Race Issues and Sports

Race Issues and Sports

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Louis Sockalexis (Penobscot)


Charles A. "Chief" Bender (Chippewa) on a 1911 baseball card

Courtesy Library of Congress

Half a decade before Jackie Robinson stepped onto a Major League field, Louis Sockalexis (Penobscot) and a few other Native Americans played for Major League teams and endured racism and harassment from fans, the media, and opposing players.  Author, Native American (Lumbec), and former professional baseball player Joseph B. Oxendine, Ph.D. stated that

“the entry of Indians into Major League Baseball initiated the race/sport issue.   Despite performing with distinction while being recognized and treated as minorities, Indian players have received scant recognition.”

In the first half of the 20th century, Native American players were accosted with racial slurs bestowed on Indians at that time, and those Indians with darker skin tones were subjected to racial slurs used against African Americans as well.  Because of this, many American Indian professional baseball players downplayed their Native identity in order to avoid this abuse.  Often times Native American players, such as Charles A. “Chief” Bender (Chippewa), cut their careers short because of the emotional anguish they had to endure due to constant harassment.  

While racist comments and harassment of black players subsided somewhat around the time of the Civil Rights movement, stereotypes of Indians were viewed as neither mean nor negative by the general public.  By the later-20th century, the general public’s attitude toward Native Americans as individuals began to change, but as a group, team mascots, logos, and names depicted a negative representation of Native Americans as either silly or warlike, or as people who were both foreign and somehow removed from our present day society.  

In recent decades, many colleges and public schools have become aware of the impact of stereotyping and have taken measures to correct it.