A compelling analysis of the intersection between sports, politics, and race in America

Steph Doehler
The Open University, UK

Shaun M. Anderson
The Black Athlete Revolt: The Sport Justice Movement in the Age of #BlackLivesMatter
170 pages, hardcover
Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield 2022
ISBN 978-1-5381-5324-6

The Black Athlete Revolt, by Shaun M. Anderson, stands as an intellectually stimulating and contemplative analysis of the strategic endeavours undertaken by Black athletes to transcend protests and instead create substantial change for the Black community in the United States. Anderson masterfully scrutinises the methods employed by these athletes in harnessing their platforms to propel social and political transformations. Noteworthy instances, such as Muhammed Ali’s defiance against the Vietnam War and Colin Kaepernick’s symbolic kneeling during the National Anthem, are dissected alongside less familiar occurrences predating and transpiring during the Civil Rights movement.

Released during a juncture marked by heightened polarisation within the backdrop of Donald Trump’s presidency, the book serves as a pertinent reminder of the exigency for activism in contemporary society. Meticulous research harmonises seamlessly with impassioned arguments, whilst also presenting a balanced perspective, acknowledging both the progress that has been made and the work that still needs to be done to achieve racial equality within the United States.

The author penetrates the complexities confronted by Black athletes in reconciling their personal convictions with the expectations of their teams, fans, and sponsors. He explores the coercion for Black athletes to maintain silence regarding socio-political issues (particularly during the 1990s), juxtaposed with the very real consequences of dissent. Furthermore, Anderson delves into the ways in which Black athletes have been exploited and marginalised by the sports industry, from the days of slavery to the present day, arguing that Black athletes are often seen as commodities rather than human beings. Though the same could be argued for athletes more broadly.

Anderson prominently features the stories of luminaries such as Kaepernick, LeBron James, and Serena Williams – individuals who have harnessed their platforms to spotlight issues like police brutality, racial profiling, and gender inequity.

Appropriately setting the stage, the book begins with inquiry into the intricate historic relationship between sports and politics. Largely aligning with the concept of the ‘waves of athlete activism’ defined by sociologist Harry Edwards, Anderson deftly navigates the contours of this intersection. His explanation traces the evolutionary trajectory of Black athlete activism, spanning from the late 1800s through nuanced ebbs and flows to the civil rights movement, culminating in a phase of comparative latency during the 1990s. Chapter 2 explains the emergence of the Black Lives Matter movement, identifying its catalytic role in resuscitating athlete activism; although it warrants consideration that the re-engagement of athlete activism in the early stages of the new millennium predates the formal establishment of BLM in 2013. Chapter 3, like so much of the narrative on athlete activism, prominently situates Colin Kaepernick as a focal point, whilst also discussing other instances of social injustice globally. However, these were relatively limited and focus on the United States was explored far more consistently. Within Chapter 4 the book engages in an incisive examination of how this rekindled activism has functioned as a conduit for effecting social policy reforms. In the final chapter, the burgeoning ‘sport justice movement’ is introduced as a platform for the continued pursuit of societal equity. Simultaneously, this chapter casts a discerning gaze into the horizon, interrogating the prospective trajectories of athlete activism and its evolving role in shaping the fabric of socio-political dynamics.

Cassius Clay autographs draft cards at Cheviat Hills Park, June 24, 1967. (Herald-Examiner Collection, Los Angeles Public Library; from Southern Cultures)

An emotionally resonant facet of the book emanates from the experiences of Black athletes, detailing their encounters with discrimination and bias on and off the field. Anderson prominently features the stories of luminaries such as Kaepernick, LeBron James, and Serena Williams – individuals who have harnessed their platforms to spotlight issues like police brutality, racial profiling, and gender inequity.

I must confess to occasionally experiencing a sense of unease as a white British academic engaging in discourse on this subject, particularly within the context of the United States. The question of whether my perspective holds relevance in discussions surrounding the activist endeavours of Black athletes, particularly those from overseas, has often lingered. The author’s initial words resonating on the very first page almost foreshadowed my sentiment: ‘the issue of sport and politics has been mostly a white person versus a Black athlete issue’ (1). However, in this regard, the book has served as a catalyst for introspection, compelling me to contemplate my role as an ally and to underscore the importance of supporting, advocating for, and engaging with individuals within marginalised communities who have faced such oppression.

Ironically, perhaps my biggest criticism of the book is also one of the biggest compliments I can pay it – it doesn’t feel long enough. The main section, spanning 118 pages (excluding the lengthy bibliography and notes sections), left me wanting to engage with more critical debate into the topic. This isn’t to insinuate any lack of depth in Anderson’s treatment; rather, it attests to me enjoying it to the extent that I didn’t want my reading to end!

Overall, The Black Athlete Revolt is a must-read for anyone interested in the juncture of sports, politics, and racial dynamics within the United States. Anderson’s narrative technique intertwined with a deep understanding of the subject matter makes this book a standout contribution to the ongoing conversation about the role of athletes in shaping our society.

Copyright © Steph Doehler 2023

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