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Panel engages with intersection of sports and African-American activism

| Thursday, February 16, 2017

The Office of Multicultural Student Programs and Services hosted “Sports and Activism: Fame, Controversy, and Impact” — a panel to discuss the importance role that sports have played in African-American activism — Wednesday night in LaFortune Student Center.

The panel featured three speakers: Amira Rose Davis, Johns Hopkins University history Ph.D. candidate; Karin Muya, senior forward on the Notre Dame women’s soccer team; and Autry Denson, class of 1999 alum and current running backs coach for the Fighting Irish. Richard Pierce, associate professor of Africana studies and history, moderated the panel.

“When we think about the history of [African-American activism in sports] it’s really easy to go to that iconic image in ‘68 at the Mexico city games with Tommie Smith and John Carlos, but in reality the history of athletic activism dates far beyond that and one of the reasons why is because sports has always had a platform,” Davis said. “Our infatuation with it is not new. It’s been there for a while, and for African-American activists, they saw it as a site where you could make a lot of gains.”

Muya said players of team sports experience a restricted freedom of public speech. 

“If the issue doesn’t resonate with the majority of the team, it could be seen as a distraction,” she said.

On the recent trend in which whole teams are mobilizing to make statements about race, Davis said the “Wyoming Black 14,” a group of University of Wyoming football players expelled for protesting racism with black armbands, “did not have power” at the time. 

Denson said black athletes’ have a responsibility to use their position to foster change.

“I’ve played football since I was 7 years old, and so my mom taught me that I was blessed so that I could be a voice for those that don’t have a voice,” Davis said. “That’s all I knew growing up, that athletes have that responsibility. That being said, you have to also learn how to maneuver within that structure because you’ve also got to be a part of it to bring about that change.”

Denson also acknowledged the constraints on this potential responsibility and said his personal roles as husband and father limit what he can do and say. He added that athletes should not be forced into the role of activist.

“Just because I can run a football or she can kick a soccer ball doesn’t mean she has to fight everybody’s battles all the time, and I think that, unfairly, that is what has happened,” he said.

Davis said being forced into that role can have real reprecussions.

“There is a very economic risk to speaking out … I have seen people struggling with if to speak, when to speak, how to speak,” he said.

Simply the presence of black athletes in prominent positions can send a powerful message, Muya said.

“Serena Williams is an amazing presence for us — she’s a role model in being an incredibly successful black woman as a tennis superstar, regardless of where she is politically or if she’s involved in activism,” she said.

To close, Davis said there were drawbacks as well as benefits of the power sports has as a platform for activism.

“Sports has been given representational power,” he said. “We know there are many more black doctors and many more black teachers than there are black professional athletes, and yet, for many, they think that the only way they can come up is by juggling the ball or playing on the tennis court, and I think that it’s a double-edged sword because, one, it cuts other avenues out, but two, it brings this microscope to the platform, because it does have this representational power and I think it’s important to understand what that encompasses. 

“ … It goes beyond the field, beyond athletes. It’s about the ways people compete and mobilize around sports. People are thinking about sports as beyond the game itself. There is no denying that University sports have power, so for people trying to mobilize around issues of social justice, sports will remain a place to mobilize in.”

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