Sports have always had an enormous impact on American society and culture. People use sports at all levels, whether it’s youth, high school, college or professional, to help build an identity, connect with others and grow as individuals. Even though American is a diverse country made up of different races, nationalities and ethnicities, discrimination has been in issue throughout America’s history. Sports took on an even greater meaning for some minorities during the 20th Century, especially Europeans and blacks. They used sports as a means of vertical mobility in order to advance themselves socially in America.
The idea of social mobility was one concept that originally drew many immigrants to the country. Between 1880 and 1915, around 26 million immigrants moved to the United States, and about half came from several areas of Europe (Moore, 2011a). America offered the chance for people to better themselves and someone from any background could become successful and rise above their parents. During this time, Americans were already viewing sports as an important and democratic part of life, because it judged people on their talent and skill alone (Reiss, 1980).
Competition was an opportunity to prove and show off your “manliness” and power. Sports were also seen as a way to gain vertical mobility, and for Europeans, it was a way to become more accepted into the American culture. Although they received more respect than blacks, they mostly were not considered truly “American” (Moore, 2011a). Boxing was a popular sport among young immigrants. Boxing was a sport that proved “manliness” and toughness, and turning professional meant chances to earn prize money.
Most immigrants from Europe lived on the East Coast in cities that quickly became crowded and poor, and fighting was a functional skill to learn while living in the ghetto neighborhoods (Reiss, 1980). Boxing became a social ladder for ethnic groups since one group seemed to dominate until another group became better. Whoever were better boxers at the time were viewed as the tougher race. In the 1800’s and early 1900’s the Irish held most of the Heavyweight Championship titles, with boxers like John L. Sullivan, Jack Kilrain and Gene Tunney (Sowell, 1983).
In the 1920’s and 30’s Jews began to have success in the ring, with 1913 being the only year in since the start of the century that there was no Jewish champion. In the two decade span they held 18 titles (Moore, 2011a). These champions were important to the Jewish in proving their worth to the country and countering the discrimination that the Nazis in Germany were trying to spread. Boxing for European ethnic minorities served as a way to prove their race’s toughness, and prizefighting was a way to leave the poor ghettos and make a decent life for themselves.
Italians were slower than other groups in their involvement with sports. Between 1899 and 1924 about 4 million immigrated to the United States and settled in the crowded East Coast cities (Reiss, 1980). The Progressive movement was gaining popularity at the time, but because of their past in Italy, many Italians mistrusted governments telling them what to do and what their children should do (Moore, 2011a). However, 2nd generation Italian-American children were given opportunities to play sports through the creation of the Public School Athletic League.
In 1905 historian Camillo Cianfarra tracked the Italian youth development in sports and observed: “In our public elementary school competitions, our children are not inferior to the children of other nationalities, in the lists of gymnastic [track and field] winners the Italian names appear quite frequently as they appear in the rosters of teams involved in inter-high school competition” (Reiss, 1980). Baseball soon became a popular sport with the Italians, and they became very successful with the sport.
By the time of the Depression, Italians were becoming a majority in the Major Leagues (Moore, 2011a). Italians success in baseball gave them social mobility, but they were also still discriminated against. Some of the best players in the league in the 1930’s were Joe DiMaggio, Tony Lazzeri, Frank Crosetti and Ernie Lombardi (Baldassaro, 2005). Joe DiMaggio helped Italians gain more exposure and respect when he became the best player in the league and an American celebrity (Moore, 2011a). Blacks in the United States had similar involvement as the Europeans with ports and social mobility, although they faced much more discrimination and rejection than the other minorities. Blacks used sports as a main way to try and prove their equality to the rest of the country. They viewed successful black athletes as heroes and passionately supported them, and used them as a more subtle channel to showcase their fight against the discrimination and hate that they faced daily. Boxing featured several black champions and was a popular sport, just like it was with the European minorities.
One of the earliest black champions was Peter Jackson, an Australian who won the Heavyweight Championship over there in 1886. He traveled to America in 1988 to fight John L. Sullivan, who held the Heavyweight Title, but Sullivan refused to fight him because he was black. Besides that setback, he was considered one of the best boxers of the time, and blacks loved him because he was a respectable man and proved black equality with his victories. Frederick Douglass at the time said, “Peter is doing a great deal with his fist to solve the Negro question” (Moore, 2011b).
He was also respected within the white community because he never bragged or belittled an opponent (Moore, 2011b). People around the country of any race looked up to him as a role model. Although Peter Jackson helped gain some respect for blacks in white America, it wasn’t until Joe Louis that Americans found a black athlete that was embraced as an American hero. Louis was born in Alabama in 1914 as the son a sharecropper and great grandson of a slave. His family moved to Detroit in 1924 where he soon took up boxing.
After ten years of hard work he won the Golden Gloves as a light heavyweight and his career took off from there. One of his biggest victories was against former heavyweight champion Primo Carnera in front of a crowd of 62,000 at Yankee Stadium (Official Site, n. d. ). Louis’s symbol as an American hero though didn’t fully happen until he avenged his loss against German champion Max Schmeling with a first-round knockout in 1938, during the time of the Nazi’s dominance in Europe. It was this victory that caused the American people to see him not as just another black fighter, but as an American hero.
It helped to counter the impression of successful black athletes that Jack Johnson, the previous black heavyweight champion, had left, and in a way almost transcended his race (Schwartz, n. d. ). “What my father did was enable white America to think of him as an American, not as a black,” said his son, Joe Louis Jr. “By winning, he became America’s first black hero” (Schwartz, n. d. ). In the 1960’s, black athletes used the world’s biggest sporting stage to fight racism and show their protest against the discrimination that they were still facing.
In October 1967 the Olympic Project for Human Rights was established by sociologist Harry Edwards and others, mainly athletes. The goal of the organization was to protest segregation and racism in sport and society. A boycott of the 1968 Mexico City Olympics was suggested but never happened, yet several members still used the Games as an opportunity for the organization. Many on the US Track and Field team wore black socks as support of the black community, or badges of the OPHR (Henderson, n. d. ).
The most famous act of protest however was from sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos, who finished 1st and 3rd in the 200m final. On the medal podium, they each raised a fist while wearing a black glove. The act led to the International Olympic Committee president, Avery Brundage, suspending them from the rest of the competition and forcing them to leave (Moore, 1991). Although the protest had negative consequences for the sprinters, it was another key moment in sports that showed how the black community rallied around its athletes and used sports as a way to come together and fight for civil rights.
Sports and competition were important in minorities efforts to advance in 20th century America through vertical mobility, although the reasons were different for each race. Europeans struggled with adjusting to a new country and culture, and sports helped serve as a way to assimilate more with the American culture and be accepted. Because of the large numbers of immigrants in the late 1800‘s and early 1900‘s, most lived in poor, crowded urban areas. Being successful in sports meant a chance to become professional, leave behind poverty, and make a life for yourself.
It was essentially the “American Dream. ” Sports had a slightly different meaning for black Americans. The United States was still a country of discrimination and oppression, and black society used their successful athletes to empower and unite them. Through heroes like Joe Louis, they fought against the discrimination and tried to prove their equality to whites. Both minorities in the 20th century viewed sports as a key tool in their struggle for acceptance in American society.
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