“Neatly attired” in one of his many suits, on November 13, 1889 the ex-Colored Champion George Godfrey stormed into the Boston Globe’s building to protest an injustice. A week early Godfrey had knocked out the white heavyweight Jack Ashton, and now Ashton wanted a rematch. But that wasn’t the problem. Ashton was easy money. “If I received such a defeat as I administered to him, I think I would hold my peace,” Godfrey retorted. Plus, Godfrey would rather fight a white man, “they were easier whipped.” For a decade he tried to battle Heavyweight Champion John L. Sullivan, but the racist coward drew the color line. At one point Sullivan told Godfrey, “George, when I get ready to fight rats, dogs, pigs and niggers, I’ll give you the first chance.”
When they lifted the color line, white fighters could use racist fandom to their advantage and selected hostile environments to fight a black opponent. In order to duck the great black pugilist Peter Jackson, Heavyweight Champion Jim Corbett insisted on fighting in the South. Fearing for his life, Jackson turned down his only chance to fight for the championship. The great black champion George Dixon recalled that in Boston “it is not many years ago since I first stepped into a ring in this city, but even then a colored man would be considered crazy if he went to fight a white man outside of a club-room. He would surely have been killed, or brutally injured, if he made the least attempt to win.” In 1888, Godfrey declined a $1,000 contest to fight a white opponent in New York, citing “I do not recall an instance of where a colored man went up against a white man in Gotham and was fairly treated. There is a prejudice there among the sporting people against the colored race, and I firmly believe that they would ‘kick’ against me on principle.” Godfrey fought for a living, but not for his life, so when he read that Ashton wanted to fight in Providence, Rhode Island, Godfrey asked, “How long is it since they had a good old-fashioned lynching down in Providence?” “Don’t you think they are itching for one now?” He claimed that even if he had a Gatling gun he wouldn’t fight Ashton in Providence. Instead, he insisted on battling in Boston or in the west, but Ashton declined another beating.
Unlike college athletes, as free labor the profession pugilist could dictate when and where he wanted to fight. The Marcus Smart incident highlights that on the one hand racist fandom still exists, and on the other hand the economic racket of the NCAA, the Big 12, and Oklahoma State restricts the rights and mobility of these students. For years, they’ve known that fans like Jeff Orr made Texas Tech an uncomfortable place to play, but they never did anything about him. Instead, they allowed Orr to purchase seats close to the floor where he could heckle opposing players. This time, he reportedly told Smart to “go back to Africa.” (NOTE: Orr claims he called Smart a piece of crap.) As free labor, these student-athletes should have an opportunity to dictate the terms of their working conditions, but as exploited commodities they have no say. If the NCAA and their institutions are really concerned about their students, then they need to use their power to create a better work environment instead of finding more ways how to exploit their labor.