Sport and Social Change

In America the North was covertly racist, but the South was overtly racist and segregated. George Wallace, then governor of Alabama in the '60's, made the statement, "Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever." In 1970 Sam "Bam" Cunningham of the USC football team raced past defenders of Alabama's famed Crimson Tide. Coach Paul "Bear" Bryant of Alabama congratulated Cunningham after the game. It has been said that Cunningham may have done more to integrate Alabama in 60 minutes than Martin Luther King Jr. did in 20 years.

The place that sport holds in social change was solidified on the gridiron that day.

Enter the University of Missouri 45 years later. What started with a hunger strike by a graduate student quickly escalated. The call went out for the resignation of the university president for his failure to properly address the racism that existed on campus. But it was not until the football team, including the coach, stood united, insisting they would neither practice nor play until the president resigned that the real social change took place. The president resigned and the chancellor stepped down. THAT is the power for social change that sport holds. When used correctly, the lessons learned on the field, court and all arenas of sport can transcend boundaries. Some may resent the power that sport holds even shunning it as a bunch of dumb jocks, but the reality is that sport has the power to change societies. Organizations such as Right To Play have used sport to teach children many lessons and to help form leaders with good moral and ethical ideals.

There are some athletes who claim they should not be viewed as role models, but the reality is they really are role models and have the responsibility to act appropriately. When athletes do things that are reprehensible, they must realize that there will be many who view the athletes' actions as a license to do the same thing. On the positive side when athletes set the standard for behavior high, others will follow.

Doing the right thing towards reducing racism and stereotypes not only means reducing the overt behaviors that people see but also eliminating the microaggressions that sometimes neither the person saying something nor the person on receiving end are aware. Telling a minority football player that, "Wow! You are really articulate" has the subtle assumption that just because he is a football player and a minority, he would somehow not be articulate. The subconscious effects of microaggressions are often worse than outward behaviors because they are covert and so often invisible to all parties, yet their effects are cumulative and lead to prejudice.

Discrimination of any kind is blight on all societies. Sport holds the unique position of being able to cross all boundaries and deliver a message. The University of Missouri football team delivered a strong and reverberating message that was heard loudly and clearly. It brought about a step in social change, albeit a small one. There is still much work to be done. Athletes alone cannot make all the changes, but the collective voice of sport is much more powerful than anyone previously believed. Just ask the former president of the University of Missouri.

© Copyright Yellen & Associates, Inc. 2015 All rights reserved

Dr. Yellen is a parent, former educator, and clinical & sports psychologist in private practice. He has appeared nationally television as well as giving commentary on local television and radio stations. He is the author of The Art of Perfect Parenting and Other Absurd Ideas, coauthor of Understanding the Learning Disabled Athlete and Social Facilitation in Action, and most recently the author of Love Shopping List, a partner to the Love Shopping List app. He can be reached at (818) 360-3078 or by e-mail at

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