Reflection: The harsh legacy of speaking out in sports

By Lillie Eastham, F/G Scholar

At Muhammad Ali’s funeral in 2016, both former President Bill Clinton and President Barack Obama spoke fondly of the sports star and activist. In a letter read at the ceremony, President Obama said, “Muhammad Ali was America. Muhammad Ali will always be America. What a man.” (BBC 2016) However, when Ali was building the very legacy that many praises him for today, it is extremely unlikely that President Lyndon Johnson would have shared the warm sentiments of President Obama.

In fact, at the time of Ali’s initial protest in 1966 he was one of the most hated and certainly polarizing figures in America. Even Jackie Robinson criticized his actions saying that, “Cassius has made millions of dollars off of the American public, and now he’s not willing to show his appreciation to a country that’s giving him, in my view, a fantastic opportunity.” (Calamur 2016) Even if you are unfamiliar with this quote in particular, even in modern America this sentiment should sound familiar. Earlier this year, controversy arose when Fox News host Laura Ingraham told Lebron James to “shut up and dribble” after he did an interview denouncing the President. (Sullivan 2018) Just like many of Ali’s critics she cited his salary as a reason why he should be content to stay out of any political arguments and be grateful for what he has.

It should be noted that despite his criticism of the current administration, Lebron James has received minimal backlash. He is still one of the highest paid athletes in the world and is overall heavily praised. However, James is also widely considered the best player in the NBA, and it is likely that a player that is viewed as having a lesser ‘value’ would not be able to speak so freely.

Although the case of Lebron James is far less drastic than Ali’s it serves as an example of the continuance of a disturbing rhetoric in America that athletes, particularly black men, sign away the right to have a political opinion due to the fact that they have achieved success. This is particularly striking because often the athletes’ protests center around something that money cannot buy, equality. In fact, in the very interview where James criticized the President he also discussed how his home had recently been vandalized with a racial slur.

When some of the New England Patriot’s refused to visit the White House after their Super Bowl win due to their dislike of President Trump, they caused considerable controversy. One of the players, Martellus Bennett, responded to the backlash by tweeting, “I am a black man today and I will be a man tomorrow. My wife and daughter are women today and will be women tomorrow.” (Kang 2017)

His message is clear; these protests go beyond sports or salaries.
Kaepernick’s now famous decision to take a knee during the National Anthem was to protest police brutality against African Americans, although the debate quickly turned to whether he was ungrateful and purposefully disrespecting the troops. But why, when these players take a stance on issues much larger than themselves, such as the Vietnam War or racism, is attention focused on their personal salaries?

America has a consistent pattern of expecting black athletes to be thankful for the opportunities they have been given. But what great debt does Lebron James, raised by a single mother and occasionally in foster care, owe to the United States? His exorbitant paycheck did not protect his family from having racial slurs spray-painted on their home, just like Ali’s could not end the violence in Vietnam. However, they chose to use their platform to speak out for those that might be going through the same circumstances, or worse, but would not be listened to by the American public. Although there are certainly people more qualified to speak on politics, telling athletes to “shut up and dribble” is a dangerous way of silencing African Americans attempting to bring light to issues that uniquely affect them. Muhammad Ali’s transition from being one of the most hated men in America to being praised by a President as ‘America’ itself, is a shining example of how athletic protests should be looked at as an important faucet of freedom of speech that give Americans a glimpse into the issues that affect marginalized groups.

Works Cited

Calamur, K. (2016, June 04). When Muhammad Ali Refused to Go to Vietnam. Retrieved from

Kang, J. C. (2017, February 14). Should Athletes Stick to Sports? Retrieved from

Muhammad Ali funeral: Rousing farewell at Louisville memorial. (2016, June 10). Retrieved from

Sullivan, E. (2018, February 19). Laura Ingraham Told LeBron James To Shut Up And Dribble; He Went To The Hoop. Retrieved from way/2018/02/19/587097707/laura-ingraham-told-lebron-james-to-shutup-and-dribble-he- went-to-the-hoop

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