National Archives Exhibition Challenges the Meritocratic, Democratic Myths of American Sports

Historians in the News
tags: racism, sports


Kevin B. Blackistone, ESPN panelist and professor of the practice at the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland, writes sports commentary for The Washington Post.

“Why should a man who is trying to do what his audience expects him to do and pays for be the target of vile abuse, all on account of his color of skin?

“Doesn’t the … instinct of man have assent itself? Draw away the veil of civilization and you will find the human race pretty morally equal. In science we have advanced wonderfully, but morally, precious little, of any at all. We should all cultivate the sense of fair play.”

So wrote the first Black man allowed to fight for (and win) the heavyweight championship of the world, Jack Johnson. Circa 1921. On lined notepad sheets. In cursive. With pencil.

From prison.

It is one page of his handwritten autobiography, a brownish yellow now, some of which the National Archives Museum unveiled Friday along with myriad other artifacts — such as the blue jacket worn by President George W. Bush when he threw the first pitch after 9/11 — in its first-ever sports exhibit.

But what caught my attention were the items that reminded — as Johnson pondered — how sports have been, and often still are, contested turf for the egalitarian ideals we champion them for embodying: meritocracy, fairness, inclusiveness, equality. The same problems we see all these years later manifested in things such as NFL coach Brian Flores’s discrimination lawsuit against the league, women’s soccer players having to wrestle for equitable World Cup prize money and, of course, Colin Kaepernick being exiled. This is why sports are a perfect petri dish for protest and social change.


The exhibit’s curator, Alice Kamps, admitted to not being a rabid sports fan. What drove her to design the display, she said, was instead her interest in studying national identity.

“I was really intrigued to learn about the way that sports was used in the late 19th century, early 20th century, like almost a prescriptive fashion to create good citizens in schools and in military training grounds, because of the values that sports teach,” Kamps explained. “And you can see that in some of the propaganda, too. There’s a poster in the exhibit that says, ‘This is America.’”

Read entire article at Washington Post