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?