“I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.”
“I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood….”
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., August 28, 1963
What is social justice? What is its relationship to sports? How do they intersect with the law? Starting with the first question, the term is defined by the John Lewis Institute for Social Justice as: “Social justice is a communal effort dedicated to creating and sustaining a fair and equal society in which each person and all groups are valued and affirmed. It encompasses efforts to end systemic violence and racism and all systems that devalue the dignity and humanity of any person.” While the focus here is on race, social justice can be applied more broadly to include, among other things, gender, ethnicity, religion and sexual orientation.
This article will describe how social justice and sports overlap. But a valid question remains—how does all of this relate to the law? First, social justice inherently relates to fundamental rights of athletes—including the constitutional rights to free speech and to vote. Perhaps the most recent, bold expression of social justice issues in sports litigation is Brian Flores’s lawsuit alleging rampant discrimination in National Football League (NFL) hiring, but many other legal issues come into play. For example, Major League Baseball (MLB) abruptly relocating its All-Star Game in 2021 in response to controversial Georgia legislation making voting more difficult impacted a web of contractual relationships among parties supporting that event. Potentially the most transformative change ever in college athletics is the advent of athletes’ ability to monetize their name, image, and likeness (NIL). This was enabled by a seminal case before the US Supreme Court in 2021 involving antitrust law, NCAA v. Alston. What’s the connection with social justice there? The perception of many and particularly people of color has been the multi-billion-dollar business of major college athletics is a plantation-like model. The belief was the system is leveraged on the backs of unpaid labor, largely that of Black students, who generate funding for less lucrative sports with mostly White participants. And, as reflected in the O’Bannon v. NCAA case, NILs constitute intellectual property.
Over the past half century, the US Supreme Court on other occasions has spoken on subjects relating to or impacting issues of social justice including its decisions in Tinker v. Des Moines Inde. Cmty. Sch. Dist. (First Amendment does not prevent schools from student speech restrictions) and Flood v. Kuhn (rejecting a player challenge to the MLB reserve clause, which prevented freedom of movement). Further, many social justice issues can be interwoven with collective bargaining agreements (CBAs), league/team rules and other labor-related legal issues that arise in the sports world.
The intersection of social justice with sports has been prominent in the U.S. for over a century. As the two began to overlap, it took time but eventually legal challenges emerged. The MLB “color barrier” was first imposed in 1887. At the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin, capital of Hitler’s Nazi Germany, several Jewish US athletes opted out in protest. Meanwhile, Black athlete Jesse Owens decided to defy Hitler’s vision of an Aryan nation by competing—quite successfully. After World War II, systematic US racism remained. Yet in 1947, finally a Black baseball player, Jackie Robinson, was promoted to MLB. Robinson’s courage and resilience are the subject of books and films but often overlooked is his civil rights commitment, including his organizing of marches with Dr. King. After all, even after his groundbreaking career was over Black people in many parts of this country continued to be denied basic rights under the Constitution including the right to vote.
In the 1960s, active Black athletes began to speak and engage in acts of protest. Muhammad Ali took center stage, and at the peak of his career became a conscientious objector after being drafted. Ultimately the US Supreme Court overturned Ali’s conviction for draft evasion, but he lost his title and economic livelihood for years. Other courageous Black athletes supported him, including Bill Russell, Lew Alcindor (now Kareem Abdul-Jabbar) and Jim Brown. More events spotlighting social justice in sports arose later in the decade. On the international stage, Americans Tommie Smith and John Carlo protested during the Olympics medal ceremony in 1968 in Mexico City, despite the consequences they would face from the International Olympic Committee (IOC). And yet another prominent professional athlete would bring a challenge all the way to the highest court in the land: MLB player Curt Flood challenged MLB on antitrust grounds, likening the reserve clause in baseball contracts to “being a slave 100 years ago.” Ali and then Flood were legal trailblazers—challenging the US Government and an entire sport in court.