Despite the rhetoric of conservative commentators who plead with players to “stick to sports,” or to “shut up and dribble,” the worlds of athletics and politics have never been separate spheres. Rather, they overlap and intersect in a variety of ways, and with Black History Month here, now is as good a time as any to highlight the stories of those athletes who have used their platform to fight for racial justice. Here are nine books that are either directly about the quest for black equality or the reflections of the athletes themselves as they look back on their experiences years later to share their stories and struggles with the world.
Strong Inside: Perry Wallace and the Collision of Race and Sports in the South by Andrew Maraniss
The story of Perry Wallace — the first black basketball player in SEC history — is not a well-known one. Thankfully, Andrew Maraniss was able to reclaim Wallace’s story, speaking with Perry several times over the course of many years, telling it anew in a thoughtful and tremendously well-researched way. Strong Inside is more than just a sports book or a biography of Wallace, but a piece of Civil Rights history as Marannis is able to use Wallace’s story to tell the tale of a university struggling to accommodate black students, a region on edge, and of people trying to overcome their prejudices without really knowing how. Unfortunately, it is a story that still has much to say to us today as we try to figure out how to create a more inclusive and welcoming society in spite of structural impediments and personal prejudices that often appear intractable. Strong Inside is both inspiring and sobering, but more than either of those, it’s necessary.
The Heritage: Black Athletes, A Divided America, and the Politics of Patriotism by Howard Bryant
In the Heritage, Howard Bryant does as convincing a job as anyone of showing the interconnection of politics and sports, showing how the events we watch are not value-free, but meant to inculcate a particular feeling of patriotism and fealty to America. If you’re wondering how sports became a home for empty acts of paid patriotism, and how black athletes have used their platforms to protest or avoid protesting, throughout the years, this is the book to read. Bryant succinctly and insightfully tells the story of the history of black athletes, and why their activism has risen again in recent years after decades of relative silence enabled by those who seemingly sought to transcend race such as O.J. Simpson, Tiger Woods, and Michael Jordan. For those trying to make sense of the recent rise of athletes like Colin Kaepernick and LeBron James, among others, speaking out against injustice, this is the book to read.
Long Shot: The Triumphs and Struggles of an NBA Freedom Fighter by Craig Hodges with Rory Fanning
Craig Hodges should have been on top of the world following the 1992 season. He was the three-time defending 3-point Shootout champion and had won two consecutive titles as a member of the Chicago Bulls, yet he soon found himself blackballed by the NBA for his political views. Long Shot, his recent autobiography, tells the story of his political development, his NBA career, and his subsequent exile from the league. It’s a captivating read, full of fascinating anecdotes, especially about his Bulls teammates. Long Shot is a book that recovers the story of an athletic freedom fighter whose strong voice and passion for justice shine through on every page.
They Cleared the Lane: The NBA’s Black Pioneers by Ron Thomas
While the name of Jackie Robinson is well known even by those who have never watched a baseball game in their lives, the black pioneers of the NBA have been largely forgotten. In They Cleared the Lane, Ron Thomas tells their stories, from those who were among the first black professional players long before the NBA’s formation to the black coaches who followed from John McLendon to Al Attles and K.C. Jones. Thomas makes sure to profile the superstars who helped propel the league to prominence in the 60’s such as Elgin Baylor, Bill Russell, and Oscar Robertson, but perhaps more valuable is his highlighting the stories of other forgotten pioneers from the NBA’s early years such as Nat “Sweetwater” Clifton, Earl Lloyd, and Chuck Cooper — the first black players to sign a contract, play in a game, and be drafted, respectively — along with Don Barksdale — the first black All-Star — and several others. They Cleared the Lane is a great way to learn the stories of a number of basketball pioneers, both the Hall of Famers and the unfairly unheralded.
Second Wind: The Memoirs of an Opinionated Man by Bill Russell and Taylor Branch
Bill Russell’s list of accolades is long — he completely revolutionized the way defense is played while winning 11 championships and 5 MVPs, among a boatload of other honors — but even more important is the role he played as a black athlete who became the first black superstar as well as the first black coach in NBA history. Unsurprisingly, his memoir, Second Wind, co-written with Pulitzer Prize-winning author Taylor Branch, is one of the most thoughtful and captivating books ever written by an athlete. Russell recounts the story of his upbringing in Louisiana and Oakland, and how his parents helped shape him, as well as his glory days with the Celtics, all with a clear-eyed focus and intelligence that sets this book apart from other athlete’s autobiographies. In fact, Second Wind is not merely one of the best memoirs ever written by an athlete, but one of the best I’ve ever read by anyone.
King of the World: Muhammad Ali and the Rise of an American Hero by David Remnick
Muhammad Ali is perhaps the most iconic athlete of the 20th century and unsurprisingly there are a ton of great books recounting his life and importance. My personal favorite is David Remnick’s King of the World, which focuses on his initial rise, the two fights against Sonny Liston, and how a young man from Louisville named Cassius Clay transformed into a firebrand named Muhammad Ali. While this book is admittedly focused on a short period of Ali’s life, and does not really deal with much that happened after 1965 in any depth, it nevertheless manages to set the stage for all that would soon follow while showing the reader how and why he became such a revolutionary figure in sports history.
A Well Paid Slave: Curt Flood’s Fight for Free Agency in Professional Sports by Brad Snyder
Every summer, NBA fans wait with eager anticipation to see how free agency will play out and where the league’s biggest stars will play next season. Yet every player who has ever had the ability to determine where they play for themselves lives in the debt of Curt Flood, who vehemently challenged the reserve clause — which bound players to their teams — five decades ago. Brad Snyder deftly tells Flood’s story, along with the story of his fight against Major League Baseball, which helped empower players in all sports as few actions before or since ever have. Flood’s story has been forgotten by many and Snyder does a great job of retelling it for a new generation who may not be aware of his crucial contributions.
We Matter: Athletes and Activism by Etan Thomas
In We Matter, former NBA player and poet Etan Thomas interviews a number of notable athletes, writers, and coaches in order to explore the world of athletes and activism. In these interviews, Thomas converses with them about price brutality, the importance of athlete activism, the value of education, the movement that Colin Kaepernick helped launch with his protests, and why speaking out is particularly important in the age of Donald Trump. Thomas also speaks with family members of Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, Terence Crutcher, and Philando Castle — four men unjustifiably killed due to their race — which is particularly moving. It is fascinating to read the thoughts of these figures that Thomas interviews and is a great primer on the intersection of sports and politics for beginners, while also containing much that will be revealing for those already well versed in these topics.
Tigerbelle: The Wyomia Tyus Story by Wyomia Tyus and Elizabeth Terzakis
Wyomia Thomas was the first person, male or female, to ever win back to back gold medals in the 100-meter dash at the Olympics, yet her story has been largely forgotten due to the passing of time and the lack of publicity the athletic achievements of black women tend to receive. In Tigerbelle, Tyus reclaims her story and shares it with a new generation who has much to learn from her struggles. She tells of her upbringing in Georgia, and how she was able to achieve so much in the world of track and field despite barriers that would seek to limit her due to her race and gender. Interspersed throughout are her thoughts on the progress that has been made since her time as an athlete, and what needs to be done now, with a special emphasis on the state of black women athletes. Tyus’ voice is engaging throughout, capturing the reader’s attention and never letting go as she tells her unfairly forgotten story of Olympic glory.