When Black athletes choose Black schools: Commentary on activism in sports

Why We Wrote This

Audiences can’t get enough of athletes on the field and the court but they are often sidelined when it comes to public discourse. Columnist Ken Makin explores the role of conscience and activism in sports, from Muhammad Ali to Sharone Wright Jr.

Michael Shroyer/USA Today
Wake Forest Demon Deacons guard Sharone Wright Jr. (No. 2) drives to the basket in a game against the Virginia Tech Hokies in Blacksburg, Virginia, Jan. 19, 2019. Mr. Wright has decided that he would rather play for an HBCU and announced this month that he will transfer to Morgan State University.

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From Jackie Robinson to Colin Kaepernick, a proud history lies at the intersection of athletics and activism. It is also precarious.

Muhammad Ali’s refusal to serve in the Vietnam War cost him $10,000 in fines and three years of his boxing prime. Nevertheless that legacy of activism carries on today – both in action and interpretation. Recently, a few young men have either committed to attend historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) or transferred from predominantly white institutions.

Sharone Wright Jr. is a child of basketball promise. His father played professional basketball for a decade. Yet in the face of social unrest and upheaval, Mr. Wright found that he had to make a decision for himself. His decision to transfer from Wake Forest University to Morgan State University carries great sociopolitical promise for Black people.

For Mr. Wright, there’s a lot at stake – not just to raise his profile, but to demand respect for mostly Black colleges. He hopes that by playing for Morgan State he can help to change the minds of “people who think just because we’re an HBCU, that we don’t deserve the same privileges and things as other major schools.”

The intersection of athletics and activism contains a powerful history – one that stretches through the present summer. The names at that intersection are iconic – Jackie Robinson. Curt Flood. Colin Kaepernick. The stories of that history are proud, yet they are also precarious. 

A number of Black athletes organized in Cleveland, Ohio, in the summer of 1967 for a conference known now as the Ali Summit. A picture of the event shows famous Black athletes such as Bill Russell, Jim Brown, and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar surrounding Muhammad Ali in solidarity for Ali’s conscientious objection and refusal to serve in the Vietnam War. Nearly three weeks after the summit, Ali was convicted of draft evasion, which came with a five-year prison sentence. He was also banned from boxing for three years and fined $10,000. The U.S. Supreme Court overturned his conviction in 1971, and he served no prison time; nevertheless, he was stripped of his boxing prime.

The next October, John Carlos and Tommie Smith raised their black-gloved fists on the medal stand at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City. Early that year, Mr. Carlos met Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in a meeting to discuss a possible Olympic boycott. While the boycott didn’t happen, King impressed upon Mr. Carlos the power of a nonviolent protest. That imperative only grew when King was assassinated in April of that same year.

“I wanted to do something so powerful that it would reach the ends of the earth, and yet still be nonviolent,” Mr. Carlos said in an oral history for the Library of Congress. 

That legacy of activism carries on today – both in action and interpretation. Recently, a few young men have either committed to attend historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) or transferred from predominantly white institutions. Their decisions have been heralded as game changers in a world where the feats – and labor – of Black players are often underappreciated and undervalued. Long before those decisions can profoundly affect the world, they have the power to change the individual.

It’s a decision that must be made for one’s self.

Sharone Wright Jr. is a child of basketball promise. His father, Sharone Sr., was selected sixth overall in the 1994 NBA draft by the Philadelphia 76ers and played professional basketball in the NBA and abroad for a decade. Sharone Jr.’s prep career yielded a commitment to play basketball at Wake Forest University, which competes in the same Atlantic Coast Conference as his father’s alma mater, Clemson University.

Yet in the face of social unrest and upheaval, Sharone Jr. found that he had to make a decision for himself, as described in a Twitter post from July 3 titled “for myself”:

Before i made this decision, i wanted to thank God for blessing me with the ability to play the game of basketball. I am forever grateful that I’ve gotten to experience the many great things basketball has given me. I’ve been thinking on this for some time now and with everything that is going on in the world today, it has been a difficult time for many people but mainly US as African Americans. It’s saddening to me to know the world with always be this way towards US whether if we play a sport or not. It doesn’t matter. MY decision was for myself and what i thought was best for me. With all of that being said, after thought and much prayer with my family (handshake emoji) i’ve chosen to further my education and basketball career at Morgan State University (bear emoji) (two exclamation points emoji)

Mr. Wright’s decision to transfer, in conjunction with five-star prospect Makur Maker’s commitment to Howard University, carries great sociopolitical promise for Black people. There are people who envision a collective transfer from traditionally white schools to Black schools as a form of empowerment and a social awakening. While there are a number of factors to consider, including the matter of paying college athletes, it’s clear that young Black athletes are at least considering the prospect of attending HBCUs. 

In an exclusive interview, Mr. Wright specifies what he meant when he said it’s been a difficult time for many people, but mainly Black people:

“When I said that it’s been a hard time for Black people, i meant everything as far as how we are treated in the world,” Mr. Wright writes in a text message exchange.

While he acknowledged the effect of the pandemic in this country and worldwide, he expressed that Black people have also dealt with the perpetual issue of “social injustice.” ”It’s one of the things we have been faced with our entire lives,” he says.

Ironically enough, sports played a huge role in the initial shutdown. When Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert tested positive for the coronavirus on March 11, it sent shock waves through the sporting world and led to a host of cancellations and postponements. Months later, athletes, like the rest of us, are still in limbo.

“With everything going on, it’s been hard for athletes to maintain our shape. The gyms have been closed. This summer, I’ve been running and trying to get back in the game shape that I was in prior to the virus [outbreak],” Mr. Wright says. “It’s worrying me because people around the world aren’t listening and following [guidelines]. So, it’s frustrating for us as athletes because we may not have a season or fans to watch us play. Mentally, I’m just trying to think about the positives and never the negatives.” 

For Mr. Wright, there’s a lot at stake – not just to raise his profile, but to demand respect for mostly Black colleges.

“My relationship with my coaches and their desire to win is what brought me here to Morgan State. I know we all have the same goal in mind,” Mr. Wright says. “That goal is to make it to the national tournament and be able to showcase our talents to the world for people who think just because we’re an HBCU, that we don’t deserve the same privileges and things as other major schools.” 

Tony Avelar/AP/File
John Carlos (left) and Tommie Smith pose for a photo in front of the statue that honors their iconic, black-gloved protest at the 1968 Olympic Games, on the campus of San Jose State University in San Jose, California, Oct. 17, 2018.
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