Unforgivable Blackness: A Film Directed by Ken Burns

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For TeachersAbove the Law? Athletes in Trouble

Lesson Plans

Download the Educator's Guide (PDF)

For additional classroom content, please visit PBS TeacherSource.


Social Studies (U.S. History), Civics


Students will:

  • Analyze Jack Johnson's bouts with the law.

  • Explore the legal troubles of other professional athletes.

  • Identify the common qualities and attitudes of professional athletes who engage in illegal acts.

  • Create a set of standards to which professional athletes should adhere.


  • Computers with Internet access

  • Episode two of Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson (available from ShopPBS)

  • Online and print articles reporting on past and/or present illegal acts committed by professional athletes, available for students to read in the classroom.

  • Worksheet: Athletes in Trouble


Have students assume the role of early 20th century sportswriters assigned to cover Jack Johnson. Ask them to write a brief profile of the boxer, centering on behaviors that get him into trouble with the law. Invite students to read their profiles and, as a class, create a composite profile of Jackson.

Using the Jackson profile, ask students to select and list (as a class) the qualities that eventually led him to have legal troubles. These will likely include attitude, fame, his engagement in "the sporting life," newfound wealth, etc.

Have students discuss recent or historic events involving professional athletes and the law. (Kobe Bryant, Jamal Lewis) What did the athletes do? How were their crimes handled by the legal system? Ask students whether any of the qualities associated with Johnson are also reflected in the sports figures they name.

Divide students into small groups, each assigned one of the following articles (each group reads a different article):

Instruct each group to read and discuss its article and summarize the actions, qualities, behaviors, etc. associated with the featured athlete(s). Have groups share their findings and find similarities from which students can draw a composite profile. (Students can also research articles to read.)

Ask students to discuss how the legal system has treated these athletes. Were they prosecuted? Why? Were they pardoned? Why? Explain that some argue that athletes tend to get away with more than they should because of who they are — publicly recognized athletes, celebrities, necessary entities on a winning team. Have students discuss whether this is an accurate perception based on their knowledge of recent cases involving professional athletes.

Have students read the following items in groups or individually (if individually, students can read these for homework):

Instruct students to complete the Athletes in Trouble worksheet after they have read the articles. Invite students to share their response to each question; discuss responses as a class. Ask students to discuss whether athletes should be held more accountable for the acts they commit, because of who they are and their public images.

Divide the class into small groups. Have each group assume the role of legal representatives from national sports associations (such as the NFL and the NHL). Instruct them to create a set of professional and legal standards by which all professional athletes must abide, with a series or recommended implementation and reinforcement strategies and penalties if the standards are ignored or abused. Invite each group to share its standards; as a class, compile and synthesize to arrive at one set of standards by which all professional athletes, regardless of their sport, must abide.

Assessment Suggestions:

Assess student analysis of professional athletes and their construction, thereof, of a "template" of athletes who break the law. Measure student ability to apply their understanding of athletes' problems with the law to the creation of standards that address and rectify these problems.


Students can:

  • Research the status of college student athletes in trouble with the law and make decisions about how these cases should be handled, both by the legal system and college administration.

  • Create a narrated timeline of professional athletes with legal troubles in the 21st century.

  • Design baseball-type cards that profile athletes in trouble with law, with all relevant statistics, similar to data that would be on a baseball card.


Mid-continent Research for Education and Learning (McRel)

  • Civics standards 18 and 27: Understands the role and importance of law in the American constitutional system and issues regarding the judicial protection of individual rights; Understands how certain character traits enhance citizens' ability to fulfill personal and civic responsibilities.

  • Historical Understanding Standard 2: Understands the historical perspective.

Online Resources:

About the Author:

Michele Israel has been an educator in varied capacities for more than 20 years. As founder and director of Educational Consulting Group, Israel has served nonprofit and other educational institutions, providing services including strategic planning, educational product development and project management. She is a writer across venues, with particular emphasis on the development of educational products. Israel has written for PBS (and myriad affiliates), Education World, Newsweek's Education Program, and WETA. Ms. Israel is currently employed by United Jewish Communities in New York City, where she creates marketing collateral for the Planned Giving and Endowment Department.