Ben Davis and Michael Galley look at Black sporting heroes of the past and present to mark Black History Month for Exepose Sport
Ben Davis: Heroes of the Past
At times of racial discrimination, Jack Johnson and Bill Russell’s careers proved that your skin colour should not be a barrier to success, inspiring many on the way. These two men are not the only athletes to change the landscape of the sporting world, however they provide an interesting insight into the world of Black sporting heroes.
The African-American boxer Jack Johnson was once considered the most famous Black man on Earth during the early 1900s. Johnson was the first African-American World Heavyweight Boxing champion, a title he held between 1908 and 1915. The son of former slaves, Johnson grew up in Texas, and was an active boxer at the height of the Jim Crow era. Johnson was a role model for many Black Americans who encountered racial discrimination daily.
In 1910 Johnson fought and beat the former undefeated heavyweight champion James J. Jefferies who came out of retirement to face Johnson. After his victory, Johnson inspired race riots in over twenty-five states. Many African-Americans saw this as a victory for racial advancement causing spontaneous gatherings and parties. For many African-Americans, it wasn’t just Johnson’s 71 professional victories which brought joy, it was what he stood for. At a time when Black people were seen as inferior, Johnson was willing to go the distance to break down the colour barrier.
Johnson was inducted into the 1954 The Ring Magazine Boxing Hall of Fame and the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 1993. Muhammed Ali often mentioned how he was inspired by Johnson and identified with him as they both were ostracized by America during their careers.
NBA star Bill Russell played for the Boston Celtics from 1956 to 1969 winning eleven championships. He was named an NBA All-Star twelve times and became the first Black coach in a North American professional sport. He was the first Black NBA player to reach superstar status leading the way for the likes of Magic Johnson and Michael Jordan. Russell also actively participated in the Civil Rights Movement joining the 1963 March on Washington and supported Ali’s refusal to be drafted for the Vietnam War.
During childhood Russell witnessed racial abuse towards his parents which forced them into government housing projects. As a player the abuse continued. During the 1958 offseason, Russell was denied rooms by hotel owners in segregated North Carolina and in 1961 he was refused service at a Kentucky restaurant. Russell refused to play and flew home causing controversy.
In 2009, the NBA renamed the MVP award to recognise his impact on the game. Russel was also awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2011 for his accomplishments both on and off the court.
Both these athletes were pioneers and role models for the Black community. Throughout history the sporting world has done a lot for combatting racial prejudices, however there is still more to be done, but with an influx of role models leading the line the future looks bright.
Michael Galley: Hero of the Present
One particular role model would have to be Marcus Rashford, who has become notable recently for his work off the pitch more than on, which is particularly impressive given his 40 England caps and over 70 Premier League goals. Rashford’s work in combatting food poverty in the UK deserves his spotlight as a Black sporting hero, and indeed a British hero in general, during Exeposé sport’s Black History Month feature.
Rashford has a strong record of advocating for the support of underprivileged children. At the beginning of the lockdown in March, Rashford partnered with the charity FareShare to provide more than 3.7 million meals per week to those most in need. In June, when the government ended their food voucher system, Rashford wrote an open-letter urging them to reverse this decision which had left 1.3 million British schoolchildren at risk of going hungry.
The result of Rashford’s campaign was a complete government U-turn on the issue, instead setting up a £120 million ‘Covid Summer Food Fund’. Rashford’s’ letter reflected on his own family’s reliance on free school meals, food banks and soup kitchens, and challenged the government: ‘can we not all agree that no child should be going to bed hungry?’
Rashford’s work has highlighted the concerning levels of child food poverty in the UK; according to recent statistics an estimated 2.4 million Britons live in food insecure households. Food poverty in the UK is emblematic of the greater problem of systemic racism, with BAME households in the UK being twice as likely to live in poverty as white households. These same communities have been disproportionately affected by the coronavirus pandemic due to range of factors including social and economic inequalities, racism, discrimination and occupational risk.
In pioneering the campaign to extend free school meals, Rashford showed the importance and power of celebrities using their platform for good, and single-handedly dispelled the popular misconception of Premier League footballers as greedy and self-interested. The positive news coverage of Rashford’s efforts were a welcome-break from the frequent media bias against and negative representation of Black footballers in general, a predisposition that has previously been challenged by Rashford’s England colleague, Raheem Sterling.
Rashford is not done with holding the government to account. Since receiving his MBE, he continues his campaign to end child food poverty; starting a petition to expand access to free school meals, which has received almost 300,000 signatures in less than a week and has the backing of the Labour Party who have urged Downing Street to ensure children do not go hungry over school holidays.
Through his efforts to challenge social injustice in the UK, hold the government to account, and look out for the most vulnerable in our society, Rashford has united (excuse the pun) and earnt the respect of not just football fans but the nation as a whole, and shown himself to be someone that all children, not just football fanatics, should wish to emulate.