On page 12 of this week's issue we begin a series of articles that seem certain to rank as the most socially significant this magazine has ever published. The Black Athlete—A Shameful Story is an investigation into the lives of Negro participants in sport—both amateur and professional—in present-day America. The revelations contained in the series will bring the reader a new appreciation of the problems and attitudes of the black athletes whose performances all of us as sports fans cheer so enthusiastically but about whom we know so little.
This is an article from the July 1, 1968 issue
The series is the product of four months of research in an area that heretofore has never been surveyed in its entirety. It began last winter when key correspondents across the country were asked to do extensive background interviews with athletes, coaches, educators and prominent people in the Negro community. Their reports alone constituted a major body of work—some 150,000 words. With these in hand we turned to Jack Olsen, a SPORTS ILLUSTRATED senior editor for six years and a man whose reportorial skills and range of interests made him a logical candidate to write such a series.
For the first decade of his journalism career Olsen was a newspaperman, covering crime and politics among other beats. Subsequently, as a correspondent for TIME, his assignments included work on a dozen cover stories and 21 days of coverage of the Little Rock school integration battle in 1957. Since coming to SPORTS ILLUSTRATED in 1960, Olsen has written stories on subjects as diverse as Surinam wildlife, English soccer, Andorran angling and his memorable five-part exploration of Muhammad Ali (né Cassius Clay). He also has produced six books, two on bridge, one a childhood remembrance, one on a mountain-climbing tragedy, one an expansion of the magazine series on Muhammad Ali, and one on a World War II SS massacre (Silence on Monte Sole), which will be published in October by Putnam.
Having assimilated the background research, Olsen set out to do his own interviewing for The Black Athlete in early April, a transcontinental process that did not end until late May, when he had 200,000 words of notes. Shortly after he began, a representative of one of the presidential candidates called Olsen and asked him to "drop everything for three weeks" to write the candidate's campaign biography. A substantial sum of money was mentioned. "I turned him down," says Olsen. "I felt this story was too important to leave."
Among the many unexpected things that Olsen and our correspondents found was that Negro athletes were burning to tell their stories to a white man, and had almost never had a chance. "They would start out suspicious," Olsen recalls, "and in a minute or two there would suddenly come a flood of words. I especially remember one, who has to be nameless. He was more reserved than the rest, but once he began he talked for several hours, and he was sometimes near tears as he discussed his college life. Finally he suggested we go out and get a hamburger. 'And you ain't taking me,' he said. 'I'm taking you.' With that he clapped me on the back with a shuddering thump. As he did, his shirtsleeve slipped up, and I could see a tattoo in ugly blue-black ink on his brown skin. It was one word: HATE."