History Slam Episode 161: Identity, Race, & Sports

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By Sean Graham

On August 26, as the scheduled start time of the Milwaukee Bucks-Orlando Magic playoff game approached, word started to circulate that Bucks players would not be taking to the floor. Three days earlier in Kenosha, WI, about 40 miles from Milwaukee, Jacob Blake was shot 7 times in the back by police. In the hours that followed, all NBA and WNBA game were postponed and two MLB games were not played. Over the next couple of days, all MLB teams postponed at least one of their games and the NHL stopped play for a couple nights.

Prior to agreeing to enter the NBA’s return to play bubble in Orlando, players wanted to ensure that their social activism efforts would not be interrupted and that team owners would increase their support for social justice. In the days following the Bucks players’ strike, players again used their power to push for further concrete action, which included teams using their arenas as polling places and increased financial contributions by team owners.

As players used their platform, the response from some in the media was predictable. Calls for sports to be free from politics or misplaced nostalgia for days where athletes were apolitical were not hard to find. In looking through sports history, however, it becomes clear that there has always been a political side to sports. From protests over Jack Johnson’s Heavyweight Title win to Jackie Robinson breaking the colour bar in baseball to the 1980 American Men’s Olympic Hockey gold medal, sports has always been tied to political and social movements.

In addition to the History Slam, I also host the Game of Stones Podcast, which covers the world of curling. Over the past few months, we’ve hosted a couple of roundtables discussing diversity in the sport. We are committed to furthering these discussions and are pleased to present today’s episode, which is a collaboration between the two podcasts.

In this episode, I talk with Ornella Nzindukiyimana of St.Francis Xavier University about identity, race, and sports. We talk about the politics of sport, how athletes have used their platforms, and how race has influenced sports media. We also talk about boxer Larry Gains, race and amateur sport in early 20th century Canada, and how recreational sports can be more inclusive.

Sean Graham is a historian with Parks Canada, an Adjunct Professor at Carleton, and a contributing editor with Activehistory.ca

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