It is all connected. Trump’s racist law-and-order politics, his criticism of black athletes, his newfound pleasure in the pardon, and his desire to be loved. His recent pardon of early 20th-century boxer Jack Johnson, who had been convicted of violating the Mann Act, reveals a fraught and complicated history of race and sport that allows Trump to both honor and castigate black athletes for political gain. It shows how sports sometimes serve as an inclusive and democratic space, but one where equality is always conditional.

Turning Boys into Men

In the eyes of Trump and millions of other Americans, sports stardom requires adhering to a mythic code of behavior and decorum. Some might call this “playing the game the right way,” pointing to athletics as a character builder. Yet, “playing the right way” is a murky, superficial statement grounded in a complex history of race and class that few fans or popular commentators have an interest in critically exploring. Fans take these platitudes at face value because today the cultural politics are less overt than in the past. They see that sports build character, and appreciate how they make those unlike them admirable by teasing out qualities — such as unselfishness, dedication, and work ethic — that they respect.

These expectations stem from the efforts of Muscular Christians in the late-nineteenth century to reform sports into a palatable middle-class activity. Reformers argued that sport civilized dirty, rowdy, and crude boys by imposing an organizational structure that turned them into hard working, cooperative, and selfless athletes. These reformers proved so effective in investing sport with moral purpose that the phrase “turned boys into men” became a common coaching cliché. Not all boys, however: exclusionary policies like amateurism, which forbid athletes from earning money for their athletic endeavors, kept race and class divisions largely intact.

“Kill the Indian, Save the Man”

Not that minorities were exempt from the transformative power of athletics as uplift. At institutions like the Carlisle Indian Industrial School, reformers sought to test the utility of sport on civilizing native and African-American populations. Building on his experience incarcerating Native American prisoners, Richard Henry Pratt founded the school in 1879 specifically to Americanize Native Americans. He used the motto “kill the Indian and save the man” to illustrate how discipline in general, and sports in particular (especially football), were central to his assimilationist efforts.

Carlisle married sports with a law-and-order philosophy that focused on disciplining the body to correct perceived cultural and behavioral issues attendant to the United States’ so-called “Indian problem.” Athletics served as an important tool in America’s ethnic cleansing of indigenous peoples. The goal of “killing the Indian” established an important racial dichotomy that grounded middle-class whiteness, exhibited by the leading Muscular Christians of the day, as the default and preferred behavior in American culture. Through physical training and sport, Pratt’s Carlisle athletic programs, led by Glenn “Pop” Warner, who served as athletic director and coach — and later became the namesake of organized youth football — provided a pathway to partial acceptance by broader, white society.

I theorized this space as “the sporting middle ground” in my 2011 master’s thesis: where, despite unequal power dynamics, Native Americans could challenge racial hierarchies and cultural expectations. The pathways and qualifications to enter into this middle ground changed throughout the twentieth-century. For Native Americans, early entrance into the sporting middle ground required a devastating ethnic cleansing at one of the many off-reservation boarding schools developed by Pratt and the Bureau of Indian Affairs during the late-nineteenth- and early-twentieth-centuries.

For African Americans the journey was more complex and the experiences were less formal and overtly coercive. Louis Moore’s recent book I Fight for A Living (2017) sheds light on how black fighters sought to move beyond the humiliation of the “battle royal” — a competition where a group of blindfolded black boys and men fought against each other until only one remained standing — and exploitation of white managers and promoters to use sport as a means of economic survival, and an arena to assert their independence. Equality remained a far off dream and white journalists, Progressive Era reformers, and promoters found ways to continue exploiting and diminishing the manhood of black boxers. They had few allies in their quest to enter the sporting middle ground.

As Trump might paraphrase Pratt a century later, sports serve as a place to kill the ungrateful thug and save the man.

Conditional Acceptance

While Trump’s posthumous pardon of Jack Johnson reveals that athletes may eventually be accepted, the career of Jim Thorpe shows that no matter how much acculturation one endures, equality is seldom achieved during their lifetime. During this period, Native Americans claimed a higher position in the racial hierarchy and were given a pathway towards acceptance not offered to African Americans. Thorpe and Johnson offer instructive examples of how sports offer only conditional acceptance and utilize law-and-order politics to police the sporting middle ground.

Thorpe, who has been lauded as the “Greatest Athlete of the First Half of the Twentieth-Century,” captured glory by winning the decathlon and pentathlon at the 1912 Olympic Games, and then leading his Carlisle Indian School football team to a historic victory over West Point. The latter achievement made him an indigenous hero; some journalists saw a group of Native Americans besting a powerful Army team as a re-match of the Indian Wars only a few decades past. While the victory was not seen as an overt challenge to white supremacy, its symbolic power brought increased scrutiny to Thorpe from those uncomfortable with what such a destabilization of existing power relations might suggest about the future.

That scrutiny seriously damaged his career. After a revelation that Thorpe played minor league baseball, the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) and the International Olympic Committee (IOC) stripped Thorpe of his medals. The Amateur Code forbade athletes with any professional experience from competing in the Olympics and disqualified him from a number of athletic opportunities and lucrative college coaching positions. Uncertainty on how to treat Thorpe because the accusations came after the allotted 30-day protest period following the Olympics, led to the AAU and IOC to create a new apparatus to hear complaints and interpret rules. Although historian Allen Guttmann suggests that their decision had little to do with racial animosity and reflected the Olympics longstanding concern with class, it exhibited the conditionality of sport’s acceptance and its eagerness to expel those who violate its principles and challenge its hierarchies. Professional baseball, which was not his best sport, became Thorpe’s best chance to earning a living.

The AAU and IOC’s rejection of Thorpe sent a clear message about the status of racial minorities in the sporting establishment and their ability to achieve equality. Not until 30 years after his death, were Thorpe’s medals returned. It required the death of Avery Brundage, who lost to Thorpe in 1912 and fiercely enforced the amateur code during his twenty-year tenure as IOC president, and personal appeals from Thorpe’s daughter. The gesture stopped short of fully reinstating his athletic legacy, and the IOC now lists him as “co-champion” for the 1912 pentathlon and decathlon. Like Trump’s pardon of Johnson, the posthumous mea culpa did nothing for Thorpe personally but helped the IOC, AAU, and others feel better about correcting a past injustice.

The assault on Jack Johnson, which resulted in his conviction for violating in the Mann Act in 1913, was much more deliberate and racially motivated. Johnson challenged the color line and the United States’ racial status quo in ways that Thorpe did not. Still, Johnson used sport to climb the social ladder, assert his independence, and demand respect. He quickly progressed from a youth participating in Battle Royal to one of the top black boxers. By 1903 he had captured the World Colored Heavyweight Championship and set his eyes on the World Heavyweight Title.

Johnson eventually wrested the title from Tommy Burns in 1908, but he was never able to win the respect of white America. Incensed by his audacity to live as a free man and eschew the social customs of American apartheid, white America sought to restore its racial hierarchy. Sportswriters and boxing fans challenged the legitimacy of his title, and came after him in the ring with a series of Great White Hopes, most notably former champion Jim Jeffries. When this did not work, they turned to the rule of law. As Randy Roberts explains, “In Congress America had found an authentic White Hope, one powerful enough to defeat Johnson.”

Like the takedown of Jim Thorpe, white journalists, lawmakers, and sports promoters worked together to neutralize the threat of Jack Johnson by creating a new set of rules. The first new law prohibited the transportation of fight films — recordings matches that are played in a theater for those not present to watch it — across state boundaries effectively limiting Johnson’s exposure, and rescuing white boxing fans from the humiliation of seeing a black man pummel a white fighter. This did not go far enough, however, and government officials began plotting ways to further discredit the champion. Investigators followed Johnson, hoping to find some illicit activity for which they could make charges stick. Much to their dismay, they had little luck.

The 1910 Mann Act, however, which outlawed the interstate transportation of women for immoral purposes, gave the government pretense to charge Johnson. Although he frequently traveled with prostitutes and other female companions, his relationships were consensual and the law targeted organized operations not individual liaisons. In fact, U.S. Attorney General George Wickersham was initially reluctant to prosecute him. For Johnson, however, he made an exception.

That Johnson did not violate the Mann Act did not matter because in the eyes of the government he was guilty of violating the everyday sensibilities of white America. He openly traveled with and dated white women. He dressed in flashy suits and drove fast cars, flaunting his wealth. Johnson refused to acquiesce to the racial politics or adhere to the moral standards of the Progressive Era. His trial became the ultimate expression of the racism embedded within law-and-order politics and the culture wars. After his conviction, Johnson tried to preserve his freedom by escaping; first to Europe then Mexico. In 1915, he lost the title to Jess Willard in Cuba, but the return of the heavyweight championship to a white man was not enough to grant him clemency. He served 366 days in federal prison upon his return to the U.S. in 1920 and then was denied a boxing license after his release. Relegated to sideshow acts, Johnson’s boxing career was over. It reminded African Americans of their second-class position in American society and signaled just how far the legal system would go to enforce behavioral and cultural politics, even on an athletic hero.


One hundred years after Thorpe and Johnson, the attitudes and politics that brought them down remain embedded in sport. For years, Johnson’s fate served as a cautionary tale to other black athletes. In the 1930s and 1940s, heavyweight champion Joe Louis consciously crafted his public image to avoid comparisons with Johnson. As black athletes began to find their political voices during the 1960s and 1970s, college coaches seized control by eliminating the “laundry money” stipends and ending guaranteed four-year scholarships, as well as targeting the politically active. “The intent … is to put an end to financial assistance to students who protest,” the New York Times explained. Like Thorpe and Johnson, outspoken black athletes required new systems of laws to ensure that they did not disrupt the established order.

From the NCAA to the NFL and even the NBA, control remains a central concern. Pratt’s notion of “kill the _____ and save the man” remains prevalent, too. In 2016, Rolling Stone explored the legacy of the NBA dress code. “Called racist by players a decade ago, basketball’s fashion restrictions have helped evolve players’ style,” the magazine explained.While this was undoubtedly true, it was only because the dress code forced players to find ways to express themselves that were suitable to white fans and advertisers. The dress code sought to “kill the thug, and save the man” by forcing him to change clothes. It serves as a reminder of the conditional acceptance of minorities in America. The NBA players changing fashion is not a credit to the code but rather evidence of the athletes’ ability to find a sense of agency within a racist system.

Agency and Order in the Age of Trump

Like players in the NBA, NFL players have tried to find their own sense of agency within the hyper-masculine and overtly patriotic world of football. Kneeling during the national anthem gave them a chance to quietly push back against the jingoistic celebration of a country that treats them like second-class citizens and whose law enforcement officers routinely murder young black men, all while profiting from their athletic labors.

Trump has used these protests to launch an assault on their character, calling players like Colin Kaepernick “a son of a bitch” that should be fired and other black athletes “very ungrateful.” His assault on their character has allowed him and other fans to sidestep race as an issue and point to athletes who protest as culturally un-American for incorrectly performing patriotism. In this way, Trump and the NFL are attempting to enforce a racially-informed behavior code to put athletes in their place. Indeed, like the NBA’s dress code, the NFL’s new anthem policy attacks the expression of predominantly black players in hopes of appeasing the president, white fans, and advertisers. The pressure to placate these demands stems from a society still wrestling with the legacies of its racial order.

For that reason, in June, a handful of NFL players responded to Trump’s attempt to smooth things over by pardoning Johnson. In an op-ed in the New York Times, they reminded the president that, “a handful of pardons will not address the sort of systemic injustice” that they have been protesting. They also asserted their right to protest and called out the president for his willingness to listen to them only because of their fame. The NFL players made clear that they will not be appeased by token pardons, and that they demand more than conditional acceptance from the athletic organizations that employ them and that have power to shape attitudes at large:

Our being professional athletes has nothing to do with our commitment to fighting injustice. We are citizens who embrace the values of empathy, integrity and justice, and we will fight for what we believe is right. We weren’t elected to do this. We do it because we love this country, our communities and the people in them. This is our America, our right.

As twenty-first century athletes continue to fight for self-expression, equality, and redress, the world of sports remains slow to change. Like Trump, big-time college and professional sports continue to sustain a culture that denies athletes agency and expression, rearticulates racism as colorblind and grounded in free-market ideologies, and pursues token actions of appeasement. Like the president, coaches and owners also embrace a form of law-and-order politics that demand a “my way or the highway” version of conformity. From Jim Thorpe and Jack Johnson to the NBA dress code and Colin Kaepernick, sports remain bound up with deeply political processes of acculturation and control.

Law and order frames sport at the highest level and informs the cultural and racial politics of our neighborhood streets. Sports demands that players and support staff — particularly women and those of color — know their place. It is a system where people are rewarded for fitting in, for not rocking the boat, for performance — and being quiet is a part of that performance. The same clichés apply to off-the-field behavior when talking about police shootings, sexual assault, and rape — f only they acted correctly, dressed correctly, showed the officer respect. These expectations reveal how agency is constantly renegotiated and equality remains conditional — on and off the field. As longtime New York Times sportswriter Robert Lipsyte wrote in his introduction to C.L.R. James’ Beyond a Boundary (1984) , “Sport is no sanctuary from the real world because sport is part of the real world, and the liberation and the oppression are inextricably bound.”

Andrew McGregor is a Visiting Assistant Professor of History at Texas A&M University–Texarkana. He Tweets at @admcgregor85