Race and Sports

Race and sports have been in complex articulation since the nineteenth century, yet a critical sociology of sport and race has only developed substantially since the 1990s. In the 1960s a few academic studies and journalistic accounts examined segregation and racial discrimination in sport, but these were largely descriptive. Two exceptions to this were C. L. R. James’s critical reading of the role of cricket in shaping West Indian political identity in the anti colonial struggles of the 1950s and 1960s, and Harry Edwards’s important account of the radicalization of the black athlete in the context of America’s Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s and black nationalist politics of the 1970s.


In the 1970s and 1980s sport sociologists began to investigate continuing racial discrimination in sport with a liberal focus on issues of equity and opportunity, normally using quantitative methods to measure the degree of meritocracy in sports. More recently, scholars have used cultural studies approaches to examine questions of representation and ideology in sport media texts, and ethnographic methods to understand racial identity construction in sport and its intersections with class, nation, gender, and sexuality.

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Sport and Race as Social Phenomena

‘‘Sport’’ and ‘‘race’’ are sociologically problematic because, at first sight, both appear to be aspects of human life that are immediately knowable and products of a natural physicality that precedes socialization. ‘‘Race,’’ the division of humanity into biologically discrete groups based on phenotypical markers, is commonly believed to be the result of an inherent, fixed, and natural distinction between actually existing groups. But sociologists and biologists alike have demonstrated that the supposed ‘‘natural’’ division of humanity is unrelated to underlying genotypical distinctions. Instead, racial distinctions are based on arbitrarily chosen physical features, such as skin color and hair texture, that are used to demarcate people into groups. Thus, ‘‘race’’ is a complex system of representation learned through socialization, and then acted upon as if these distinctions were ‘‘real.’’ In short, ‘‘race’’ appears to be a biological fact of absolute physical difference when it is actually a socially constructed and culturally reproduced set of ideas and beliefs.

Similarly, ‘‘sport’’ appears to be a purely physical activity that is separate from the wider divisions and structures of society. Although we might immediately recognize the social conditions of education, cultural capital, and aesthetic discernment that frame the production and consumption of other cultural forms, sport is commonly seen as an activity that is ‘‘simply’’ physical and open to all regardless of class, gender, race, or sexuality. Barriers in sports, it is believed, exist only in connection with the physical abilities and motivation of individuals. This view of sport as ‘‘free’’ from structural constraints means that sport’s role in maintaining and reproducing power relations is underestimated.

Sociologists of sport have sought to explain how the sports we choose to play, the ways that we play them, the meanings we give to and take from them, and the material and social rewards associated with participation and success are intimately related to the structure and organization of societies. Given this, it requires great sociological imagination to go beyond such everyday understandings to reveal how both race and sport, far from being universal, naturally occurring phenomena, are actually the result of temporally bound and historically specific human action. In short, the interrelationship between race and sport is a deeply sociological articulation with profound political consequences for how we generally understand racial difference and who has access to sport itself.

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Racial Science and Empire

There is an interesting historical parallel between the emergence of the scientific foundation for ideas of racial difference and the formation of organized, codified, competitive sport. Racial science – the scientific belief in the inherent superiority of white Europeans – developed into a coherent set of ideas during the nineteenth century. In Britain this was the period when sports such as rugby football, cricket, and soccer were institutionalized, as emerging governing bodies formalized rules and assumed authority over how these sports should be played.

The nineteenth century was also the high point for European imperialism, when the idea of race emerged to justify conquest and exploitation. Countries such as Britain sought to maintain their power over their colonies in Africa, South and East Asia, and the Caribbean by a twin process of undermining and destroying local cultures while attempting to ‘‘civilize’’ native peoples by the imposition of British customs and ways of life. In this context of imperialist expansion, buttressed by notions of inherent white European supremacy, sport came to be seen as a way of educating and socializing colonized peoples into more civilized forms of modernity. Cricket served this purpose in the English speaking Caribbean, South Asia, Central and Southern Africa, and in the white settler colonies of New Zealand and Australia. The notion of ‘‘cricket, the classics, and Christianity’’ was seen by British Victorian elites as a way to bring order and civilization to the British Empire – at once a form of control over the masses and a way to inculcate them into the values and norms of an imperial notion of Britishness.

Elsewhere, soccer was ‘‘exported’’ by Europeans to Africa, Asia, and Central and South America. In this context, indigenous games and pastimes, suppressed since the first European expeditions overseas in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, faded away or were gradually replaced with new sporting imports. For example, the game of ulama de cadera, or hip ulama – ulama meaning ‘‘ball game’’ – was once popular throughout Mesoamerica, but began to die away after the Spanish outlawed what they perceived to be a pagan game with inappropriate rituals, such as decapitation for the losers. The game itself, which is similar to volleyball but requiring the use of the hip rather than the hand, dates to around 1500 BC. Although it still survives in parts of Mexico, it is no longer central to Mexican culture, except as a focus for anthropologists, archeologists, and tourists. Soccer is now the national sport of Mexico, as it is throughout most of Central and South America, and most Mexicans have no idea of what ulama, one of the world’s oldest sports, actually involved.

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Sport, Race, and the Struggle for Freedom

At the start of the twentieth century notions of white European supremacy were simply assumed to be an objective, unquestionable fact. While Africans were often seen to be ‘‘animal like’’ in their nature, it was still assumed that whites were intellectually and physically superior to all other ‘‘races of man.’’ The newly emerging international sports arenas were one public space where this obvious superiority was seen to be confirmed. Given the importance of sport in reproducing dominant forms of hegemonic masculinity, it is not surprising that boxing, and heavyweight boxing in particular, came to be regarded as one of the prime avenues for demonstrating the attributes of white male strength, power, and courage. The symbolic significance of black and white athletes competing against each other in public as equals, and the fear of black success in the sporting arena, was such that sporting encounters began to take on wider political significance.

In this context Jack Johnson’s successes in the boxing arena heralded a pattern of racial contestation that was to structure relations on the world’s sporting fields for over a century. In 1908 Johnson became the first black World Heavyweight Champion. Given the racial politics of the Jim Crow era, Johnson’s victory caused widespread consternation within wider white society and jubilation among blacks. The search then went out for a ‘‘great White hope’’ to reclaim the mantle of masculine supremacy from the black Texan. In order to prevent such threats to the symbolic racial order, the so called ‘‘color line’’ was redrawn when Johnson eventually lost his title which once again pre vented black boxers from competing against whites. The later achievements in the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s of African American athletes such as the boxer Joe Louis, the athlete Jesse Owens, the baseball player Jackie Robinson, and the tennis player Althea Gibson, were subsequently seen by black people throughout the African diaspora as victories in the struggle for freedom from racial oppression.

Sport as a form of political resistance can be seen in the example of cricket in the Caribbean. While the imposition of European sporting forms led to both the extinction of indigenous games and an attempt at colonial governance over local populations, these very same conditions led to sports becoming a site for cultural contestation and ideological struggle. Campaigns for equality within the game of cricket thus paralleled wider struggles for freedom and emancipation from colonial rule. Thus, the campaign to allow a black player to captain the West Indies national cricket team – previously only white West Indians were deemed intelligent enough to assume such leadership roles – was achieved in 1960 when the captaincy was finally given to Frank Worrell. Increasingly, from the 1950s onwards, former colonized countries gained their independence, giving further impetus to the symbolic significance of international sporting competitions, especially against their former colonial masters.

The politics of protest through sport continued into the 1960s and 1970s as sport became an important vehicle through which racial oppression and injustice could be highlighted. The ‘‘black gloved’’ protest at the 1968 Mexico Olympics by Tommie Smith and John Carlos similarly drew attention to the human rights abuses that were taking place in America and elsewhere. Their simple but powerful protest also portrayed the ideological role of black athletes who were now able to compete in international arenas for western countries; when athletes succeeded on the field they were hailed as heroes at the same time that black people were denied full rights as citizens. The radical black athletes of the 1960s, best personified perhaps in the figure of Muhammad Ali, revealed the previously ignored racial politics of sport. This enabled a generation of black athletes to speak out, as previous generations dared not do, against discrimination in sports and society at large.

Nowhere was racial oppression more explicit than in the apartheid regime of South Africa, where a minority white population held complete power and control over the country’s majority black African population. The 1977 Gleneagles Agreement led to a sporting boycott of the regime. This called attention to the suffering of South Africa’s black population and it assisted the anti apartheid movement by exerting political pressure on the South African government. By further isolating South Africa from normal international relations, the boycott contributed to apartheid’s eventual collapse in the early 1990s. Thus, sport – in Caribbean cricket squares, American sporting arenas, and South African rugby pitches, among other sites – has been central to the wider story of black diasporic struggles for freedom throughout the twentieth century.

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Stereotypes and the Return of Racial Science in Sport

A persistent legacy of nineteenth century racial science is the ideology of absolute racial difference and its alleged effects on human behavior. While notions of a direct biological link between race, intelligence, and the propensity to commit criminal acts has been effectively critiqued, the belief that a person’s ‘‘race’’ is linked to abilities on the sports field remains strong. For example, using limited and often contradictory evidence, it continues to be asserted that ‘‘West African blacks’’ are genetically predisposed to power and speed events such as sprinting and jumping, while ‘‘East African blacks’’ are meant to have special properties that allow them to dominate endurance events like long distance running.

Stereotypes attributing to black people natural advantages compared to whites when it comes to running and jumping have affected structural and strategic dimensions of sports. Sociological research since the 1970s has shown how ‘‘stacking’’ – the disproportionate placing of black athletes into certain positions assumed to be more suited to their ‘‘natural’’ abilities – has occurred in many sports from American football to rugby league and rugby union. Linked to stacking is the concept of ‘‘centrality,’’ which suggests that certain positions are more important to a team’s chances of winning as these require players to make cognitive decisions, as opposed to merely reflexive or instinctive physical reactions to opponents’ movements. These ‘‘central’’ positions are thus seen to be more suited to white players who have a greater ability to ‘‘read the game,’’ thus relegating black players to positions believed to require pure physical ability and little if any cognitive ability. In American football, for instance, this supported a stacking pattern in which there was a disproportionate number of white quarterbacks and black wide receivers. This pattern reproduced a racial ideology focused on innate biological differences and led people to overlook socially produced conditions in which coaches and school teachers selected and encouraged players from different racial backgrounds to play in certain positions. Even when stacking patterns have become less apparent, the race logic used in the sports media recategorizes players by, for example, suggesting that ‘‘new’’ black quarterbacks are somehow more ‘‘athletic’’ than their white counterparts, and play in a more ‘‘physical’’ way.

Black success in certain elite sports is often ‘‘explained’’ by these alleged natural differences, further reifying the idea of race. This undermines black athletic excellence by implicitly linking it with an inherent genetic disposition shared by the entire ‘‘black race’’ and ignoring the dedication, hard work, and ability of individual athletes who happened to be racialized as black. Such stereotypes persist in the face of evidence to the contrary. For example, the record breaking times of British long distance runner Paula Radcliffe or the ‘‘super human’’ achievements of the American cyclist Lance Armstrong are often seen by scientists and journalists in terms of dedication and their almost fanatical commitment to training to compete at the highest level. Rarely is white achievement in sport explained by biological or genetic racial attributes. This preserves the myth of black athletic superiority as well as ideological notions of ‘‘natural’’ racial difference. This illustrates the power of hegemonic racial ideology in framing how people interpret success or failure in the world’s sporting arenas and how the discredited legacy of racial science continues to inform sports science discourse today.

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Sport and Race Today

Success in sport has been one way for subordinated racial and ethnic minority groups to register protests and fight discrimination in the wider battles for recognition and inclusion. In the 2000 Sydney Olympics, for example, Cathy Freeman became the first Australian Aborigine to win an Olympic gold medal, and was widely seen as a symbol of Australia’s attempts to come to terms with its racist treatment of Aboriginal peoples. A century after Jack Johnson’s arrival on the international boxing scene, black athletes now compete successfully in sports such as tennis and golf that were previously the preserve of whites only. The achievements of sportsmen and women of color have only recently been recognized as part of the wider struggle for racial justice and equality.

A danger is that the perceived level playing field of sport can serve an ideological function by leading people to assume that western societies in particular have achieved a meritocracy that transcends the structural correlates of a racialized social order. Similarly, rather than using their position to speak out on issues of racial injustice and social inequality, contemporary millionaire black celebrity athletes often align themselves with commercial programs bringing them monetary rewards. However, research continues to show that, despite diversity on many playing fields, the power positions in the structure of sport organizations are controlled by white men who coach, manage, and own teams. Similarly, the abuse of athletes of color by spectators and occasionally by fellow players and managers continues to be a feature of domestic and international competitions in sports such as soccer. The myth of race is sustained by the apparent ‘‘obviousness’’ of racial difference in sports performance, while the continuance of racism is often disavowed.

The centrality of sport as a cultural practice in many nations and the pervasiveness of ideas about racial difference mean that the complex articulation of ‘‘race’’ and ‘‘sport’’ will persist well into the twenty first century. Critical research on the ways that sports serve as sites for ‘‘race related’’ identity formation for all racialized minorities as well as majority white populations is needed in order to develop more nuanced and effective anti racist strategies. Research into non English speaking contexts is also required to explain the many forms of racism that exist alongside the local and national context of particular sporting cultures.

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