Sport and the Color Line: Black Athletes and Race Relations in Twentieth-Century America

By Patrick B. Miller; David K. Wiggins | Go to book overview

12

JIM CROW IN THE GYMNASIUM

The Integration of College Basketball in the American South

Charles H. Martin

AT THE START OF the twenty-first century, the game of basketball enjoys unprecedented international stature. Once restricted primarily to the United States, the sport is now played extensively around the world and trails only soccer in popularity as a team sport. The 1992 Olympic Games in Barcelona, Spain, proved to be a watershed in the sport's international development. The participation of previously excluded American professional stars such as Michael Jordan, Larry Bird, and "Magic" Johnson in the men's basketball competition greatly stimulated worldwide interest in the game. The ease with which the Americans captured the team championship inspired other countries to upgrade their development and coaching programs. Ten years later, the results of these efforts could be seen in the growing presence of foreign players in the National Basketball Association (NBA) in the U.S., the embarrassing defeat of the American team (missing its top professional stars) in the 2002 world championships in Indianapolis, Indiana, and the selection by the Houston Rockets of 7′6′′ Chinese center Yao Ming as the first choice in the 2002 NBA player draft. Nonetheless, American players still dominate the game today, mostly because of the substantial contributions of African-American athletes, who also are the major force within professional and college basketball inside the United States. But just over five decades ago, the social and racial dimensions of the American sport were dramatically different. At the end of the Second World War, basketball in the U.S. was a white sport, and most blacks were either excluded or marginalized within its ranks. This was especially true in the American South, the traditional center of the African-American population, where racial discrimination and rigid segregation permeated virtually every area of public life, including sports.

Southern universities were very much a part of this racial status quo during the era of Jim Crow. At a typical segregated southern college in 1945, the faculty, staff (except for some custodial and food service employees), student body, and athletic teams were all white. African Americans were restricted to poorly funded black colleges, whose academic and athletic worlds were kept virtually separate from their white counterparts. During the late 1940s and 1950s, other regions of the U.S. gradually abandoned the more blatant forms of racial discrimination, but the white South firmly resisted any racial change, even in sports. The struggle to maintain segregation in college athletics represented just one

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