The Long History of the Intersection of Sports and Civil Rights

C.R. Roberts
C.R. Roberts
Shut up and dribble. It’s a sentiment that’s been hurled by some sports fans, conservatives, and news reporters who don’t believe athletes or celebrities should speak publicly about politics.

They often ignore the fact that the President was once himself a celebrity and continues to live a similar lifestyle.

It would be interesting to ask any of the people who say politics don’t belong in sports, what side would they have been on in the C.R. Roberts story?

The Legendary C.R. Roberts

C.R. Roberts was a young, black athlete playing football for the University of Southern California Trojans in the 1950s.

On September 2, 1956, C.R. Roberts and his USC teammates would change civil rights history as we know it.

The USC Trojans were set to play the University of Texas Longhorns in Austin. What made this game so monumental was that it would be the first time a black player competed against a white player at Texas, where such competition was long forbidden.

the coach insisted that the team stay together

When the Trojans arrived in Austin to check into their hotel, the team was told that Roberts couldn’t stay in the hotel because black people weren’t allowed there.

We spoke with C.R. Roberts. He said “the coach insisted that the team stay together, and we eventually stayed at a hotel when USC threatened to not play the game at all.”

While the team received death threats and racial slurs were hurled at Roberts when he got on the field, he says the only thing on his mind was winning. And that they did. Roberts led the Trojans to a 44–20 victory over University of Texas in that 1956 game.

Roberts went on to get his degree in business administration from what is now the Marshall School of Business. Following that, he played professionally for the the Toronto Argonauts and the San Francisco 49ers. Today, the 82 year old Roberts lives in Los Angeles, CA with his family.

Race, Politics, and Sports Today

While the C. R. Roberts story is legendary, looking at the landscape of race in America today, one must wonder if much has changed?

Athletes like Colin Kaepernick and Lebron James have been vocal about the injustices happening to Black people all over the country.

Similar to Roberts, they’ve been called racial slurs by fans on and off the field. They’ve been called unintelligent and told to be quiet by certain news reporters and correspondents, and James even had his home vandalized with a racial slur.

While some would say politics doesn’t belong in sports, Roberts said, “Politics is in everything. It’s [athletes] right to speak on it.”

More Voices to Make Them Listen

It is important that black athletes continue to speak on racial injustice and politics.

Keep fighting. Don’t ever stop

Their voice is so important to the Black community because they reach so many people. While leagues like the NFL are mostly white-owned, 70% of the players are Black. Essentially, that makes sports a “Black” platform that White people can’t turn away from.

With the NFL preseason starting, more athletes are joining in and staying strong to the protest. More athletes need to take Roberts advice: “Keep fighting. Don’t ever stop.”

Be sure to catch the Special Screening of Breaking Down Barriers: The C.R. Roberts Story at the Capital City Black Film Festival, which starts this Thursday. The documentary explores the beginning of the Civil Rights movement through the viewpoint of the Roberts legacy. Passes are on sale now.


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