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The Hawk News

The Student News Site of St. Joseph's University

The Hawk News

The Student News Site of St. Joseph's University

The Hawk News

A conversation on history, race and sport


Brian J. Yates, Ph.D., professor of history with a specialty in African history, extensively covers the intersectionality of race and sport in society in his newly established first year seminar “Race and Sport in America.” 

The Hawk spoke to Yates about race and sports in society, athlete activism and how St. Joe’s students can further educate themselves on the significance of history, race and sport.

Why is it important to offer history courses that incorporate race at St. Joe’s, a predominantly white institution (PWI)?

Race is not something that just impacts people of color. Partially for this reason, Dr. Clampet-Lundquist, Dr. Aisha Lockridge, Professor Tryce and I created a one hour add on to the First Year Seminar, entitled Inequality 101. This semester we are teaching it in a pilot program. One of the first things we look at is that it’s not just that people of color are racialized, but everyone is racialized. So the idea here is that whiteness is a concept that is practiced and understood just as Blackness or Latinx or Asians are practiced. In addition is the fact that every student at St. Joe’s is racialized and that white privilege exists and racial inequality exists and that everyone’s involved in racial inequality. So to me, I would argue that there may be more of a reason to teach race and sport in American society at a predominantly white institution than there would be at a predominantly Black institution.

What does it mean to be a professor of color at St. Joe’s, a PWI?  

Lonely and frustrating. It’s difficult to have this discussion in a recorded public manner, but I would say that again, it’s something that every institution shows where its values are by how it spends its money. It’s just that if you valued “X” there will be more of “X” at the institution. I could be wrong about this, but according to some at the university, there’s only one Black male professor. And that’s a shame. And there could be people who define themselves as Black, but are not counted as such, but it’s definitely possible to be the only one. In 2020, you shouldn’t be able to count a demographic group on one hand and that’s an issue. Until it’s being addressed I’m not going to feel any less lonely or frustrated.

 How is race significant within the history of sport?

We live in a racist country, so all of our institutions are going to have racism embedded [in them]. One reason I teach the course is to get a better idea about how Americans practice race. For example, let’s look at football. You’ve got a sport that is dominated by Black Americans, yet, the coaching ranks are almost all white, [general managers] almost all white, owners all white. All the people making the real money are white, yet all the people who are putting their lives at risk are largely Black. Again, this is very much the story of American institutions. If you look at oil, look at education, look at criminal justice, those at the top are increasingly white. Those at the bottom are generally people of color. There’s a historian named Taylor Branch, he’s won a few Pulitzer’s for his work on Martin Luther King Jr., but his newer work is on the NCAA, which he refers to as “the cartel.” He argues that, especially in men’s basketball and football, it’s like a modern day plantation that you have these kids who are working for free on the behest of their universities, or if I choose to use Branch’s analogy, their masters who make all the money. Why I choose sport as a setting for my studies on identity is that it’s so crystal clear in sport because of the nature of sport that there’s going to be a winner. There is a scoreboard. And in a lot of ways, it also serves as a collision area for racial groups, who are normally not in contact with each other. I don’t watch college basketball for the reasons articulated by Branch, but I think it’s safe to assume that a significant part of the St. Joe’s basketball team is Black [50%], but the student population is a little more than 5% Black in a city that is more than 40% Black. They want to create a competitive basketball team and they do so by recruiting Black players. Yet the same kind of ideology isn’t applied to nonathlete students, programming or faculty. This is why sport becomes a really interesting lens into American society, it shows what is possible for institutions to do, when they want to do it. 

How do you think the history of race and sport continues to affect professional sports in the modern day?

Race and sport reflect society, as I mentioned before in terms of Branch’s argument about the NCAA being the modern day plantation. If you look at a great deal of American institutions, they’re built to exploit the marginalized for the benefit of white communities. Let’s take it out of basketball and football, in baseball; you have largely a Spanish speaking labor force who are benefiting the white owners and fans. How’s that any different from education, or health care or large corporations? They’re by and large exploiting marginalized labor for the sake of white capital and white markets. Sport is just another example. For example, recently, the [Dallas] Mavericks stopped playing the anthem and nobody realized it until someone who was in the crowd was like “Hey, I didn’t hear the national anthem,” and the guy told on them. Then the NBA, this quote on quote “Woke League,” forced the Mavericks to play the national anthem. Why did they do it? Because they did not want to upset the corporate sponsors and that it just shows who this league is for. It’s not for the fans, who I don’t think really care about the national anthem. It’s not for the players, who definitely don’t care about the national anthem. Then you have Byron Leftwich, he’s now a Super Bowl winning offensive coordinator. His coach, Bruce Arians, made it a point to have all his coordinators be Black, he also has women coaches. He said that Leftwich could not even get an interview for a head coaching job. Where is inequality, where is racism, so clear where you get a guy who’s obviously competent not even given the opportunity to be interviewed to get a job as a head coach. This is why I think that sport is an important part of many people’s lives. You can’t see a labor force looking one way and management looking the opposite way and not have a reaction of, ‘hey, something is not right here.’

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