100 Years of Racism, Sexism and Social Divide in America Illustrated Through Sport

There have been decisive and awakening moments in my life that have brought me to my passion of sport and social entrepreneurship.   But for now, times call not for the narrow reminiscing of my own past, but for a broad look at our own, collective, American history.

We are nearing a threshold in our march onward; and it warrants reflection and introspection by every American lest we step foolishly into that dark past.  Instead we should reconcile with our American past by allowing our history to guide our future.

Not yet 100 years ago, in a landscape very reminiscent of our own….

1936 | Jesse Owens ‘Supreme’ in front of Hitler and Aryan Germany

The Olympic Stadium in Berlin, Germany in 1936 was rife with Aryan symbolism and the stadium hailed the politically polarizing Adolf Hitler. 

American sprinter Jesse Owens, in an interview later in life, reported he knew little of the gravity of the situation in Germany as communications at the time were limited.  All he knew was that he set a goal for himself and he set out to accomplish it.  Training “not more than 50 minutes a day,” Owens would bring home four golds – in the 100m, 200m, 4 x100m  and the long jump.  He became highly popular with germans and his outstanding performance in the games made many question the ideals of ‘Aryans’ as supreme.

(Also competing in the 1936 Olympics is Mack Robinson, Jackie Robinson’s older brother.)

1947 | Jackie Robinson is the first African American to play in MLB

After the 1936 Olympics, Hitler’s antisemitic and anti-black political agenda began to rapidly escalate, culminating in WWII. In 1942 Robinson was drafted and served in the US Army.  Eligible to petition for Officer Candidate School, Robinson, with the help of protests from Joe Louis (heavyweight champion) and Truman Gibson (civilian lawyer in charge of investigating claims of harassment against black soldiers) was accepted and became Second Lieutenant.

One day after boarding a military bus, Second Lieutenant Jackie Robinson, nearly 10 years before Rosa Parks, refused to sit at the back of the bus.  He was later honorably discharged from the military over the issue.

After the military, Robinson played in the Negro Leagues and later in the minor leagues. But in 1947, Jackie Robinson was signed to the Dodgers and became the first player since 1880 to break the color barrier in Major League Baseball.    Although he endured much criticism and hateful racial remarks, Robinson never retaliated and instead devoted himself to becoming the best ball player he could be, ultimately leading the Dodgers (along with 3x MVP Roy Campanella, also drafted from the Negro League) to defeat the NY Yankees in 1955.  Robinson’s even-tempered disposition, along with his athleticism opened the door for men of color in MLB and forever changed the game.

1966 | Muhammad Ali 

Two years after winning the heavyweight title, the US draft for Vietnam was enacted.  Ali refused draft orders citing religious beliefs and opposition to American involvement in the war.  He was arrested on draft evasion charges and stripped of his boxing titles.  He was systematically denied a boxing license in every state and stripped of his passport. As a result, he did not fight from March 1967 to October 1970.

1967 | Katherine Switzer

The first woman to complete a marathon.  When she entered the race, she thought nothing of it – she wanted to run, she liked running and so she entered the Boston Marathon. She entered using her initials and her entry card was accepted.  It would not be until mile 2 that race director Will Cloney and race official Jock Semple noticed a woman running.  The officials attempt to grab Switzer and forcibly remove her from the race was met by swift blows from her boyfriend and Syracuse teammates who prevented the officials from grabbing her.  It was shortly thereafter that Switzer realized the gravity of what she was doing.  She knew she had to finish to open the door for women in distance events.

Because of Katherine Switzer, today thousands of women compete in marathons each year.  As of 2013, women represent 43 percent of marathon finishers in the U.S., according to Running USA. Prior to 1980, women comprised less than 10 percent of U.S. marathon runners.


1968 | Tommie Smith and John Carlos Win Gold, Silver, Raise Fist in Solidarity of Civil Rights at ‘68 Olympics.

As members of the Olympic Project for Human Rights, and amidst the civil rights movement in the U.S. Smith and Carlos originally advocated for a boycott of the ’68 Mexico City Olympic Games, contingent on four stipulations: 1) South Africa and Rhodesia be banned from the games, 2) Muhammad Ali’s world heavyweight boxing title be re-instated, 3)To remove the president of the IOC, and 4) to take action toward the hiring of more African-American assistant coaches.

As the boycott failed to achieve support, even after the IOC withdrew South Africa and Rhodesia, Smith and Carlos, “decided to use our athleticism to be a voice for people who were voiceless.”

Smith would go on to win the 200m finals, the first person to break 20s in the 200m running 19.83s.  Carlos took 2nd behind smith in the 200m.  During the awards ceremony, Smith and Carlos approached the stand barefoot, shoes in hand, to represent the poverty african americans faced in the US.  After being medaled, Smith and Carlos raised their gloved fists in support of the civil rights movement at home in America.

In an immediate response to their actions, Smith and Carlos were suspended from the U.S. team and faced consequences for challenging authority in the U.S. Their actions had damaging consequences for their careers;  following their suspension by the U.S. Olympic Committee, both faced economic hardship. Later, Smith would reiterate,

“We were concerned about the lack of black assistant coaches. About how Muhammad Ali got stripped of his title. About the lack of access to good housing and our kids not being able to attend the top colleges.”


1972 | Billie Jean King Defeats Bobby Riggs in ‘Battle of the Sexes’

Riggs had been one of the world’s top tennis players in the 1940s and even into retirement (1951) continued to promote his career and tennis. Throughout his career he came to the belief that the female tennis game was inferior and that even at 55 years of age he could beat any of the top women’s tennis players. 

Billie Jean King defeated Bobby Riggs in what was dubbed the ‘battle of the sexes’, later stating,  “I thought it would set [women] back 50 years if I didn’t win that match.” King was one of the Original 9, a group of young women who went up against the United States Tennis Association in 1970, forming their own tour of eight professional tournaments, sponsored by Virginia Slims, the tobacco company. Doing so  paved the way for the establishment of the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) tour, established in 1973.  The same year, the U.S. Open offered equal prize money to both men and women for the first time.

 Today, the Women’s Tennis Association hosts more than 2,500 players representing ninety-two countries. 

2014 | Michael Sam, First Openly Gay NFL Player

After completing his college football career, Sam publicly announced he was gay. He became the first publicly gay player to be drafted in the NFL.  Sam made his professional debut in the first preseason game against the Saints.  In 4 pre-season games, Sam recorded 11 tackles and 3 sacks, including a team-leading 6 tackles in the final game. “I believe he can play in this league,” Rams coach Jeff Fisher said. However, the Rams ultimately released Sam as part of a final round of cuts.

The Rams, who kept nine defensive linemen, chose to retain undrafted rookie Ethan Westbrooks over Sam, despite similar  statistics.  

2016 | Collin Kaepernick Kneels In Remembrance of Victims of Police Brutality.

Kaepernick entered the 2016 season competing for starting quarterback position, however in week 6 it was announced that Kaepernick would start, marking his first start of the season. Later that season Kaepernick would join Michael Vick, Cam Newton, Randall Cunningham, and Marcus Mariota as the only quarterbacks in NFL history to record at least three passing touchdowns and 100 yards rushing in a game.

Kaepernick’s action to take a knee during the playing of the national anthem in show of solitude for the victims of police brutality and ongoing injustice of the legal system had polarizing effects on the nation.

Kaepernick and the #blacklivesmatter movement were both highly criticized for their efforts in social justice.  This was starkly  contrasted with a growing roar from the white peanut gallery over whether racism still exists, the current relevance of reparations, and a ‘get over it’ attitude….

Side Note: I made this video 1 year ago in 2016 amidst the Kaepernick controversy. It it’s even more relevant today.

Still think racism doesn’t exist??

If it wasn’t apparent in 2016, it absolutely is now.

For nearly 100 years minorities, women, and the LGBTQ have been fighting for equality, for justice, and for the right to live freely in a free society.

“Be grateful, things are better now.”  That’s what they said just one year ago …



2017 | #Charlottesville 

No. Words. Needed.


Kate, MS, CSCS

BECAUSE THE WINS ARE EARNED, NOT GIVEN. #ENGPERFORMANCE Since 2008, Engard Athletics has provided quality, evidence-based training to hundreds of clients and athletes in the Valley. Now, utilizing advanced training techniques and challenging the fitness industry, I’m providing this elite level experience to you online. Our training programs include movement prep, periodized strength training, recovery therapy, performance nutrition plans and motivational strategies that optimize performance outcomes.

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