The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

National Archives helps reveal the great myth of American sports

The National Archives Museum has opened its first sports exhibit. (Larry French/Getty Images for National Archives Foundation)

“Why should a man who is trying to do what his audience expects him to do and pays for be the target of vile abuse, all on account of his color of skin?

“Doesn’t the … instinct of man have assent itself? Draw away the veil of civilization and you will find the human race pretty morally equal. In science we have advanced wonderfully, but morally, precious little, of any at all. We should all cultivate the sense of fair play.”

So wrote the first Black man allowed to fight for (and win) the heavyweight championship of the world, Jack Johnson. Circa 1921. On lined notepad sheets. In cursive. With pencil.

From prison.

It is one page of his handwritten autobiography, a brownish yellow now, some of which the National Archives Museum unveiled Friday along with myriad other artifacts — such as the blue jacket worn by President George W. Bush when he threw the first pitch after 9/11 — in its first-ever sports exhibit.

But what caught my attention were the items that reminded — as Johnson pondered — how sports have been, and often still are, contested turf for the egalitarian ideals we champion them for embodying: meritocracy, fairness, inclusiveness, equality. The same problems we see all these years later manifested in things such as NFL coach Brian Flores’s discrimination lawsuit against the league, women’s soccer players having to wrestle for equitable World Cup prize money and, of course, Colin Kaepernick being exiled. This is why sports are a perfect petri dish for protest and social change.

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For example, on display at “All American: The Power of Sports” is a photo of an all-Black Army football team from 1926. They were segregated from the service academy’s White players, who were gilded during the Roaring Twenties by sportswriters such as Grantland Rice, who made that time the “Golden Age of Sports.”

There’s a photo of Japanese women playing baseball at an internment camp east of the Sierra Nevada in California, one of 10 such places at which the U.S. government imprisoned Japanese living here during World War II. The women were photographed appearing, if you can imagine it, happy.

There’s a letter from Army Lt. Jack Robinson in 1944 about a White bus driver demanding he move from a seat next to a woman the bus driver wrongly believed was White. It led to the lieutenant, who was a famous athlete at UCLA and would become the first Black Major League Baseball player in 60 years, to be court martialed for insubordination. Robinson wrote on unlined paper with the letterhead McCloskey General Hospital, Temple, Tex., to the Civilian Aide to the Secretary of War.

The exhibit’s curator, Alice Kamps, admitted to not being a rabid sports fan. What drove her to design the display, she said, was instead her interest in studying national identity.

“I was really intrigued to learn about the way that sports was used in the late 19th century, early 20th century, like almost a prescriptive fashion to create good citizens in schools and in military training grounds, because of the values that sports teach,” Kamps explained. “And you can see that in some of the propaganda, too. There’s a poster in the exhibit that says, ‘This is America.’ ”

And another poster of a Pvt. Joe Louis, who followed Johnson as a Black heavyweight champion of the world, being used to rally Black men wary of joining a segregated military again for another World War campaign.

“The government, in conjunction with major professional sport franchises, college athletics, and USA Olympic sports, have intentionally conveyed particular messages and images in a concerted effort to fashion cultural attitudes about race, gender and masculinity,” retired George Mason University sports historian David Wiggins, one of several scholars who consulted the archives, wrote in an email, “as well as appropriate notions about war, patriotism, and being a ‘good American.’ ”

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Indeed, the collection wasn’t culled from dusty attics in small towns or from memorabilia collectors. It came mostly from the storerooms of the government. The War Relocation Authority. Presidential libraries. The Secretary of War. The Bureau of Prisons, where Johnson’s letter was filed from his stint at Leavenworth after he was wrongfully convicted of violating the Mann Act, also known as the White Slave Traffic Act of 1910. It was a law passed with the aim of snaring Black men such as Johnson who dared have relationships with White women. It charged those men with transporting White women across state lines for prostitution.

“There were these situations where sports was used to try to control the behavior of certain groups or to cultivate certain traits,” Kamps explained. “But then these groups were able to kind of turn that around in a way and use sports to meet their own needs and to express their own identity and power.”

Found at the Bureau of Indian Affairs, which among other things oversaw the boarding schools to which Native American children were forced in an attempt to strip them of their culture, were letters from one of its most famous subjects, the athlete nonpareil Jim Thorpe. In some, he demanded his pay from a contract he signed that, like so many treaties Indigenous people signed with the federal government, was not being met. Also on display: the gold medals the International Olympic Committee gave Thorpe’s family in the early 1980s to replace the pair it stripped from him that he had won in 1912. The committee said then that he violated its amateur rules by playing minor league baseball for a couple of summers. Many thought he suffered the indignity because he was Indian.

“Irrespective of their hardships and horrendous mistreatment at the hands of the government, these people could exercise some agency and realize a much-needed sense of community and camaraderie through participation in sport and recreational activities,” Wiggins wrote. “It was a means for these people to try to maintain a sense of cultural identity while attempts were being made to strip them of their dignity and, in some cases, entire way of life.”

Indeed, what this exhibit reveals as much as anything is the mythology of sports as the pillars of a pluralistic democracy.