Race and Sports: Muhammad Ali and Lewis Hamilton

“Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee.” This was the motto of one of the greatest boxers in history – Muhammad Ali. This also happened to be the unofficial title of a documentary film I recently watched (actually titled Muhammad Ali: The Greatest). This film goes through the majority of Ali’s career, starting with his championship fight vs Sonny Liston and  culminating with Ali knocking out George Foreman in Zaire. As I am currently taking a Sports Communications class, this film is an excellent opportunity to explore the topic of race in sports.

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One of the first scenes in the movie featured all of Ali’s biggest supporters (managers and financial supporters) introducing themselves, and they all happened to be white males. What is interesting about this, is that it reflects a phenomenon that is still fairly prevalent in today’s sporting world: that most administrative, managerial, executive, and ownership positions are held by white males. In the movie, Ali’s supporters claimed they were only looking out for his best interests and weren’t looking to make money off of him. However, in 1964 when Ali had to call off his rematch fight with Sonny Liston due to a hernia, Ali’s supporters complained about the millions of dollars they had lost due to the cancellation of the fight. Of course boxing is a big money making business, but if Ali’s supporters were really in it for his best interests they would be more concerned with his health and image after calling off the fight.

After watching the movie, I did some reflecting about other successful and prominent black athletes in sport. One of the first athletes that came to mind is Formula 1  driver Lewis Hamilton. Hamilton came from a relatively poor family in England, and his family had no ties to racing. His white teammate Nico Rosberg, on the other hand, had a much different upbringing. Rosberg is the son of a Formula 1 champion who grew up in Monaco, one of the wealthiest cities in the world. In this comparison Hamilton had much more difficult barriers to overcome in this sport. Researchers Louis Harrison Jr, C. Keith Harrison & Leonard N. Moore wrote in their research article Sports, Education and Society that often it is the barriers to entry, like one’s socio-economic status (SES), that are the deciding factor in which sports you choose to participate in.

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Formula 1 is not a cheap sport. Most drivers start kart racing when they are very young and then slowly move up to open single-seater racing. It was only through sponsorships that Hamilton was able to make the jump up from karting. What is interesting in Hamilton’s case is that he is currently dominating a sport that is predominantly white, despite his SES barrier when he was a child. Rosberg’s family, on the other hand, were wealthy and could afford to fund his karting career when he was younger. Not to mention, Nico’s father had connections in the racing industry, and so there wasn’t much of a barrier to entry into racing. Had Hamilton opted to chose a different sport that was much easier to participate in, we probably would have missed out on the best Formula 1 driver of this era, and Hamilton would never have been a 3-time World Champion.

There are many different aspect that we can cover when studying race and sport. Wether it’s race and hierarchal structures in sports, socio-economic status and entry into sport, or race participation rates in different sports, there are a lot of different reasons for why things are the way they are today in the sports world, regardless of if they are right or wrong. What is important is that we continue to discuss these issues and reflection upon them in a respectful manner in order to have a better understanding of race and sport, and to hopefully improve upon the systems of today. But how do we go about getting everyone to discuss a topic that many people are uncomfortable with? How do we apply what we learn to level the playing field for minorities? What role can you play in all of this?

 

 

The 12th Man – Game Day With The Northern Guard

There is no doubt that soccer fans (or football fans as many of you may call it) are some of the most passionate and dedicated sports fans on the planet. They eat, breathe, sleep soccer. Dedicated soccer fans that attend games are often referred to as the “12th man”, as there are eleven field players and the fans are designated as the 12th player for helping their team be successful by creating an exhilarating atmosphere that pushes them towards victory. One group of ultra fans that best represent the “12th man” is the Northern Guard Supporters (NGS) who support Detroit City FC (DCFC). Their unrelenting spirit for their team is shown on a daily basis; however, their pride and passion is most visible on game day.

The Northern Guard

The Northern Guard during a match vs Lansing United. Photo by @TheDukeNGS.

The Northern Guard follow a very similar routine for every home game. The day starts off at Harry’s Bar in Detroit where the supporter group gathers to get ready for the match, and maybe drink a couple of cold ones. After a couple of hours, they all gather in the parking lot and get ready for the march down to the stadium, which is a tradition that many ultra fan groups participate in. The march consists of chanting, singing, waiving giant flags, carrying banners, and lighting off smoke bombs, all while walking through neighborhood streets. This is where the excitement and  build-up to the game starts getting heated.

When the Northern Guard arrives at Cass Technical High School’s stadium, or Estadio Casstecha as it has been dubbed by the group, the march stops and NGS gathers outside the away team’s locker room behind the main bleachers. At this point they start chanting “Can you hear (team name) sing? We don’t hear a f••king thing.” Besides being a great tactic to unsettle the opposing team, this also gets DCFC fans excited for the game. Considering that the Northern Guard is behind the main bleachers during all of this, you can’t actually see them; all you hear is their loud thundering voices. If you happen to be sitting at the top of the main bleachers and you look back over the edge, you will gaze upon a sea of rouge, gold and black.

The atmosphere that the Northern Guard create during the match is one that can only be rivaled by supporter groups in Europe. This group sits in the smaller bleachers, opposite of the main bleachers, and hang their banners, hailing messages to their warriors, over the railings. Throughout the entire match you can hear the rapid beating of drums and NGS leaders screaming orders to chant and sing into a megaphone. There are certain minutes during each match where the Northern Guard will sign the same song, like singing the “Detroit Alouette” in the 60th minute, and they are often joined by other fans who have learned the song just from hearing it at the games. Finally, no match would be complete without the traditional lighting off of smoke bombs. The Northern Guard usually will light off smoke bombs right after Detroit City scores a goal, or to motivate the players to give it their all, often engulfing the edge of the field in a thick white cloud.

So why do all this? For the love of the sport and the deep running passion for your team. The reason the Northern Guard have the same game day routine for every home match is because each added step and each added element adds excitement before the match and during the match. Many supporter groups believe that the atmosphere they create helps their team perform and carries them to victory. The Northern Guard is just one example of a soccer supporter group that embody what true and passionate soccer fans are all about. To conclude and capture the emotion that these kinds of soccer fans live with, I leave you with a quote I have seen time and time again:

“It’s not just a kit, it’s our skin. It’s not just a stadium, it’s our home. They are not just eleven, we are millions. It’s not just for 90 minutes, it’s a lifetime. It’s not       just passion, it’s an emotion. It’s not just an audience, it’s our family. Football is not just a game, it’s our life.”