LOS ANGELES – The Black athletes who won gold medals during the XXX Olympiad in London included – but definitely not limited to – Gabrielle “Gabby” Douglas (gymnastics), Serena and Venus Williams (tennis), Sanya Richards-Ross, Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce, Kirani James, and Usain Bolt (track and field), are the beneficiaries of those in the past who pioneered the way for the Black athletes of today.
Black athletes – throughout the world – have always been held up as role models for young people and in most cases, they seem to excel in sports whenever – to borrow a quote from Rev. Jesse Jackson – ‘the playing field is even, the rules are public and the goals are clear,’ and of course, the ‘glass ceiling’ has been removed. For example, Black men have dominated the heavyweight boxing championship since 1960 (when Floyd Patterson regained the heavyweight championship), and have made tremendous gains in other sports since – before and after. But is there a meaningful life after sports for the Black athlete? It depends on the life and/or the sport. Black athletes have turned their post-game efforts and energies toward businesses, politics and other fields that have captured the imaginations of young people during and beyond the field of sports.
Though basketball seems to have taken the lead and has produced an impressive array of businessmen, the contributions of athletes in other sports do not diminish the business achievements (during and post-game) of other talented sports figures. In the era of Jack Johnson, he was a colorful pugilist, with a flair for grace and style, but racial circumstances during his days certainly did not permit him the opportunity to become a businessman. Ralph Metcalfe, a dynamic sprinter and a contemporary of Jesse Owens, went on to become a congressman after his track-and-field career. Paul Robeson, a scholar, freedom fighter, social activist, and was greatly revered for his humanitarian work, his suffering and tremendous sacrifice on behalf of Black people; but he was also an exceptional athlete: in football, baseball, basketball, and track and field. He excelled when he was virtually alone (no ‘color-mates’), and the playing field was not even, the rules were not public and the goals were not clear.
There is no specific sport that precludes the Black athlete however, in the United States, he seemed to be omnipresent in basketball, baseball, football, boxing, and track-and-field. Whenever a Black person dominates a sport, like Tiger Woods in golf (though he prefers not to be called black) or Serena and Venus Williams in tennis, they also become money machines and gold mines for advertisers. For examples, Woods did American Express, Buick, etc.; the Williams sisters did Mc Donald’s, Reebok and others including Kobe Bryant, Magic Johnson and Rick Fox made the same moves. But their present and post sport activities are not confined to being spokespersons for products, they are much more self-fulfilling in their realms of accomplishments.
Julius “Dr. J” Irving former 76ers became an owner of the Philadelphia Coco-Cola Bottling Co. at the end of his career; and this was just one of his business ventures. Earvin “Magic” Johnson’s name is synonymous with business; he created the Johnson Development Corp. that includes theaters, food chains, real estate and foundations to assist inner-city youth. Michael “Air” Jordan, coined as the greatest basketball player, parlayed his investments toward team ownership, as a co-owner of the Charlotte Bobcats, an automotive corporation, and restaurants.
Isaiah Thomas became part owner of his former team, the Indiana Pacers. Latrell Spreewell, founder of Spreewell Racing, has one of the largest tire and wheel shops. Karl Malone invested in a car dealership in Albuquerque, New Mexico, a bed-and-breakfast proprietorship and established a foundation for young children. Shaquille O’Neal is still active in the game but he has ventured into an array of businesses, has done movies and volunteer work in law enforcement.
Then there was Elgin Baylor of the Clippers; Bill Russell, who supported civil rights causes and defended his rights as he did on the court; Wilt Chamberlain, Kareem Abdul Jabbar, Walt “Clyde” Frazier, Patrick Ewing, Charles Barkley, Norm Nixon and John Salley (former morning host of the Beat) all excelled off the courts long after they retired from the game. Dave Bing’s Group has been listed as #7 in this year’s line up on B.E. 100 service companies. And there is a current lineup of players who are still active in the game and are using their skills beyond the court, in businesses and humanitarian efforts; they include Kobe Bryant and LeBron James.
Football is one of the most dangerous sports; it commingles ‘brains and brawn.’ Jim Brown went from the football field to the movies, and to serving the youth with his Amer-I-Can Program, an organization with life management skills curriculum designed to empower individuals to take charge of their lives. In Hollywood with (Jim) Brown were Fred Williamson, Roosevelt “Rosey” Grier and Woody Strode (wrestling), who had also left the football field. Willie Brown, formerly of the Green Bay Packers bought KACE radio station, a beer franchise and more; Sidney Williams (who is married to Congresswoman Maxine Waters) was the U.S. ambassador for the Bahamas; and many former football players became household names as television commentators, including Jim Hill (KABC Sports), Ahmad Rashad and James Brown (America’s Black Forum). Former Pittsburgh Steeler Lynn Swann sought the nomination to become the governor of Pennsylvania; and Keyshawn Johnson has parlayed his talents into developing shopping centers and businesses.
No other athlete made a greater social contribution, in and out of the sports arena, than Muhammad Ali; he was the most recognized person in the world. As a boxer, he was masterful. In the prime of his career, he dazzled his opponents in the ring and outside the ring. He was a Muslim champion in the U.S. among Christian boxers like Joe Frazier, Floyd Patterson and George Foreman. Boxing greats like Jack Johnson and Sugar Ray Robinson were colorful; Joe Louis did not ‘rock the boat’ outside of the ring, he joined the army; and many other athletes did not challenge the status quo. Ali did, and won. Besides being a tremendous ‘draw’, he boasted, “I am America, the part you won’t recognized but get used to me. I’m Black, confident and cocky.” His style produced a new generation of athletes, – mostly heavyweights – who dared including Mike Tyson, Larry Holmes and Foreman who went on to become a super businessman. But other ‘weights’ produced talents like Dick Tiger, Archie Moore, Sugar Ray Leonard, Bob Foster, Emile Griffith, Michael Spinks, and currently Sugar Shane Mosley. Ali’s name was also a moneymaker.
Jackie Robinson is the baseball player referred to as breaking the color line in major league sports and paved the way for Blacks in other areas. Leroy “Satchel” Paige promoted the Negro League Baseball team like no other; he was a rare combination of talent and personality that captured the imagination of fans, and traveled with the Negro Southern League before the “color line” was broken. The baseball ‘floodgates’ had been opened and that gave the baseball Hank Aaron, Ernie Banks, Bob Gibson and Willie Mays. But there were other Series favorites including Roy Campanella, three times the National League’s Most Valuable Player, Frank Robinson, Don Buford and superstar Richie Allen. Reggie Jackson was exciting and colorful on and off the field; he was the new generation of sports businessmen at the time when the game produced Curt Flood and Lou Brock. In line with his breaking-the-color-line status, (Jackie) Robinson was aware of the potential for Blacks in baseball’s executive positions and went after that too. Today, Barry Bonds could have it any way he wants, because of those sacrifices.
Serena and Venus Williams dominate the tennis circuit, on and off the courts as a normal part of their game skills. Arthur Ashe and Althea Gibson had pioneered the way for the Williams sisters a generation ago; they were top players in a game where Blacks were non-existent professionally until they surfaced.
In his youth, Ashe had been denied access to a public court in Virginia because of racial segregation but he survived to become the first Black to win a championship at Wimbledon. He fought U.S. segregation and South Africa’s apartheid with equal vigor. And the Williams, who are doubly dutiful in their accomplishments, are two Black women (sisters) traveling similar paths. That they have accomplished much and recognize the work of former greats like Zina Garrison and Gibson says a lot. In off-the-court activities, they are into fashion designing while showing the world their Grand Slam wins back-to-back-to-back.
Before Eldrick ‘Tiger’ Woods graced the golf course and dazzle the sports world, there were Pete Brown, Lee Elder, Charlie Sifford and Ted Rhodes. Though little is known about Rhodes, he was the first Black (Negro, at that time) to play in a (Professional Golfers Association) PGA tournament, and had been Elder’s instructor. It was very difficult for Blacks to play on a “golf course that was not level.” While on tour Elder and Sifford were subjected to racial taunts and they found it difficult to compete. In 1969, it was reported that none of the qualified Blacks was invited to play in the Masters. Now as Woods complied victory after victory, he can clearly measure the distance he has traveled since those days. He readily extends himself with enrichment programs and scholarships via his Tiger Woods Learning Center to help millions of children attain their goals and achieve their dreams.
TRACK & FIELD
Track and Field usually showcases pre-professional and Olympic athletes. The name Jesse Owens often surfaces because – apart from his stunning and four-gold medal achievement – he smashed the Aryan myth of white superiority during the ’36 Olympics and laid the groundwork for track superstars like Bob Hayes, Wilma Rudolph, Carl Lewis, Florence Joyner, Jackie Joyner Kersee, Ato Bolton and Michael Johnson. Special recognition is due to Tommie Smith and John Carlos for their powerful protest in Mexico City in 1968. There was also Edwin Moses who dominated the field of hurdles, and Rafer Johnson who took the decathlon in 1956 Olympics and then went on to Hollywood. Kipchoge Keino was the long distance runner who won four Olympic gold medals: and Hayes, who started in track to the field, was the only man to win an Olympic gold medal and a super bowl ring. Today’s lineup of talented athletes includes Gail Devers, Marion Jones and Maurice Green.
MISCELLANEOUS SPORTS (Swimming, Soccer, etc.)
Black athletes have competed equally and successfully in many other sports despite tremendous obstacles. Those athletes include Don Blackman in wrestling; Pele in soccer; J. Wilbert Sims in bowling; Isaac Murphy and Earl Sande were three-time Kentucky Derby winners; and in 2006, Shani Davis as the first Black gold medalist at the Winter Olympics.
Noted Black sports sociologist, Dr. Harry Edwards, once asked if the golden age of the Black athlete is over? “We are beginning to see a drop-off in performance at every level.” Maybe it’s because Black athletes have become more sophisticated and have taken charge of their own business destinies, during and after their life of sports.
By Yussuf Simmonds
Special to the NNPA from the Los Angeles Sentinel