Lamb, Chris, ed. From Jack Johnson to LeBron James: Sports, Media, and the Color Line. Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 2016. 648 pp. $35.00 paperback.
Reviewed by Kate Aguilar
On January 7, 2016, ESPN radio host Dan Le Batard interviewed hip hop artist, author, and public speaker Chuck D, former leader of the rap group Public Enemy, about a Samsung commercial starring LeBron James. The commercial, which aired on ABC on Christmas Day, showcases James, Samsung Galaxy, and citizens of Cleveland hard at work. James and everyday employees pound the pavement while lip syncing the lyrics of “Welcome to the Terrordome” by Public Enemy. Le Batard admits to being surprised at the song choice and the choice of James for the ad, which he calls “the Blackest ad in the history of mainstream media”. James ends the commercial, in fact, pounding his chest while mouthing the lyrics “Black to the bone.” Le Batard then asks Chuck D, “… were you surprised that a mainstream corporation on Christmas Day decided to run Chuck D’s ‘Welcome to the Terrordome’ lyrics, that’s not something I ever could have imagined.” To which Chuck D responds, “Well [Samsung is] not mainstream American, or a United States of America corporation, so that helps because we have probably the biggest brand – hip hop – in the world.” He then reminds Le Batard that Mike Tyson entered the ring to the song during his career, to which Le Batard quips that Tyson, unlike James, was not in bed with corporate (read: White) media.
It is not hard to imagine Chris Lamb, a professor of Journalism and editor of From Jack Johnson to LeBron James: Sports, Media, and the Color Line, and his counterparts intrigued by this topic of conversation. Whether or not they would agree with Le Batard’s assessment of the commercial takes a backseat to Le Batard’s desire as a radio host and sportswriter to understand the relationship between race and sport in and through the mainstream media, which is the focus of this collection. This work similarly looks at the interplay of sport, media, and, as Lamb phrases it, “the campaign for racial equality in U.S. society,” especially through the lens of journalism history (p. 5). Each chapter explores a specific sporting moment and what the racial makeup of the press and their use of race reveal about the media as “agents of history,” who not only record but have the power to shape national understandings of race and sport (p. 20).
Lamb organizes the book chronologically “to demonstrate how evolving racial attitudes in sports reflected – and often foreshadowed – evolving racial attitudes in the rest of U.S. society” (p. 5-6). He argues that these journalistic accounts are worthy of evaluation because “some of the most publicized stories in the campaign for racial equality in the twentieth century happened in sports…” (p. 5). The book begins with one of the most well-known stories and sports of the early twentieth century, White America’s “seven-year struggle to repudiate” Black boxer Jack Johnson, whose career Phillip J. Hutchinson argues “represents a topically rich and revealing episode in journalism history, one that informs several lines of scholarship that address the form and social impact of the American press at the turn of the twentieth century” (p. 19-20). Two of the other twenty-one chapters explore the convergence of race and media in and for the sport of professional boxing, with historian Dominic J. Capeci Jr. and sociologist Martha Wilkerson looking at popular perceptions of Joe Louis, and professor of American Multicultural Studies Michael Ezra exploring the White press’s response to Black economic power/empowerment through their treatment of Muhammad Ali’s promotional company Main Bout, Inc.
In addition to boxing, the work also includes essays on White and Black sportswriters’ impact on professional and college football. In chapter four, for example, historian Thomas G. Smith explores the role of the press, among other historical forces, in upholding the exclusion of Black athletes from or working for the desegregation of the NFL. Professor of Culture and Communication Ronald Bishop’s chapter, more specifically, looks at the efforts of three Black sportswriters who remained committed to covering NFL player Kenny Washington and thus played a role in helping him break the color line in 1946. In part because of their advocacy, Washington would end an unwritten thirteen-year-ban on Black players in the sport (p. 171). Washington did so the same year Jackie Robinson desegregated Major League Baseball.
Not surprisingly, the collection also includes chapters on race and Major League Baseball, including how the press responded to the reintegration of baseball through Robinson. Historian William Simons’ chapter analyzes how White sportswriters’ contextualized racism as a regional problem, thereby using this sporting moment, whether purposely or obtusely, to obscure a national color line (p. 225-226). Finally, the collection contains essays on Olympic track star Jesse Owens, the 1968 Olympic protest by Tommie Smith and John Carlos, the media outing of tennis great Arthur Ashe, and the marketing of Michael Jordan, along with analysis of a five-part series on the Black athlete in Sports Illustrated (1968) and the role, more recently, of online postings on ESPN.com in framing media conversations on race and sport (p. 561-562). The book ends with an attempt to understand LeBron James’ 2010 announcement to leave the Cleveland Cavaliers for the Miami Heat in the “age of Obama” (p. 585).
From Jack Johnson to LeBron James is significant because it recognizes the relationship between sport and popular culture, which sport historians have long been asking the rest of the discipline to “take seriously,” and pushes the boundaries of academic scholarship in showcasing why race and sport should also be important topics for students of American journalism. It does not simply do so through one athlete, one sport, or one time period, but covers race and sport throughout the twentieth century. As a result, this work must also be applauded for the breadth it seeks to cover. Through these sporting moments and figures, each chapter provides new insight into how White and Black American sportswriters shaped national conversations on race.
The title of the book makes evident the breadth of the project. The title also foreshadows significant weaknesses. It is noteworthy, for example, in a book that seeks to cover so much sporting history that no chapter focuses on the Black female sporting experience, a glaring absence considering the media attention given to the race of tennis superstar Serena Williams, among others. Furthermore, in an effort to include many different scholarly perspectives on race, sport, and the media, the work also, at times, sacrifices depth. Several of the articles provide only cursory glimpses into Black history, a curiosity in a book that employs W. E. B. Du Bois’ language of “the color line” in the title. Its use calls for a careful treatment of Black culture, along with the work’s focus on American sport and journalism history, in order to understand how the press plays into, perpetuates, and yet still has the opportunity to move beyond traditional Black archetypes. One chapter, for instance, reduces Du Bois’ response to racism as “aggressive,” while yet another proclaims that, with the exception of coaching and the front office, “discrimination in professional football has virtually disappeared” (p. 56; 117). While other chapters partly counter such claims, the project as a whole may have benefited from an interdisciplinary approach to each subject matter – perhaps the bringing together of professors from history, African American Studies, and journalism to co-author each chapter — in order to more fully illuminate the interchange of culture, sport, and history for each sporting moment.
The final chapter of the collection, in this way, is one of the most exciting because Jamal L. Ratchford, an “interdisciplinary scholar” of African American Studies, history, and sport, delves more deeply into the complex racial makeup of the press – moving beyond the traditional monikers of White and Black press employed by many in the collection – to show how many columnists, reporters, and copy editors were actually White in mainstream media in 2011. He draws from an ESPN Town Hall on “racial discrepancies in media” (p. 591-592). This chapter looks at not only what White and Black sportswriters are saying, a valuable approach in its own right, but also at the broader systemic issues of race and leadership in media and sport that make the LeBron James’ Decision so intriguing. This chapter explores the racial and historical dynamics at play that make this announcement – the foregrounding of the interests of the athlete over the White owner and/or team through the media – revolutionary.
The call to go deeper, of course, should not distract from what this book does so well: encourage the study of American media as a part of national and historical conversations on race and sport. Each chapter reveals and reinforces the role of the press as “agents of history,” reminding sport historians to pay careful attention to their subjects and those who “create, attribute, or sustain” their personas in and for the popular culture (p. 20; 53). In doing so, sport historians can better appreciate not only how LeBron James and Mike Tyson are a part of and yet break from a sporting and historical trajectory, but also how sportswriter Dan Le Batard himself perhaps moves within and yet challenges our historical understanding of a “color line.” The end result for the future of sport history, like James’ role in the Samsung commercial, has the potential to be more than we ever could have imagined.
Kate Aguilar is a Ph.D. candidate in History at the University of Connecticut where she studies racial formation, gender, sport, and political culture in the post-1945 U.S. Taking as a lens the University of Miami’s football team, the Hurricanes, her dissertation analyzes the central place of the sport and the city to the 1980s development of the New Right; a focus that makes evident the significance of the Global South and the diverse racial, national, and transnational histories of South Florida and the Caribbean to Ronald Reagan’s particular brand of conservatism and the masculine national identity it fostered. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.