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Race, class, and the revolt of the Black athlete

Human Rights

“I sit with Kaepernick” poster in Brooklyn. Photo from

Next year marks the 50th anniversary of Dr. Harry Edwards’s classic of activist scholarship, The Revolt of the Black Athlete. Edwards was the architect of the 1968 Olympic Project for Human Rights, a campaign remembered most for the medal podium protests of John Carlos and Tommie Smith. To mark the anniversary, and amidst a resurgence of athlete activism, the University of Illinois has published a welcome new edition of the book.

In the introduction, Edwards describes how as a scholarship athlete and sociology student at San Jose State University, he became “keenly aware of the ever more central and critical role of the Black athlete” in the big business of college football and basketball. With an eye to the civil rights and Black power movements, Edwards began to think through the “emergent power potential inherent in the tragically exploitative circumstances and position of the Black college athlete” and how these athletes could leverage their power to advance the struggle for racial equality on campus and beyond.

This strategizing led Edwards to orchestrate a series of “Black player boycotts,” including an audacious attempt to organize a boycott the 1968 Summer Games in Mexico City. The boycott was the original plan of the Olympic Project for Human Rights; a fact often missing from histories of Carlos and Smith’s Black power salute, which as journalist Dave Zirin points out, strips the story of the planned boycott and demands, “creating the appearance of a solitary act of defiance.”

While Edwards refers to the protests as “boycotts,” we can also think of them as strikes; in the case of the ‘68 Games, Black athletes were organizing to collectively withdraw their athletic labour from the U.S. Olympic Team.

While reading The Revolt of the Black Athlete, I recalled the late, great Stuart Hall’s maxim, “Race is the modality in which class is ‘lived.’” “Race,” Hall argued, “is the medium through which class relations are experienced, the form in which it is appropriated and ‘fought through.’” Unfortunately, this insight continues to escape some on the Left, who see class politics and “identity politics” as mutually exclusive terrains of struggle.

This latest wave of athlete revolt is instructive here. Professional athletes may earn millions, drive expensive cars, and live in tony neighbourhoods, but they are workers nonetheless; a peculiar proletariat whose labour produces not a tangible product, but a spectacle. In the workplace that is the NFL, 70 percent of players are Black. In the NBA and WNBA, it’s closer to 75 percent. These numbers are mirrored in the leagues that constitute the primary suppliers of athletic labour to the majors, i.e. NCAA football and basketball. In stark contrast, the ruling class of team owners, and in college, top university administrators, are almost exclusively white.

In the protests against racial injustice that have gripped both professional and college sport, it is class power and the solidarity of Black athletes—and their allies—that have made these protests so effective. Two years before Colin Kaepernick started taking a knee during the National Anthem—and was subsequently blacklisted by NFL team owners—a threatened wildcat strike by players on the L.A. Clippers and Golden State Warriors pushed NBA commissioner Adam Silver to ban racist Clippers owner Donald Sterling from the league.

In 2015, the University of Missouri Tigers’ football strike, organized and led by Black players, brought down a university president who had repeatedly failed to take action against anti-Black racism on campus.

In 2016, in the wake of being fined for donning Black Lives Matter t-shirts during pre-game warm-up, WNBA players refused to answer media questions about basketball (they would only speak about Black Lives Matter); an action that violated the terms of their collective agreement.

The Black Freedom struggle has always been a class struggle; for the US context, just read WEB Dubois on the “general strike of the slaves” that turned a war to save the Union into a war to end slavery, or histories of the Montgomery Bus Boycott, the welfare rights movement, the Atlanta washer women’s strike, the Memphis sanitation workers strike, the Detroit Revolutionary Union Movement; the list goes on.

In short, in a multibillion-dollar business highly dependent on Black labour, the revolt of the Black athlete—redux—is not a race struggle or a class struggle; it’s both.

Simon Black is a writer, activist and academic living in Toronto. He is also a former NCAA athlete, playing soccer for the University at Buffalo Bulls after a professional trial with Watford FC of the English first division. He has played competitive cricket, rugby and American football. Black has been CD’s sports columnist since 2006.

This article appeared in the Autumn-Winter 2017 issue of Canadian Dimension (The ‘Sharing Economy’).


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