Belmont University is hosting Davis Cup tennis matches this week, marking the return of one of the sports premier showcases to Nashville for the first time in 40 years. In 1978, professional tennis was more popular and the participants more noteworthy, but it was off-the-court clashes which earned the event international attention.
A CBS Nightly News broadcast from the era shows Walter Cronkite explain that “weeks of civil rights controversy” were approaching a climax at Vanderbilt where a Davis Cup competition featured American players against “those from a country that institutionalized racial discrimination — South Africa.”
Cronkite wasn’t the only journalist taking note of the protests which centered primarily on opposition to apartheid. Newspapers across the country carried the story and for some of the games protesters and media members outnumbered actual ticket holders.
In that same 1978 broadcast, Vanderbilt’s president Emmett Fields — who died in 2005 — justified the school hosting the games using a free speech argument. “If we yield by denying the rights of these visitors to the campus we will almost certainly be asked to yield in some other instance on some other issue,” he said.
The leader of the NAACP at the time resented the comparison, saying a tennis match should not be equated with the “dissemination of ideas and ideals.”
Those same kinds of discussion around censorship are still playing out on campuses today most recently concerning white nationalists. And the players who decided to compete in 1978 and many of those who chose to attend echoed similar sentiments heard now in debates about the NFL. They wanted politics and sports to be kept separate.
The Davis Cup matches in Nashville would be the last to feature South African players until 1992, the year before apartheid officially ended.