational codes of cinematic sporting blackness.” She expounds on the importance of Black sporting protest by more fully contextualizing the movement to which Smith and Carlos belonged. This context illustrates the vibrant and intersecting activist perspectives and actions of Black athletes and aesthetes from California to the world.

Sheppard’s exploration of documentary sports films connects to how audiences view and understand contemporary Black athletes’ public articulations of dissent.

Importantly, Smith and Carlos did not act alone. Sheppard narrates the founding of the Olympic Project for Human Rights (OPHR) by Black sociologist Harry Edwards, along with Carlos and Smith, in October 1967. They had all been on the track team at San Jose State University (Edwards was also a discus thrower, before joining the basketball team). The OPHR proposed a boycott of the 1968 Games to highlight racial inequalities in the United States. Arguing for the centrality of Black athletes’ roles in American sporting success, Edwards, according to Sheppard, “position[ed] the revolt of the Black athlete” within a “lineage of Black freedom movements.” Not merely witnesses to the racial tumult and Black nationalist and militant activism of the late 1960s, the OPHR understood the racial dynamics in the United States and chose to act against these systems. Although Smith and Carlos participated in the Games, their protest was inspired by dissent fomented within the OPHR.

In comparison to 21st-century Black athlete activism, Edwards and the OPHR were more forthright in their political pronouncements and unrestrained in advocating for racial reckoning. Sheppard points to Smith’s and sprinter Lee Evans’s roles as OPHR spokespeople who issued the organization’s founding statement, which declared:

We must no longer allow this country to use a few so-called Negroes to point out to the world how much progress [America] has made in solving her racial problems … [nor] allow the sports world to pat itself on the back as a citadel of racial justice. … Any black person who allows himself to be used in the above matter is a traitor because he allows racist whites the luxury of resting assured that those black people in the ghettoes are there because that is where they want to be.

Raising his black gloved fist, with a black scarf around his neck (in honor of lynching victims), shoeless but wearing black socks (to represent Black poverty), at the apex of global sport, Smith used his victory as an opportunity to indict the United States. He did that rather than be used as a symbol of the fallacy of American racial progress.

Drawing on the iconic status of Mexico City ’68, Sheppard examines filmic representations of Black athletic revolt in Haile Gerima’s 1971 film Hour Glass. Gerima, the Ethiopian auteur and a leader of the LA Rebellion—the generation of African and African American filmmakers who studied at the UCLA film school from the late 1960s to the late 1980s—eschewed Hollywood conventions and innovated alternative practices to create a new Black cinema. The 14-minute experimental short follows an unnamed Black athlete who as a foster child was raised “in an Anglo-Saxon culture [and] ends up playing basketball at university.” There, he realizes he is not a normal student but is instead watched by throngs of students while playing, as if he were a gladiator in the Colosseum. Gerima explains that the young man “leaves this densely white school as a gladiator and goes into the community, where he needs to go for his own peace and security.”

The protagonist immerses himself in learning about American, Caribbean, and African politics and histories. His bed is covered in books, including Frantz Fanon’s Toward the African Revolution, W. E. B. Du Bois’s The Souls of Black Folk, and Eldridge Cleaver’s Soul on Ice.2 The film culminates when he returns to South Central Los Angeles to engage directly with the Black community. His awakening forces him to break with his alienated gladiatorial sporting self and into a reunion with and repurposed approach to racial justice. His refusal to continue playing basketball is the revolt Sheppard identifies—where the protagonist resists the exploitation of his Black body and refutes the normative white-supremacist order. Hour Glass incorporates components of Black sporting protest in a way that rejects typical filmic representations of Blackness and critiques the broader social conditions of racialization that give rise to those depictions.


Spectacles of Race; Race as Spectacle

Naomi Osaka, the daughter of a Japanese mother and Haitian American father, and a former number-one-ranked tennis player, on her ascent toward winning a second US Open title, in September 2020, wore a face mask each day she played, in accordance with COVID-19 health guidelines. Every day, Osaka donned a different covering etched with the name of a Black person killed by the police or vigilantes in the United States.

Although tournament venues were spectator-free, images of Osaka appeared across the media. Viewers around the world would have seen the former and future champion wearing in succession the names Breonna Taylor (shot to death by police in her home in Louisville, Kentucky, in March 2020 at 26 years old), Elijah McClain (choked to death by white police officers and sedated by paramedics in Aurora, Colorado, in August 2019 at the age of 23), Ahmaud Arbery (a 25-year-old shot by a white father and son from the back of their pickup truck while running in Satilla Shores, Georgia, in February 2020), Trayvon Martin (a 17-year-old boy shot to death by a white neighborhood watchman in Sanford, Florida, in February 2012), George Floyd (a 48-year-old killed when a white police officer kneeled on his neck for more than eight minutes in Minneapolis, in May 2020), Philando Castile (a 32-year-old shot to death by police at a traffic stop in Falcon Heights, Minnesota, in July 2016), and Tamir Rice (a 12-year-old boy shot to death by a white police officer in a park in Cleveland in November 2014).

After winning the tournament, Osaka explained she wore the masks because she “wanted more people to say more names … to make people start talking.”3 While Sheppard’s work asks readers to consider fuller depictions of Black athletes and to particularly contest the structures and filmic articulations of Blackness in the white-supremacist hegemonic order, contemporary Black sports icons understand and express themselves in unprecedented and poignantly visible ways.


This essay is the second in a series on citizenship, part of the University of Michigan’s Democracy and Debate Theme Semester for fall 2020.


The author would like to thank commissioning editor Tao Leigh Goffe for her invitation, support, and encouragement of this work. icon

  1. See Frantz Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks, for the fundamental perspective on the psychopathology of racial biases and patterns of racial categorization. It is also worth mentioning the discourse of Black athletes’ supposed “natural ability,” especially when contrasted to the “grit,” “diligence,” and “determination” of their white professional peers. This language is especially frequent in evaluations of football (soccer) players; the top white players are often regarded as having toiled to earn their position, while their Black counterparts are cast as naturally talented and “blessed”—the suggestion is that Black athletes, like Black laypeople, are physically something altogether different from whites.
  2. This presence of books from across the African diaspora illustrates broad notions of Black-helmed revolutionary thinking. In particular, one is reminded of the former British Caribbean territories, which are represented in international cricket as a single collective West Indies team to the present day. Cricket in the British and Commonwealth imagination has a long history of exclusion and various forms of protest among some of its leading sportsmen. Trinidad-born Learie Constantine lived in Nelson, Lancashire, during the interwar years. Constantine hosted fellow Trinidadian C. L. R. James, who had established himself as a leading voice on cricket on their home island and who first visited Britain in 1932. Constantine first signed with Nelson Cricket Club in 1928, playing with them until 1937. Over those nine seasons, Nelson CC won the Lancashire League seven times, finished second the other two seasons, and won the knockout cup twice. Constantine’s exploits across the county were well known in cricketing circles, yet he was never selected for the Lancashire County Cricket Club—the first-class side that represented the entire county. The politics of selection seemed predetermined by racial standards.
  3. Christopher Clarey, “Naomi Osaka, While Rallying for Social Justice, Wins U.S. Open Title,” New York Times, September 13, 2020.
Featured image: People kneeling with Colin Kaepernick on Austin's 4th Street (2020). Photograph by Lars Plougmann / Flickr