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Athletes as Activists


By Shereá Denise

On August 26, 2016 Colin Kaepernick began kneeling during the national anthem that was played before each NFL game. When interviewed about his protests, Kapernick said, “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses [B]lack people and people of color. To me this is bigger than football, and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way.”


As we know, several other athletes began to participate in the protests. At times, whole teams refused to stand for the national anthem. In response to the protests, Pro Football Hall of Fame coach Mike Ditka has said, “If you can't respect our national anthem, get the hell out of the country.” While his assertion is not only wildly inappropriate, it is also reminiscent of the “shut up and play” statements that we have heard from America’s President and the “send them back” chants that we have heard at his campaign rallies. Ditka’s statement and the Tr*mp rally chants both strike me as ironic because, well… How exactly does one kick somebody out of a country that their ancestors stole?


Also, specifically to Mike Ditka’s statements, how can one conflate someone’s respect of the national anthem with their skillset to play sports? How is kneeling during the national anthem disrespectful? In my opinion, kneeling on someone’s neck for more than 8 minutes is disrespectful, shooting a child walking home is disrespectful, and shooting a woman sleeping in her home is disrespectful. Maybe that’s just me though.


Those who are kneeling are making a point. They are bringing attention to issues that are literally life or death. The athletes who have found a way to use their platforms as activists are not doing anything wrong - in fact - they are exercising their constitutional rights. Those rights are detailed in the First Amendment, which was ratified in 1791. I am making it a point to mention this particular date because - based on my research - athletes have used their sports of choice for activist purposes since 1883. “The Star Spangled Banner” did not become the national anthem until 1931. These dates demonstrate that athletes using their platform for activism and their constitutional right to do so came long before “The Star Spangled Banner.” Some will argue that “The Star Spangled Banner”was played at some baseball games as early as 1862, which is true, but it was not the national anthem at that time, it was just a song that the crowd enjoyed. I mean, I have seen bands play Petey Pablo at football games because he had songs that the crowd enjoyed. That does not make Raise Up a song that requires the respect of others, nor should people who do not take their shirts off, twist it ‘round their hands, and spin it like a helicopter be told to leave the United States.


Honestly, I do not think that sports fans who see athletes as human beings - rather than solely sources of entertainment - should have a problem with athletes being activists. Would people even have such an issue with athletes bringing their activism to the sports world if it was not for the fact that their actions caught the attention of the nation and then the world? If people had ignored Kaepernick kneeling, I highly doubt that Donald Tr*mp or Mike Ditka would have anything to say. That drives the point home. We have to protest and raise awareness in ways that catch the attention of others, in ways that spark necessary conversations, and in ways that force people to act.


There is a long history of athletes serving as activists. Some of the most notable examples of this are: (arguably) Jackie Robinson (1947), Bill Russell (1961), and Muhammad Ali (1966). Remember when Muhammad Ali refused to be drafted into the military? He cited his religious beliefs and his personal opposition to the Vietnam War. Despite his constitutional arguments, Ali took a three-and-a-half-year hiatus from boxing because he had been denied a boxing license in every U.S. state and was stripped of his passport. How the United States responded to Muhammad Ali makes two points very clear: 


  1. The United States will violate its own constitution when those in positions of leadership want you to do something for their benefit, regardless of how it impacts you; and

  2. Donald Tr*mp and Mike Ditka are not the only ones who see athletes as their personal sources of entertainment nor are they the only ones who have - historically - treated athletes as nothing more than puppets.


I would be remiss if I did not remind us all that - on October 16, 1968 - the world witnessed Tommie Smith and John Carlos peacefully  protest during “The Star Spangled Banner” by giving the Black Power Salute at the Olympics in Mexico City. Smith and Carlos “agreed to use their medal wins as an opportunity to highlight the social issues roiling the United States at the time… Smith and Carlos [had] helped organize the Olympic Project for Human Rights, a group that reflected their black pride and social consciousness. The group saw the Olympic Games as an opportunity to agitate for better treatment of [B]lack athletes and [B]lack people around the world.” Let us not forget that the Australian runner, Peter Norman, stood in solidarity with Smith and Carlos by wearing an Olympic Project for Human Rights badge.


Speaking of Peter Norman, I think now would be an excellent time to point out that athletics being used for activism and athletes being activists is not only specific to Black male athletes, nor is it specific to the United States. History teaches us that athletes of all races and from various countries have used sporting events - or their mere existence in certain professional sports leagues - as a form of activism. Players in the Women’s National Basketball Association began participating in protests more than a month before Colin Kaepernick took a knee during the national anthem. “The collective, consistent and unified movement of WNBA players dates back to July 9, 2016, when the Minnesota Lynx… wore custom shirts that read “Change Starts With Us: Justice & Accountability.” The backs of their shirts honored then-recently slain Minnesota native Philando Castile and Louisiana native Alton Sterling, and included the Dallas police force crest to honor five officers who were killed in a shooting.” Additionally, Naomi Osaka (tennis) and Megan Rapinoe (soccer) have joined many other notable athletes by protesting the national anthem and/or by raising awareness about the Black Lives Matter movement in their own ways.


I should point out that using sports as a way to effect change is not only specific to professional sports. In 1979, the Syracuse 8 - which included nine African-Americans on the Syracuse football team - “decided to sit out the 1970 season in an effort to bring racial equality to [the] program... Among their demands were better medical care and stronger academic support for all student-athletes, fair intrasquad competition and the integration of the coaching staff.” 


As I conclude this post, let me offer my gratitude to each athlete who has used their platform to make a difference, to raise awareness, and to force society to pay attention. You are precisely the type of people that should not get the hell out of the country, but you are making it really clear who should.


“I will not disgrace my religion, my people or myself by becoming a tool to enslave those who are fighting for their own justice, freedom and equality… If I thought the war was going to bring freedom and equality to 22 million of my people they wouldn't have to draft me, I'd join tomorrow.” -Muhammad Ali

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