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The Black Athlete—A Shameful Story
Jack Olson
July 01, 1968
Sport has long been comfortable in its pride at being one of the few areas of American society in which the Negro has found opportunity—and equality. But has sport in America deceived itself? Is its liberality a myth, its tolerance a deceit? Increasingly, black athletes are saying that sport is doing a disservice to their race by setting up false goals, perpetuating prejudice and establishing an insidious bondage all its own. Now, when Negro athletes are shaking numerous college administrations with their demands and a boycott of the 1968 Olympics is no idle threat, Sports Illustrated explores the roots and validity of the black athlete's unrest and finds them well founded. In a five-part series Jack Olsen reports on the shockingly frustrating life of the black college athlete, the vast gulf between black and white sportsmen, how a Southwestern university treats the Negroes who are making it famous, black-white problems among the pros and what racism has done to one NFL team
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July 01, 1968

The Black Athlete—a Shameful Story

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Sport has long been comfortable in its pride at being one of the few areas of American society in which the Negro has found opportunity—and equality. But has sport in America deceived itself? Is its liberality a myth, its tolerance a deceit? Increasingly, black athletes are saying that sport is doing a disservice to their race by setting up false goals, perpetuating prejudice and establishing an insidious bondage all its own. Now, when Negro athletes are shaking numerous college administrations with their demands and a boycott of the 1968 Olympics is no idle threat, Sports Illustrated explores the roots and validity of the black athlete's unrest and finds them well founded. In a five-part series Jack Olsen reports on the shockingly frustrating life of the black college athlete, the vast gulf between black and white sportsmen, how a Southwestern university treats the Negroes who are making it famous, black-white problems among the pros and what racism has done to one NFL team

The Cruel Deception

Every morning the world of sports wakes up and congratulates itself on its contributions to race relations. The litany has been repeated so many times that it is believed almost universally. It goes: "Look what sports has done for the Negro."

To be sure, there are a few fair-minded men who are willing to suggest that perhaps the Negro has done something for sports in return. Says George McCarty, athletic director of the University of Texas at El Paso, "In general, the nigger athlete is a little hungrier, and we have been blessed with having some real outstanding ones. We think they've done a lot for us, and we think we've done a lot for them."

The McCarty attitude is echoed on many campuses. Says a university president: "Sure, the Negroes helped our image, but don't forget, they got built up, too. Every one of them that's been here got out of the ghetto. Four of our colored alumni are playing pro basketball right now, and seven are in pro football, and you can't just say that we got a bunch of cattle in here and milked them. It was profitable both ways."

Some argue that anyone with two eyes can see what sports have done for the Negro, and offer Willie Mays as exhibit A. Where would Willie be without baseball? Chopping cotton? Firing a smelter in Birmingham? Or take Bill Russell, player-coach of the Boston Celtics. He goes around making antiwhite remarks and collecting a six-figure check for taking part in a game. Without sports, the argument runs, he would be lucky to be working as a janitor in his home town of Oakland. Jim Brown is another one. He retires from pro football with a fortune in his sock and becomes an overnight success as a movie actor, all because of sports, and then founds an organization aimed at getting black men jobs, all the while talking out of the side of his mouth about the whites. Why, sports created Jim Brown, gave him a free education at Syracuse University, catapulted him to national fame as a star fullback for the Cleveland Browns.

That's the way the argument goes, and eventually it reaches the classic in case histories, a 6'8" 250-pound assistant professor of sociology who wears love beads and shades and a black beret and urges Negro athletes to boycott the Olympics, to rise up against various athletic departments of various colleges and to smite the white sports establishment with all their collective power. This fanatical superblack is Harry Edwards, out of East St. Louis, Ill., where he attended various jails as a youth before it was discovered that he could whirl a discus half a mile and San Jose State College offered him an athletic scholarship. Thus, one arrives at the ultimate irony—that Harry Edwards, the mouthpiece of the black athletic rebellion, himself was lifted out of the ghetto by the white sports establishment. Why, if it were not for sports Harry Edwards probably would be alongside his brother Donald, serving 25 years to life in the Iowa State Penitentiary for armed robbery, or following in the footsteps of his father, an alumnus of Pontiac State Penitentiary, or his mother, who once came home from a street brawl wearing 86 stitches.

You can hear these arguments any night of the week in the saloon of your choice, even in the Negro saloon of your choice. The clich� that sports has been good to the Negro has been accepted by black and white, liberal and conservative, intellectual and red-neck. And the Negro athlete who has the nerve to suggest that all is not perfect is branded as ungrateful, a cur that bites the hand. "If only we could achieve in housing, in education, in economic opportunity, all the things we have achieved in sports," says a typically grateful Negro leader, "the race problem in the United States would disappear."

But Negro athletes do not agree. Almost to a man, they are dissatisfied, disgruntled and disillusioned.

Black collegiate athletes say they are dehumanized, exploited and discarded, and some even say they were happier back in the ghetto.

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