As a scholar of race and sports, I have been developing a conceptual framework or theory, which I call the “Sporting Middle Ground,” for nearly 10-years. I first introduced the idea in my 2011 master’s thesis: “Indianness and Expectation: Jim Thorpe and Billy Mills as Iconic Native American Athletes.” I later shared some progress in my thinking in a 2017 article I wrote for Public Seminar: “Agency, Order and Sport in the Age of Trump.” In simple terms, I posit that sports are a middle ground that provide partial acceptance, or conditional equality, to minority athletes. The Sporting Middle Ground is part of a constant renegotiation born out of late-nineteenth century notions of respectability tied to a white supremacist racial hierarchy endemic to Anglo-American culture that is baked into our social, political, and sporting institutions. It shapes access, agency, memory, economic standing, and many other areas within the lives of non-white athletes.
My thinking on this issue was initially inspired by Richard White’s, The Middle Ground, Philip Deloria’s exposition on discourse, ideology, and power as fundamental to expectation in his book Indians in Unexpected Places, as well as Antonio Gramsci’s framework of hegemony, where power (in this case white supremacy) is maintained through constant re-negotiation but disruption ultimately requires the development of a counter-hegemony to fully displace the formerly oppressive ideology.
Perhaps this is a simplistic theory, but it’s also extremely messy.
My critics often point to sports as a democratic space. A place of opportunity, and even acceptance. I am not so easily convince. To be sure, sports are democratic but even in democracy individuals are given limited power. It is only through coalition building, often tied to certain ideologies and distributed in popular discourses, that power is achieved, maintained, and social change brokered. Thus, in order for sports to function in a democratic way it must confront its ideological structure and the discourses that animate and preserve the power that is simultaneously consolidated in bureaucratic and economic leaders as well as diffused into mass culture. This power, which many freely ascribe to athletes, is only partially shared because it is bounded up in racial capitalism — a devastating intermixing of exploitative capitalist practices with the increasingly innovative bondages of white supremacy. In the sporting world, amateurism is an essential component of racial capitalism and a feature that has repeatedly denied fully equality by subverting democratic coalition building by informing a perverted version of respectability politics that revokes access through an opaque criminalization of behaviors otherwise normal outside the sporting world.
For me, the Sporting Middle Ground is an entry point and a framework. It forces us to interrogate the structures that permit access so that we can dig deeper into the cracks of hegemony. It helps expose contingent moments where conditional equality coupled with increased agency forces renegotiation. Nostalgia and produced memory fit for hegemonic discourses often glosses over these instances in order to support tidy narratives of progress that sustain the racial capitalism of sport. The Sporting Middle Ground persists, however, not as a wall permanently removed but as a flexible and amorphous bubble that expands and contracts. Indeed, entry points change, agency waxes and wanes, and full equality remains elusive. On one hand, the Sporting Middle Ground is profoundly pessimistic because it reveals the hypocrisy and irregularity of racism in America. Yet, on the other, it is a tool to lay bare the organic nature of hegemony. With conditional equality always in flux, charting the adaptations of the Sporting Middle Ground offers the possibility of constructing a counter-hegemony to overthrow the white supremacy and racial capitalism currently inseparable from our sporting institutions.
This concept remains a work in progress, and as a historian, my work is largely descriptive rather than proscriptive. My initial research on this subject, which I hope to share as a book someday, explores the agency and access of Native American athletes to the Sporting Middle Ground by exploring how federal Indian policy frames their lives. I interrogate multiple entry points, including boarding schools and military service, as well as the discourses and ideologies bound up in the Anglo-American expectations of indigenous sporting bodies. Subsequent study has made clear that these experiences cannot be adequately told without the context of African American athletes. As I wrote in 2017, it is increasingly difficult to understand the life of Jim Thorpe without considering his contemporary, Jack Johnson. Similarly, Billy Mills’ difficulties at the 1968 Olympic trials, which ultimately denied him a spot on the team, require a closer look at racial differences within the Sporting Middle Ground.
While I present this idea as my own, I must acknowledge that my thinking has been influenced by numerous colleagues and conversations. Originality doesn’t truly exist because we are products a constant collaborative struggle to understand and articulate the world. I’m deeply thankful for this and am heartened by my colleagues in sport studies doing similar work.