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Discrimination at the End of the Twentieth Century

This is an excerpt from Sports in American History 2nd Edition by Gerald Gems,Linda Borish & Gertrud Pfister.

The Paralympic Games have accommodated disadvantaged athletes for more than a half century. An athletic competition for disabled veterans of World War II first occurred in conjunction with the 1948 Olympic Games; but the first formal Paralympics took place in 1960. The Paralympic Winter Games were added in 1976, and since 1988 the Paralympics have been hosted in the same city as the Olympic Games. The American team gained greater funding after its incorporation into the USOC structure and greater importance for the large number of military veterans who have returned from the hostilities in the Middle East with debilitating injuries (Schultz et al., "Paralympics"; Schultz). Although differently abled athletes saw a rise in opportunities at the end of the century, the United States still struggled with issues of homophobia and racism.


Similar to Chris Evert, diver Greg Louganis enjoyed polished movie-star looks and consummate athletic skill. He won six world championships and four gold medals at the Olympic Games (in 1984 and 1988). Of Samoan heritage and a dyslexic, Louganis also exemplified success for those two groups. After a dramatic double win (springboard and platform diving) at the Seoul Olympics, after which he recovered from a head wound caused by hitting the diving board, Louganis acknowledged not only being gay but also that he had contracted AIDS. In 1994, he competed in the Gay Games, overcoming new social barriers to "coming out" in the process, and he declared, "Being gay and being in sports isn't supposed to mix. I think I proved that wrong" (MacCambridge 258). Thus, gay athletes such as Louganis, Billie Jean King, and Martina Navratilova used sport as a means to challenge dominant notions of gender and sexuality. They won greater, if grudging, acceptance for their achievements, regardless of their sexual preferences. In some sports, at least, ability counted more than lifestyle. In the sports of baseball, football, basketball, and hockey, however, the dominant sense of the requisite machismo pressured male athletes to publicly conform to traditional roles and characteristics throughout the twentieth century. When David Kopay admitted his homosexuality in his 1977 autobiography, five years after his retirement from the NFL, he faced ostracism by former teammates. When John Amaechi, a former NBA player, acknowledged in 2007 (well after retirement) that he was gay, some NBA players ardently disassociated themselves from him and even publicly proclaimed their disgust.


Nearly a half century after Jackie Robinson's "Great Experiment," the stain of racism endured in American sport. Marge Schott, the bigoted owner of the Cincinnati Reds, further defamed the sport with a series of racist pronouncements. In 1992, she greatly offended Jews by her admiration of Adolf Hitler and her possession of a Nazi armband. That same year, she referred to some of her players with extremely racist slurs. The league imposed a $25,000 fine and a one-year suspension from team involvement, but when her demeanor failed to improve, a two-year ban followed in 1996, leading to her sale of the team in 1999.

Schott's remarks reflected a lingering racism within the sports world, in spite of advancements made by African American and Hispanic players. Major League Baseball teams increasingly signed Latin American athletes throughout the decade, African American players filled the NBA, and the NFL selected Johnny Grier as its first black referee in 1988. Still, few minorities gained positions as head coaches, team administrators, or owners. On the playing field, the practice of stacking (i.e., assigning white players to the "cerebral" positions such as quarterback and relegating blacks to positions where physical abilities superseded mental qualifications) remained problematic in the midst of a painfully gradual progression toward proper recognition of nonwhites' intellectual capabilities.

Scientists, anthropologists, and sociologists theorized about black dominance in some sports, and the comments of Jimmy "the Greek" Snyder, a football analyst for CBS, created a national controversy in 1988. Snyder professed that black success resulted from breeding practices during slavery, suggesting biological determinism as an explanation. He even claimed African Americans had running advantages because of their larger thighs. CBS fired Snyder the next day, but the heated debate continued. Scientists discovered no genetic superiority for blacks, but sociologists suggested cultural reasons as well as practical opportunities (Pope, The New 312 - 338). The number of African Americans in Major League Baseball has declined considerably to less than 9 percent by 2014, in part because of the lack of urban playing spaces (Solomon 2014).

Eldrick "Tiger" Woods, the successor to Michael Jordan as ubiquitous spokesman for Nike and a host of other commercial products, won the 1997 Masters Golf Tournament at the age of 21, not only setting a new record at 18 strokes under par but also dominating his opponents, the nearest of whom finished 12 strokes behind. The son of a father who was African American, Native American, and Chinese, and a mother who is Thai, Chinese, and European, Woods described himself as a Cablinasian. In any case, he has transcended racial lines and brought new constituencies to the previously white-dominated golf circuit. In 2000, Woods won more than $9 million in prize money and much more in endorsements. His high profile in the white world of golf, along with his replacement of Michael Jordan as a primary spokesman for American commerce, suggests a decline in the level of racism that had previously marked American society.

Woods seemed to live a storybook life. In 2004 he married a Swedish model, Elin Nordegren, and he held the number one ranking from 1999 to 2005; but revelations of his adulterous behavior surfaced in 2009, and the resultant divorce greatly tarnished his image, cost him the loss of sponsors and endorsements, and signaled a downward spiral in his performance (Jonsrud, qtd. in Nelson).

Tiger Woods was one of the most popular athletes in American sport in the late 1990s. His success on the golf course earned him millions of dollars in prize money and endorsement deals.
Tiger Woods was one of the most popular athletes in American sport in the late 1990s. His success on the golf course earned him millions of dollars in prize money and endorsement deals.

© Human Kinetics

The greater acceptance and visibility of people of color in American sport did not extend to all minorities. In 1983, Native Americans formed the Iroquois Nationals lacrosse team, which, like Puerto Rico, competed in international contests as an independent nation with its own national anthem and a distinct flag. Sport provided the most visible avenue to public recognition for the American Indian confederacy. One step in amelioration with Native Americans was taken when the NCAA required its member schools to banish all American Indian mascots for sports events or face the penalty of ostracism by being barred from hosting championship events.



Learn more about Sports in American History, Second Edition.

More Excerpts From Sports in American History 2nd Edition