Breaking Barriers and Facing Backlash: The Racial Dynamics in Sports from Jackie Robinson to Caitlin Clark.




( In 1947, legendary baseball star and Hall of Famer Jackie Robinson, broke the color barrier, becoming the first Black athlete to play in Major League Baseball in the modern era when he joined the Brooklyn Dodgers. Before that, he and his fellow Black athletes were relegated to the Negro leagues, at the time, a lesser known league but that had superstars and an overall grueling competition that rivaled, if not exceeded the Major League’s at the time. When Robinson joined the MLB, he faced all kinds of racist acts, from verbal abuse and threats, like when Phillies manager, Ben Chapman, and his players infamously taunted Robinson with racial epithets during a game, to physical intimidation and discrimination where pitchers would purposely throw at his head, spike him with their cleats, or where hotels and restaurants would refuse to accommodate him. Robinson said, at the time, “I felt tortured and tormented. I had to stay out there and stand there and take all that abuse.”

In 2001, at the Indian Wells Open, legendary tennis star, Serena Williams, and her sister Venus, were accused of match-fixing. This comment was exacerbated when Venus, who was meant to play against Serena in the semi-finals, withdrew from the match due to a leg injury just moments before it was meant to begin, automatically propelling Serena to the finals. At the finals, where Serena faced off against Kim Clijsters, there was noticeably loud boos from the crowd, and the crowd continued to express their anger towards Serena during the match. Serena won, but the boos continued and while she, her father and Venus were walking to their seats, one man said to them “I wish it was ’75; we’d skin you alive.” At the 2007 Sony Ericsson Championship, a heckler shouted to Serena, “That’s the way to do it! Hot the net like any Negro would!” Not only that, but fans and journalists alike routinely made racially-driven remarks about her physique and attitude.

This year, as college and WNBA superstar, Caitlin Clark, was playing in a game between the Fever and Chicago Sky, was body-checked by Sky star player Chennedy Carter in a flagrant display of unsportsmanlike conduct. Carter has been lambasted by WNBA fans and passive onlookers of the sport. There was even a moment when a person in Washington confronted Carter outside of her team’s hotel in D.C. Long-time fans of the game have noted that this type of dirty play is common among WNBA players, yet, with fresh new faces watching the sport as a direct result of Clark, it has led many onlookers to question the racial dynamics of the situation, and how it may have motivated the push.

Professional basketball is generally dominated by Black athletes. In fact, despite the fact that Blacks make up approximately 13% of the population, nearly 64% of WNBA players are Black. This statistic is practically the same in the NBA, with approximately 70% of players being Black.

Is it possible that Clark, a white athlete, joining the WNBA, a league with historically low ratings and an average attendance of around 6,000 fans per game (compared to the NBA’s 18,000), and who has significantly elevated the sport to unprecedented levels, might face criticism from Black athletes? Can we also say that fans and passive observers who witnessed Carter’s shove of Clark, a common occurrence in competitive sports, may be exhibiting more severe reactions towards her due to her being a Black woman?

The level of people and personalities coming to Clark’s defense for a simple shove is disproportionately high, so high that even U.S. Congressman Jim Banks sent a letter to the WNBA encouraging them to curb “excessive” physical play. I think we can say with absolute certainty that the level of backlash seen regarding the event would not have happened if Clark were a Black athlete. We can say that with certainty because, as previously mentioned, this level of play is common in the WNBA and has been common for years.

But, at the same time, could it not also be true that Black athletes in the WNBA are displeased at the fact that a white athlete has stolen their glory and, within a short time, propelled the league into a position that was once unattainable even with the efforts they put in for decades?

Just as Jackie Robinson, Serena and Venus Williams, and other top Black athletes who faced adversity throughout their careers, I have no doubt that this situation has fueled Caitlin Clark to perform at her best and set her on a path to greatness.

Written by Armstrong Williams

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