All Eyes Are on the Gridiron: Football, Protest, and Discrepancies

From CNN

Like millions of people do every weekend, I sat down to watch college and professional football this past weekend. Over the last few years, I have come to perceive this sport in a different light. While I still enjoy watching the game, new thoughts have emerged that have caused me to think about the larger, cultural aspects of America’s new national pastime. Specifically, I have started to ponder the ways that colleges benefit from student athletes.

On Saturday evening, African American players on the University of Missouri football joined in a protest to have the University of Missouri system president Tim Wolfe step down. The players declared that they would not play or participate in football related activities unless Wolfe resigned. (At the time of this post, Wolfe has stepped down.) There are larger aspects of this story that others have, and will continue, to explore. I want to take a minute here to look briefly at the football players’s protest and its correlation to literature. To begin with, the Wall Street Journal notes that African Americans make up only 7% of the 35,000 students at the University of Missouri, 2,450 students. Of the 84 scholarships on the football team, African Americans receive 58 (about 70%).  This statistic caused me to think about watching football games, and most notably college football games, every weekend. As the cameras pan to show shots of the crowd, I notice the stands filled with a majority of white spectators, and it makes me recall Jason Whitlock’s statements in 2010 comparing the NCAA to the “plantation” system. (I cannot find the original article online. If you have a link to it, let me know in the comments below.) The football coaches and other players supported the boycott.  

All of this, of course, is not new. In fact, when reading John A. Williams’s Sons of Darkness, Sons of Light (1969), the topic arises, albeit in passing.  As Eugene Browning travels throughout the country to raise money for the IRJ, he stops  over in Chicago to meet with Bobby Odum, the Chicago Bears’s fullback.

He had almost finished his book on discrimination in professional athletics, the book that would tell how black athletes were paid less than white ones (except in his case); how some college coaches, teamed with sharp attorneys, chiseled goodly portion of the monies offered by the pros to a promising college back; how white athletes and ex-athletes like Tarkentin, Cooz, Giff and Goldie Hornung got endorsements, but black stars (himself included) got nothing, not even Bill Russell, and Willie Mays had to make due with Alaga Syrup and Petrocelli clothes. Odum had backed the last Olympic boycott by black athletes. (74-75)

While white athletes receive the bulk of money and endorsements, in the period of the novel, African American athletes struggled after their playing days ended. One need only think of Jesse Owens to see an example. This reminds me of Troy Maxson’s argument in August Wilson’s Fences when he talks about Selkirk’s numbers for the Yankees compared to his own. Near the end of the meeting between Odum and Eugene, Odum comments on the current state of affairs in pro sports specifically,  “But for all his game, Odum was a bitter man; if he had been white, or if the deals were fair, his life would have been different. ‘What the average fan doesn’t know,’ he said, ‘is that the plantation mentality is still present in pro ball'” (75). Even though some things have changed, the inherent structure that Odum comments on in Williams’s 1969 novel remains today in conversations regarding college and professional athletics. 

I want to conclude this post with a little historical context for Odum’s character. It appears that Williams based Odum on Cleveland Browns running back Jim Brown, who wrote his autobiography, Off My Chest, in 1964. In the book, Brown, according to Richard Crepeau, “wrote bluntly about his racial views and candidly assessed a number of football personalities, something that simply was not done by players, let alone black players” (80). Not focusing on the monetary discrepancies, Crepeau continues his discussion of African Americans in the NFL during the 1960s by mentioning Jack Olsen’s 1968 Sports Illustrated article on racial discrimination in the league. Olsen noted that each team had quotas for the number of African Americans on their team, and that certain positions (quarterback, center, linebacker, and guard) were typically occupied by white players because of the “intelligence” need to perform well at those positions. African Americans occupied skill positions (running back and wide receiver) and defensive back positions.

One thing we can take away from all of this in regards to athletics is that protest and sports have a strong relationship; think about the 1968 Olympics, Jackie Robinson, or other events. The players at the University of Missouri brought the issues on their campus to a national audience, resulting in the resignation of Wolfe. Money, no doubt, played a role in all of this because the school would have lost millions of dollars the longer the football team didn’t play. Even with that aspect, though, the protests by the football players, coupled with others, serves to show us the powerful role of sports in our society.

What are your thoughts on this? What other novels, plays, etc. tackle the same subject? Let me know in the comments below. 

Crepeau, Richard C. NFL Football: A History of America’s New National Pasttime. Urbana: University of Chicago Press, 2014. Print.
Williams, John A. Sons of Darkness, Sons of Light. New York: Pocket Books, 1970. Print.
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