Powerful white Americans have been scoring political points off black athletes for as long as there have been organized sports in America. In this respect, at least, Donald Trump is a traditionalist.
On Wednesday, Trump renewed his feud with LaVar Ball, the father of one of three UCLA players arrested in China on suspicion of shoplifting early this month. Ball stands accused of showing insufficient gratitude to the president for having secured the release of his son, along with the other players.
Over the weekend, Trump returned to another hobbyhorse of his, blasting Oakland Raiders running back Marshawn Lynch for refusing to stand for the U.S. national anthem before a game in Mexico City on Sunday. Lynch, the president noted (while calling for Lynch’s suspension), had stood for the Mexican anthem at the same game. In Wednesday morning’s string of tweets, Trump also continued to slam the NFL’s handling of the protests against racial inequality that began with former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick last year.
Ball and Lynch, like the other sports-related figures who have drawn Trump’s ire, are black. The president is merely working from a familiar playbook: He’s goosing his small but fervent base of supporters by attacking black sports figures who have dared to cross him. Trump, as he has in the past, would surely declare that there is no racial motivation to his criticism, but all the familiar code words are there. Ball is an “ungrateful fool,” Trump said. Lynch showed “great disrespect” to a country that has allowed him to become a wealthy professional football player.
If this has become a familiar routine for Trump, it is because it is a familiar one for America. The country has never been comfortable with assertive black sports figures. Despite all the caterwauling about athletes who refuse to “stick to sports,” powerful Americans have always understood the mere presence of black athletes to be fundamentally political, a threat to the larger project of black subordination. And if black athletes themselves could no longer be kept out of sports, the culture at large would have to circumscribe their behavior, crush any outward assertiveness, segregate their blackness.
By the time slavery was abolished, professional baseball had a number of black players and teams who competed capably against and alongside whites, and the sport had already taken on political significance: in 1859, a liberal Republican congressman from Ohio appeared in an integrated game to protest slavery and segregation.
Whereas some newspapers at the time saw the game as capable of promulgating the destruction of racial and social barriers, baseball in the late 19th and early 20th centuries saw itself as part of the effort “to preserve a familiar social order” dominated by whites. So shortly after the Civil War, one of the first bans on black players was enacted against the Philadelphia Pythians, an all-black team formed in 1867. By the end of the 1880s, baseball fully mirrored and advanced the horrors of Jim Crow society around it, with “gentlemen’s agreements” between white owners and players that prohibited the signing of black players.
The founders of the Pythians, who found success against some of Philadelphia’s all-white teams, saw baseball as “literally another field upon which African Americans could assert their skills and independence, and prove their right to full citizenship and equality.” But the National Association of Base Ball Players, in implementing the ban against the Pythians and any team that had a black player, thwarted that effort, arguing that “if colored clubs were admitted there would be, in all probability, some division of feeling, whereas by excluding them no injury could result to anyone.”
The ban, the association said, could also help the Philadelphia baseball convention, where the decision to ban black players was made, avoid “the discussion of any subject having a political bearing.” That is, the popular “stick to sports” refrain was used more than a century ago as part of an effort to eradicate black men from professional baseball, segregating them from a sport that was fast becoming one of America’s most culturally and economically relevant industries.
Black baseball still thrived, but the ban, which came even earlier than the Supreme Court’s Plessy v. Ferguson ruling that institutionalized segregation across America, helped set the stage for the sort of separate-but-equal mantra that plagued the country for decades. Baseball became a tool for segregating public spaces, too: Georgia, for instance, passed a statute that prohibited black and white people from playing the sport at public parks within two blocks of each other.
Where baseball beat America to re-codifying segregation into law, the other major sport of the time ― boxing ― followed it, and did so even more directly. Jack Johnson, the black boxing champion, became an avatar of black brutality and menace who, in the eyes of white America, required direct political action to counter. Johnson became the first black heavyweight champion in 1908; four years later, Georgia Rep. Seaborn Roddenbery introduced an anti-miscegenation constitutional amendment that specifically cited Johnson ― who was twice married to white women ― as an example of the “villainous character” and “atrocious qualities” of interracial marriage. (It never became law, but state anti-miscegenation laws weren’t fully repealed until the Supreme Court ruled them unconstitutional in 1967.)
Even before Johnson won his title, a black boxer named Joe Gans pummeled a white fighter to win the light heavyweight championship in Baltimore. In response, the city moved to reform its boxing laws, and banned black and white fighters from meeting each other in the ring, as author Lou Moore wrote in his 2017 book about the history of black boxing, I Fight for a Living.
Baltimore was, at the time, one of America’s blackest cities, and “whites feared that the combination of Gans’s championship status, his standing in the black community, and prowess in the ring would have a damaging effect on their ability to control black citizens,” Moore wrote. “Baltimore could not be a ‘White Man’s City’ with a black champion who beat up white men.”
Similar bans were enacted after black boxing victories in Louisiana, Missouri, Los Angeles and Louisville, Kentucky, among other cities and states, all in an effort to limit black participation in sports, local communities and politics, as Moore documents in his book. By 1910, the bans on white vs. black boxing matches had even spread to Great Britain, where politicians feared such matches “could incite black unrest in the empire and erode the mythology of white supremacy.”
The point of all of this was easy to see: if black athletes could assert themselves in the ring or on the baseball field, black people could assert themselves everywhere else, too. If black athletes weren’t forced to stay in their place, black people wouldn’t be compelled, either. And so laws were passed, and policies were implemented, to ensure the absence of black athletes who could give voice to black people.
Baseball’s color barrier, of course, collapsed in 1947, and boxing’s most discriminatory policies were either abandoned or thrown out in courts. So the methods of limiting black expression in sports evolved: Muhammad Ali was sentenced to prison and stripped of his title for being a black man who refused to fight in the Vietnam War. The U.S. Olympic Committee, amid political and societal outrage, kicked Tommie Smith and John Carlos off the Olympic team after their Black Power salute at the 1968 Mexico City Games. Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf and Craig Hodges were ostracized and blackballed from the NBA for protesting America’s racial inequalities, much as Kaepernick has been today.
Trump’s method of breathless tweetstorms may be new. But his demands are the same ones white America has always made. LaVar Ball and the UCLA basketball players must either display quiet fealty to the president, or get told they should be imprisoned in China. Marshawn Lynch should stand for the national anthem, and Jemele Hill refrain from criticizing the president, or face immediate calls for their firing.
Black sports figures must always know their place, so that black Americans will, too.
CORRECTION: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that Tommie Smith and John Carlos were stripped of their medals. The story has also been amended to clarify that Muhammad Ali was sentenced to prison but not imprisoned.