The current roster of athlete activists is speaking out and redefining the sports industry.
The last time Legal Studies and Business Ethics professor Ken Shropshire taught his Race and the Global Business of Sports course, the subject of athlete activism was a history lesson. The timeline began with boxer Jack Johnson, the first African-American heavyweight champ, then continued with baseball’s Jackie Robinson, fighter Muhammad Ali, and the raised fists of Olympic sprinters John Carlos and Tommie Smith. What followed was an era of relative silence, as taking stands on social issues was considered professional suicide. As Michael Jordan allegedly said, “Republicans buy sneakers, too.”
With this spring marking Shropshire’s last in the classroom, the David W. Hauck professor and director of the Wharton Sports Business Initiative was eager to revisit this material with a new crop of outspoken activist athletes to examine. “The turnaround moment comes with Trayvon Martin,” Shropshire says. “You saw LeBron James leading the way, and the protests around the leagues—they say, ‘This is something I can relate to.’ LeBron didn’t protest human rights in Tibet. He doesn’t know that. He knows Trayvon.”
Shropshire sees a practical application to debates about sports and race: “There’s a whole generation of graduates who find careers in sports, and there’s a way to make the world better through its power and influence—to understand what’s been done before and what’s most impactful.” With his upcoming book, The Miseducation of the Student Athlete: A Manifesto for Change, due in September through Wharton Digital Press, plus news breaking in real time, Shropshire hopes to revive the class in an emeritus capacity someday. Until then, here are his suggested readings to spark conversations about what sociologist Harry Edwards calls “using sports intelligently.”
The Unlevel Playing Field
This collection of readings—published in 2003, before “diversity” was a buzzword—serves as the centerpiece for the course. Its historical scope is sweeping and impressive, from W.E.B. Du Bois’s reflections on Blacks in sport in 1897 to articles on Jim Crow-era racial divisions in baseball and superstars like Serena Williams.
Advancing the Ball
With a primary focus on the NFL, this book examines the struggles minorities have faced in securing jobs as coaches and in front offices. Shropshire says author N. Jeremi Duru “ties together the story of athlete protest through organizations” aimed at promoting minority hiring, including football’s Fritz Pollard Alliance and the now-defunct Baseball Network (which Shropshire was involved in). “The beauty of forming an affinity group,” he says, “is that you have a group that can sue if action isn’t taken.”
In Black and White: Race and Sports in America
Shropshire uses his research here with statistics on Black and Latino head coaches to ask provocative questions: What’s the right balance? If 60 percent of the athletes in a league are minorities, should the same percentage hold true among its coaches? And given our expanding definition of diversity, what should this book be titled today?
Black Men Can’t Shoot
This examination of youth basketball in Philadelphia, the offshoot of author Scott Brooks’s PhD project at the University of Pennsylvania, dispels the notion that Black athletes advance largely through natural ability. “Black men are successful in this game for the same reason Larry Bird was,” Shropshire says. “They work hard.” A broader in-class discussion contrasts the importance of youth athletics with statistics that suggest Pop Warner football participation is on the decline. Could football become the new boxing, a sport only of last resort?
Sport Matters: Leadership, Power, and the Quest for Respect in Sports
Shropshire’s text examines current events through a lens of leadership decisions. When former Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling’s racist comments surfaced, did the NBA commissioner act quickly enough, or correctly? Did players realize the leverage they held? Other topics include the NFL’s handling of Ray Rice’s domestic abuse scandal and athletes at Northwestern University pushing to unionize. The pathway into thorny conversations about race, says the professor, is respect: “Everybody wants respect, and you can understand feeling disrespected even if you don’t understand race or gender issues.”
Unwinding Madness: What Went Wrong with College Sports and How to Fix It
This data-driven argument for dismantling the NCAA is a starting point to considering something rarely addressed in the debates over paying student athletes. Shropshire says the focus should be on directing money from big time college programs to ensure athletes earn degrees, and examining the economics makes an intellectual exercise tangible: “Money allows you to think of all the things we can do to make a change.”