Sports as National Identity 

Athletics are a defining component of our culture and a unique aspect of our national identity. NSM examines sports' ability to mirror society and the core values of the American people. 

by Adam Slocum, Kristin Latimer, Eli Goldstein

February 7th, 2023


Athletics are a defining component of our culture and a unique aspect of our national identity. In fact, our love of sports has become a representation of our American way of life. As columnist Thomas Boswell noted, “In and of itself, sports may be trivial, but as a symbol of the American way of life, it has enormous weight. We are seen, worldwide, as an enormously competitive, enthusiastic people who work as hard as we play and play as hard as we work.”

The values of sportsmanship, hard work, and perseverance are all key elements of the American psyche. All these attributes are instilled in us, often through sports, from an early age. Not only are we fans of sport; we admire elite athletes even more because we have played sports ourselves and know what is required to excel. National sports organizations such as the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) and professional leagues such as the National Football League (NFL) and National Basketball Association (NBA) have become symbols of our country’s vitality and pursuit of excellence. We follow the trajectory of young athletes through college and into the pros, seeing if their potential will be realized.


Sports also have the capability to build a sense of unity and national pride. They provide landmarks for our nation’s culture and history. Jackie Robinson breaking the MLB color barrier in 1947 was a precursor to the civil rights movement. The twenty-eight-year-old infielder, upon signing his initial contract, would become the first Black athlete in the 20th century to participate in a Major League Baseball game; his professional debut effectively marking an essential turning point in altering the racial landscape of the United States for decades to come.

During the 1940’s, a large portion of the country at-large was still operating as a segregated society, but Baseball seemed especially impenetrable to people of color. As Robinson arrived on the scene, there was still a sentiment around the sport that aimed to maintain its “traditional” (i.e., segregated) status. Despite the league’s continued unwillingness to adapt its stance, in addition to the perpetual harassment he’d have to endure for the entirety of his career, Jackie Robinson and the progressive Dodgers’ owner/general manager, Branch Rickey, were up to the challenge. Of course, Jackie meant a great deal to the Black community—his nationwide acclaim and appreciation, among Blacks and Whites alike, served as an unprecedented aspiration for all of them, emphasizing the desire and need for diversity and a fundamental change in the values reflected in American mass media and throughout society at the time.

"Sports for us has been much, much more than just running and jumping, it has been a means of expressing what couldn't be expressed…In fact, the element that links Black athletes through time is the legacy of hope." 

William Rhoden

Jackie Robinson represents the fundamental concept of equal opportunity across the entire world of sports, serving even more broadly as a standard-bearer for all types of social reform in pursuit of equality. His legacy, on and off the field, is very much alive and can be celebrated at the Jackie Robinson Foundation & Museum.

Getty Images / Forbes


As a result, Jackie Robinson sparked a transformation across the landscape of American sports, which led to integration and eventual acceptance of Black athletes in the post-World War II era. Following Jackie’s intrepid lead, players began to migrate to the Major Leagues beginning with Larry Doby only a few months later, making the American League integrated as well. Integration led both established stars like Roy Campanella and Satchel Paige as well as young prospects like Hank Aaron and Willie Mays to take their talent to the Majors. While Black players continued receiving racially motivated abuse for years to come, the pioneers of integration had to endure the worst of it. Their sacrifices for progress and their resilience in gradually reshaping the American mindset toward race should never be overlooked.

Following integration of Major League Baseball, other high-profile sports organizations found they were faced with a decision to do the same. The remaining sports leagues all had racist policies that prevented Black players from having equal rights to play at the highest levels of their game. These policies were also being perpetuated at the collegiate level, as the NCAA, NIT and NAIB were no different in their adherence to these views. However, at the insistence of a young coach, then known as Johnny Wooden, and bolstered by the support of the NAACP, the NAIB (now the NAIA) was first to overturn its policy and allow African Americans to compete, starting with its 1948 postseason tournament.


In fact, Wooden had turned down the invitation to play in the postseason the previous year to protest the ban, which would have left his one Black player, Clarence Walker, at home. In his autobiography, Wooden explained his decision by empathetically asking, “How do you do something like that to a young man?” The following year, Indiana State, with its fast-paced, “racehorse” style of play, enjoyed another great run, finishing the regular season with a record of 27-7. With the ban now overturned to allow his team to join the tournament, Wooden accepted the invitation to the postseason.

Indiana State would lose to Louisville in the finals, (incidentally the only championship game ever lost by a Wooden-coached team); however, of much greater historical importance than the outcome of the tournament, Walker became the first African American to play in a postseason college basketball game. Two years later, the higher-profile NIT and NCAA tournaments followed the NAIB’s example and integrated their postseason play as well.


Integration did not stop with college basketball as it would soon make its way into the professional ranks. In 1950, Chuck Cooper was selected by Red Auerbach’s Boston Celtics, the first Black player ever drafted into the NBA. That same year, the Washington Capitols also drafted Earl Lloyd, and on Halloween night, he became the first Black player to take the court, scoring six points and officially breaking the NBA’s color barrier.


Over the next two decades, the NBA would introduce many more talented Black players, with several of them quickly becoming the league’s greatest stars. Back in the college ranks, the racist ideology, which had continued to linger, was slowly being dismantled. In 1961, Loyola University (Chicago) broke a long-standing gentlemen's agreement not to play more than three Black players at once. By the 1962-63 season, Loyola was consistently starting four Black players and became the first college team with an all-Black starting five. In the 1963 NCAA tournament, Loyola changed the game forever by starting four Black players, capping off their championship run with a 60-58 overtime win against heavily favored Cincinnati. Not only did Loyola start four Black players but Cincinnati also started three, resulting in 7 of the 10 starters being African American.


On December 26, 1964, Red Auerbach once again made NBA history by inserting Willie Naulls into his starting lineup in place of injured Tommy Heinsohn, completing the league’s first all-Black starting five. In 1966, three years after Loyola’s championship win, the NCAA completed its evolution toward meritocracy and racial equality as Texas Western College (now the University of Texas at El Paso) won the national championship while starting five Black players. Later that same year, Red Auerbach would step down from coaching the Boston Celtics and name Bill Russell as his successor, making Russell the NBA’s first Black head coach.

Frequently touted as “The Greatest Winner of All-Time”, Bill Russell’s career was defined by his singular athletic ability as well as his dignity on and off the court. As the leader of his college basketball team, University of San Francisco was the first team with three Black starters to win an NCAA championship in 1955. The following year, they won the NCAA championship again, this time with an undefeated record of 29-0, the first perfect NCAA men’s basketball season.

Russell went on to win a record eleven (11) NBA championships with the Boston Celtics, solidifying his place as one of the best to ever play basketball. Apart from his accomplishments on the court, Russell’s legacy extends far beyond the realm of basketball; he acted as a guiding force for Black Americans in sport as the first Black NBA head coach, and further demonstrated his devotion to social justice reform through his influence in the civil rights movement and as an active member of the NAACP.


Russell led his team on the court the same way he lived his life off it, guiding his teammates with respect and consideration; outside of basketball, he similarly fought for the rights and dignity of all people, especially his fellow Black Americans.


Like many Black athletes of his generation – Wilt, Kareem, Elgin, Oscar – he was idolized as a player, and treated as a second-class citizen as a man. Bill Russell was undeniably a key figure in the civil rights era of the 1960s, and according to writer Bill Simmons, he “meant just as much [to the civil rights movement] as any celebrity, other than maybe Muhammad Ali.” Russell was burdened, demoralized, and overwhelmingly angered by the incessant hate he received during his time in Boston, but he acknowledged the stakes of his situation and further recognized that even one irrational outburst could shatter several years’ worth of societal progress. Instead, Russell conducted himself with dignified passion, not hate, and was able to regulate his emotions and effectively redirect his resentments into winning and furthering his broader social causes.

Sports Illustrated / Neil Leifer


Willie O’Ree was just a boy when he met Jackie Robinson for the first time. His baseball team had just won their local championship, so they went on a trip to New York, including attending a Brooklyn Dodgers game at Ebbets Field. Young Willie had the chance to meet Robinson. 

O’Ree made sure to inform Robinson of his hockey accomplishments as well as his baseball success. Robinson said, “So there are black kids playing hockey?” to which O’Ree gave a proud “oh yes there are."

Willie O’Ree would end up being referred to as the “Jackie Robinson of hockey”. Growing up in New Brunswick, Canada, almost everyone around O’Ree was white, although he has often said that he experienced little to no racism in his upbringing. “The people who have problems with racism are the grownups.”


O’Ree made his NHL debut on January 18, 1958, at the Montreal Forum where his Boston Bruins beat the Canadiens 3-0. At the time, O’Ree breaking the NHL color barrier did not have as much societal significance as Jackie Robinson's debut over a decade prior. “When I stepped out on the ice, I was Willie O’Ree with a Boston Bruins jersey on,” O’Ree said. “The fans were just saying ‘Here’s this black kid, he’s up now with the Bruins.’” It was not until a few years later when O’Ree was once again called up to the NHL that the media began calling him the Jackie Robinson of hockey.


Although O’Ree was not a long tenured NHL player, he had a professional hockey career that lasted two decades and his impact on the game continues to be felt today. Ever since O’Ree broke the color barrier in 1958, the NHL has made a concerted effort to become more diverse, creating dozens of programs (with O’Ree’s guidance) that help make hockey more accessible to people of color. He was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 2018 and his number 22 was retired by the Bruins in 2022.


His impact, and the impact of other players of color who succeeded him on the ice, ultimately led to the unveiling of the League-wide Declaration of Principles in 2017.  Pat LaFontaine, Hall of Fame center and NHL Vice President of Hockey Development and Community Affairs, spearheaded the effort to codify a set of guiding principles to make the game of hockey accessible to everyone and create the best possible experience for the entire hockey community. 17 worldwide hockey organizations have joined this coalition, including USA Hockey, NHLPA, NCAA, National Women’s Hockey League (NWHL), and the International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF).


In a similar quest for equality, women also have benefited from sports as a forum for advancing gender issues. Billie Jean King’s decisive victory over Bobby Riggs in the 1973 “Battle of the Sexes“ provided fuel for the women’s liberation movement and additional validation for the recent passage of Title IX. Billie Jean’s legacy, on and off the court, and the importance of the 37 words contained in the 1972 Title IX legislation are being safeguarded by the organization Billie Jean presciently founded in 1974, the Women’s Sports Foundation.


1973 was a watershed year for women’s tennis. That June, in the name of gender equality, Billie Jean King had founded the WTA, combining all of women’s professional tennis under one umbrella. By the beginning of the 70’s, the disparity in prize money was only getting worse. The catalyst for the WTA’s precursor, the Virginia Slims Tour, was the 12:1 ratio of prize money for the male and female winners of the Pacific Northwest tour.

The equality movement in tennis quickly met a challenge—former #1-ranked men’s player, Bobby Riggs, challenged Billie Jean King to a match, saying that “women's tennis is so far beneath men's tennis, that's what makes the contest with a 55-year-old man the greatest contest of all time.” Billie Jean King turned down Riggs’ initial request, so he instead defeated Margaret Court (6-2, 6-1) in what was dubbed the “Mother’s Day Massacre.” Court’s loss convinced King of the need to play Riggs to redeem women’s tennis, despite her worry that if she lost it would be a tremendous setback.

The “Battle of the Sexes” was staged as a spectacle from the start with a $100,000 winner-take-all-purse. When King entered the Astrodome on September 20, 1973, she was on a throne carried aloft by shirtless men while Riggs was pulled into the stadium by a group of models. After falling behind in the first set, King came back to win in straight sets (6-4, 6-3, 6-3). With the future of women’s tennis, and even the feminist movement, on the line, King triumphed in front of 30,472 fans (the largest crowd to ever watch a tennis match in the US to this day) and 90 million people watching on TV worldwide. King described the feeling of winning as “relief” because she knew that if she had lost, she would have set her cause back 50 years. Her victory was a crucial inflection point in the new age of Title IX: she proved that women athletes were skilled and worthy of attention and sparked the ascendance of women’s tennis. More broadly, the “Battle of the Sexes” can be viewed as the tipping point that launched a new era in women’s sports.


King’s mantle was passed to another female tennis star 25 years later. Venus Williams said she “never planned on being an activist,” yet she began advocating for equal prize money for women’s tennis players at a very young age. In 1998, when she was barely 18 and had just won her opening round match at Wimbledon, she remarked to reporters, “I think in the Grand Slam events, it should be equal pay, and I think the ladies should do something about it instead of just accepting it for years to come.” With many of her peers on tour unwilling to discuss the issue, Venus would soon take the fight into her own hands.

In 2003, she urged new WTA president Larry Scott to seriously push for equal pay, and as a result she was subsequently asked to take the lead on this issue. The day before a final, most athletes would be spending their time preparing for their championship match. However, in 2005, Venus spent the day addressing the executives from the Grand Slam Board to garner support for equal prize purses at Wimbledon; the following day, she maneuvered around the lawn at the famed All England Club, defeating Lindsay Davenport to win her third Wimbledon title.


She only succeeded in raising the women’s prize money incrementally, but a meeting with French Open officials that same year led to the adoption of equal prizes for male and female winners at Roland Garros in 2006. As such, the French Open joined the US Open (1973) and Australian Open (2001) in pay parity, leaving Wimbledon as the only Grand Slam to not offer equal prizes. Venus took her battle to the public arena the next year when she published an op-ed in the London Times. Her message was clear: “I intend to keep doing everything I can until Billie Jean's original dream of equality is made real. It's a shame that the name of the greatest tournament in tennis, an event that should be a positive symbol for the sport, is tarnished.”


Her public evisceration proved much more effective than the WTA’s behind-the-scenes lobbying. The article set off statements by members of the British government, culminating with Prime Minister Tony Blair coming out in support of equal pay on the floor of Parliament. In 2007, a few months before that year’s tournament was set to begin, Williams received a call that made her let out an involuntary scream—Wimbledon would now be offering equal prize money. All four of the Grand Slam tournaments were now equal. Three months later, Venus would put an exclamation mark on her successful campaign for equality when she lifted the trophy at Centre Court (her fourth title in eight years), now knowing that the $1.4 million she was bringing home as the women’s singles champion was exactly the same as her male counterpart, Roger Federer.


In subsequent years, sports have continued to be an important arena in the fight for women’s rights, including better benefits and compensation for the US Women’s Hockey and Soccer teams, including equal pay for Ms. Rapinoe and her USWNT teammates. However, sports’ impact can be appreciated and measured not only by the improvements in financial incentives for top athletes. At any level, participation in sports can help empower women and girls, by not only providing physical health benefits but also helping build confidence and self-esteem. By participating in sports, women and girls can challenge gender roles and stereotypes and participate in activities that had traditionally been limited to men. The media has become more attuned to covering successful female athletes, which has contributed to inspiring future generations of female athletes as well.

Clearly, American society and sports, particularly when they intersect regarding issues of social change, have a strong and enduring relationship. Aspects of the two have been intertwined as far back as the mid-1800s. On the surface, sports provide an outlet for entertainment and healthy competition, but even more profoundly, they are often seen as a mirror of American society and culture, reflecting the values and beliefs of the American people. 


National Sports Museum focuses on the mission of advancing social justice, empowering diversity, equity, and inclusion, inspiring personal excellence, and uniting us as a nation. NSM is collaborating with leading charitable sports organizations, such as Laureus Sport for Good, the Harlem Junior Tennis & Education Program, and the Lindsey Vonn Foundation, all of which champion issues of equality and inclusion with the ultimate goal of inspiring personal excellence regardless of race, class, gender, or disability.


With a total of nine leading non-profit co-founders, NSM will be a central gathering place and welcoming environment for the American and global sports community to come together to address a multitude of social and cultural issues, all centered around sports as a unifying force.

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