Athletes and Activism

(AP Photo/Jeffrey T. Barnes, File)

Buffalo Bills players take a knee during the national anthem before their game against the Denver Broncos on September 24, 2017.

If #BlackLivesMatter encapsulated a burgeoning protest movement against police abuse, #TakeAKnee took those protests to a new level this week as NFL players responded to President Trump’s attack on athletes who dare to exercise their First Amendment rights to protest against injustice. 

Aside from professional athletes forming labor unions and going on strike to improve their pay, benefits, and working conditions, the current national anthem protests may be the largest collective dissent in the modern history of professional or collegiate sports. 

San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick launched the protests last year by kneeling to display his opposition to police killings of African Americans. This year, only a few players took a knee during the preseason games or in early regular season games.

But another Trump tantrum turned a somewhat haphazard protest into mass defiance. Last Friday, at a rally in Huntsville, Alabama, for Republican Senator Luther Strange, Trump threw more red meat to his hardcore white followers by cursing NFL players and repeating his signature phrase from his days as a TV reality show host: “Wouldn't you love to see one of these NFL owners, when somebody disrespects our flag, to say, ‘Get that son of a bitch off the field right now, out, he’s fired. He’s fired!’”

The NFL Players Association issued a statement that said, “No man or woman should ever have to choose a job that forces them to surrender their rights.” Dozens of NFL players took to Twitter to voice their opposition to Trump’s comments.

By September 24, the football players’ anger had reached a boiling point. Most of the players who took a knee were African American, but many of their white and Latino teammates locked arms behind them in solidarity. In the game played in London, England, where the Baltimore Ravens took on the Jacksonville Jaguars, nearly 30 players and staff either took a knee during the anthem or stood with arms locked in a show of solidarity. The Tennessee Titans and Seattle Seahawks stayed in their locker rooms during the national anthem. Several members of the Philadelphia Eagles raised their fists as the anthem played before their game against the New York Giants.

Even the New England Patriots, Trump’s favorite NFL team, expressed their dismay. Quarterback Tom Brady locked arms with Phillip Dorsett, coach Bill Belichick crossed his arms in front of him, and 16 Patriots players knelt during the anthem. Patriots owner Robert Kraft, a close Trump friend, said he was disappointed with the president’s comments.

Other owners, including the Jaguars’ Shad Kahn (who donated $1 million to Trump’s inauguration), Los Angeles Chargers’ Dean Spanos (a big GOP donor), Detroit Lions owner Martha Firestone Ford (another GOP contributor), and Democrats Arthur Blank of the Atlanta Falcons and Stephen Ross of the Miami Dolphins linked arms with their players. Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, a staunch Trump supporter, joined the entire team in linking arms and kneeling briefly on the field on Monday night, before the anthem started. The owners of at least 19 of the 32 NFL teams either issued statements, linked arms, or took a knee in solidarity with their players.

However, none of them so far have offered to hire Kaepernick, who is still unemployed despite his being a better quarterback than many of those on current NFL rosters. 

The controversy soon spilled into basketball and baseball. In a Saturday Twitter rant, Trump targeted Stephen Curry of the NBA champion Golden State Warriors, who had previously expressed his reluctance to attend a White House ceremony honoring the team. “Going to the White House is considered a great honor for a championship team,” Trump tweeted. “Stephen Curry is hesitating, therefore invitation is withdrawn!” Trump’s attack on Curry inspired Cleveland Cavaliers star LeBron James to fire back, calling the president “U bum” in a tweet and then posting a video condemning Trump and applauding Kaepernick and other players for speaking out.

Meanwhile, on the diamond, Bruce Maxwell, the Oakland Athletics African American rookie catcher, son of an Army veteran, bashed Trump on Instagram: “Our president speaks of inequality of man because players are protesting the anthem! F- this man!” Later that day, he became the first major-league player to kneel for the national anthem before a game against the visiting Texas Rangers. Outfielder Mark Canha, who is white, stood behind Maxwell and placed his right hand on his teammate’s shoulder. “My decision had been coming for a long time,” Maxwell told the media, citing his own experiences with racism growing up in Huntsville, where Trump made his derogatory remarks about NFL players.

The take-a-knee gesture even spread outside the sports world, from singer Stevie Wonder and the cast of the Broadway play 1984, to Representative Sheila Jackson Lee, a Texas Democrat, and to Georgetown University Law professors.

Pro and big-time college athletes have historically been reluctant to generate controversy by criticizing the status quo. Most athletes who have defied that tradition have been singular voices of conscience, although some have worked with others to address issues outside the world of sports, including civil rights, the Vietnam War, and women’s equality.

Jackie Robinson constantly spoke out about American racism in speeches, interviews, congressional testimony, and his regular newspaper column after breaking major league baseball’s color barrier in 1947. Many sportswriters and most other players considered him too angry and too vocal. After his playing days were over in 1957, Robinson joined picket lines and attended civil rights rallies, becoming one of the NAACP’s best fundraisers. Shortly before his death in 1972, he wrote, “I cannot possibly believe that I have it made while so many black brothers and sisters are hungry, inadequately housed, insufficiently clothed, denied their dignity as they live in slums or barely exist on welfare.”

When Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated on April 4, 1968, superstar outfielder Roberto Clemente and his Pittsburgh Pirates teammates voted to sit out the opening game after Commissioner William Eckert left it to teams to decide whether to play or cancel games scheduled for the day of King’s funeral five days later. “We are doing this because we white and black players respect what Dr. King has done for mankind,” players said in statement. After players on other teams followed the Pirates’ lead, Eckert announced that the season openers would be held the day after King’s funeral.

Muhammad Ali publicly opposed the Vietnam War and refused induction into the Army in 1967. For those acts, he was denounced by politicians and sportswriters, stripped of his heavyweight boxing title, and sentenced to five years in prison. He never served any time and appealed all the way up to the Supreme Court and won.

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, then a standout UCLA basketball player named Lew Alcindor, publicly supported Ali’s controversial stances and spotlighted another issue: the shootings of African Americans by police. “We catch hell because we are black,” he told a youth conference in Los Angeles in November 1967. Abdul-Jabbar’s decision not to play for the U.S. Olympic team in 1968 triggered rabid, racist condemnation.

Track and field athletes John Carlos and Tommie Smith, who participated in the Olympic games in Mexico City, became the face of national-anthem protest when they gave gloved Black Power salutes as “The Star-Spangled Banner” played during their medal ceremony, creating an international furor and damaging their post-Games professional careers.

Dave Meggyesy, an All-Pro linebacker for the St. Louis Cardinals in the late 1960s, was a vocal opponent of the Vietnam War. Told by team executives to keep his political views to himself, he refused to back down, was consequently benched, and retired at age 28 while still in his athletic prime. New York Mets pitching ace Tom Seaver, who had served in the Marines and attended the conservative University of Southern California, bought an ad in The New York Times to express his opposition to the Vietnam War, and UCLA (and later NBA) basketball star Bill Walton led campus protests against the war.

After the September 11 attacks, baseball commissioner Bud Selig required teams to play “God Bless America” at each game’s seventh-inning stretch. For three years, Toronto Blue Jays slugger Carlos Delgado joined players and fans and stood while the song played. But in 2004, he decided to sit in the dugout instead, concerned that the song was being used to justify ongoing military intervention. Delgado claimed: “I don’t stand because I don’t believe it’s right. … It’s a very terrible thing that happened on September 11. It’s also a terrible thing that happened in Afghanistan and Iraq. I feel so sad for the families that lost relatives and loved ones in the war. But I think it’s the stupidest war ever.” He explained, “Athletes who have this platform where they can reach millions of people should use it.”

During last year’s presidential election, Los Angeles Dodgers first baseman Adrian Gonzalez refused to stay at a Trump hotel. Asked to explain his action, Gonzalez simply told reporters, “You can draw your own conclusions. They’re probably right.”

Taking a knee or locking arms during the national anthem, and tweeting and making public statements opposing Trump’s racism and ignorance of the First Amendment, gives athletes  a platform to speak out on controversial issues.

But there is much more athletes can do to challenge the political status quo. In 1972, almost a year before the Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade ruling, tennis superstar Billie Jean King was one of 53 women to sign an ad in the first issue of Ms. magazine boldly proclaiming, “We Have Had Abortions,” putting her on the front lines of the battle for reproductive rights. King also testified before Congress and spoke out frequently in favor of Title IX, the federal anti-discrimination provision in the Education Amendments of 1972. Thanks to that law, the number of high school girls who participate in sports has increased from 294,015 in 1972 to 3.3 million in 2015.

When was the last time you saw a celebrity athlete standing in front of a post office or grocery store, holding voter-registration forms, or walking precincts and door-knocking in low-income and minority neighborhoods, urging people to vote? If athletes ventured onto the streets to participate in rallies, protests, and pickets about police abuses, voter suppression, workers’ rights, or deportation of immigrants, their gestures would generate considerable media attention for these causes.

High-profile athletes could help increase African American voter turnout in battleground states like Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Florida, where low turnout among Democratic-leaning voters last year handed Trump the Electoral College and gave Republicans a majority in both houses of Congress. “LeBron James wants you to vote” billboards across Ohio and commercials on TV and radio, could serve as a powerful rallying force for Democratic candidates in the next two election cycles.

To send a message to Trump and his right-wing allies about suppressing basic rights, professional athletes should use their celebrity to mobilize people to exercise the one right that could topple Trump and right-wing Republicans in Congress and state legislatures—the right to vote.

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