By Cameron Coyle, F/G Scholar
The past few years have seen protest in sports become a hot-button issue, with the discussion growing and becoming more multi-faceted seemingly each day.
Many sports fans use the games they watch as a form of escapism. They want to come home after a long day’s work and watch Monday Night Football while attempting to block out the problems which plague their reality.
However, many athletes—particularly African-Americans—see the sports they play as the vehicle which helped them escape from impoverished communities, so naturally they want to seize this platform to shine light on issues that have afflicted their society.
It’s a difficult thing to balance and while the discussion may seem fairly recent, it’s something which has been prevalent for over half a century.
Perhaps the most famous protest in the history of sports is Muhammad Ali’s refusal to fight in the Vietnam War after being drafted in 1967.
Ali, who was a staunch supporter of Malcolm X and the Nation of Islam for part of his life, even changed his name from Cassius Clay as a form of protest, rejecting what he called his “slave name.”
Ali’s unwillingness to fight cost him almost immediately, as he was banned from boxing and subsequently stripped of his title. He was originally given a five-year jail sentence with a $10,000 fine as well.
The summer of 1967 saw Jim Brown invite Ali to his economic and industrial complex, along with Bill Russell, and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (still Lew Alcindor at the time), where the athletes stood in unison and supported Ali’s decision to avoid the war.
Ali was even given the opportunity to fight in exhibition boxing matches in front of the troops in lieu of fighting in Vietnam. His promoter and members of the Nation of Islam encouraged him to take this deal, but Ali stood firm and rejected any type of support for the war.
The Supreme Court eventually unanimously overturned Ali’s punishment in 1971, which allowed him to box again and regain the heavyweight championship of the world.
Abdul-Jabbar saw Ali’s stand and made one of his own the following year, refusing to participate in the 1968 Olympics while he was a student-athlete at UCLA. Abdul-Jabbar was influenced by Ali and Malcolm X and as a young adult also changed his name after reading the Autobiography of Malcolm X. Abdul-Jabbar claimed he did not want to represent an America that did not represent him.
Abdul-Jabbar also showed how to subtly protest in his professional career. A soft-spoken man with a high intellect, Abdul-Jabbar decided to wear outfits which showed his African heritage. He literally was wearing his blackness on his sleeve.
The National Anthem
While Colin Kaepernick captured the public’s eye while kneeling earlier this decade, he was nowhere near the first athlete to protest the National Anthem.
The 1968 Olympics—the same one Abdul-Jabbar boycotted—saw African-American sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos take a stand at the podium after finishing first and third in the 200-meter sprint. Smith and Carlos stood on the podium wearing black socks and black leather gloves while they raised a clenched fist during the Anthem.
Both athletes were stripped of their medals, and the International Olympic Committee President Avery Brundage called their actions “an outrageous stance.”
Their trouble did not end here, as they were cast aside when they returned home as anti-patriots and not athletic superstars. Relatives of each sprinter even received death threats.
Australian sprinter Peter Norman, who finished second in the race, suggested they wore black gloves and he also faced repercussions for this. Norman was not allowed to compete in international events, despite qualifying multiple times. Smith and Carlos were pallbearers at Norman’s funeral in 2006.
Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf protested the National Anthem during the 1995-96 NBA season, stating the United States flag was a symbol of oppression and went against his Muslim beliefs. Abdul-Rauf was suspended and out of the league in two years, despite still being an efficient player.
He then proceeded to play internationally until he was signed by the Vancouver Grizzlies, notably the only NBA team not located in the United States at the time. Abdul-Rauf was just given 12 minutes per game and was out of the league again the next year. He went back to playing international basketball and now plays in Ice Cube’s Big-3 League while also speaking at public events around his home in Atlanta.
Colin Kaepernick’s National Anthem protest is likely the most famous sports protest since Ali’s. In the 2016 preseason, Kaepernick decided to remain seated during the Anthem, but after meeting with a veteran he decided it would be more respectful and symbolic to take a knee. He was soon joined by multiple teammates, most notably Eric Reid.
Kaepernick was apparently blackballed after the 2016 season, and Reid was out of the league for brief time period before being signed by the Carolina Panthers this season. Both have addressed the discrimination they have faced, as Kaepernick has an impending lawsuit against the NFL, while Reid has been subjected to six drug tests since September, claiming the random selection process does not feel random to him.
The majority of NFL teams took a knee before or during the National Anthem last season in an effort to show solidarity, but some criticized the act as an attempt to move past the controversy and improve ratings.
Bob McNair, the former owner of the Houston Texans who recently passed away earlier this year, criticized players who protested by saying “We can’t have the inmates running the prison.”
Not all players agree on the best way to protest, either. Eric Reid openly criticized Malcolm Jenkins of the Philadelphia Eagles for his deal with NFL executives to accept donations for charities he supported, where he in turn agreed to cease his pregame protest. Reid and Jenkins had a pregame conformation when the Panthers and Eagles met this season, and Reid called Jenkins a “sell-out” in a post-game interview.
Fewer NFL players protest during the National Anthem now, but Eric Reid and some others continue to do so.
The NBA is commonly known as the most progressive sports league in America, and LeBron James, the most famous athlete in America, is probably the most progressive professional athlete currently playing.
James stated the shooting of Trayvon Martin “flipped a switch” in him, starting his journey into social activism. James was a member of the Miami Heat at the time of Martin’s death in 2012, and he also had two sons approaching adolescence at the time, something he admits factored into his changed perspective.
Even more, James was in Orlando, Florida for the NBA All-Star game the night Martin died in Sanford, Florida, which was less than 30 miles away from him. Members of the Miami Heat later took a group picture with their hoodies up to show unity in support of Martin.
James opened his “I Promise” school this summer for at-risk kids in the impoverished areas of Cleveland. The school gives students scholarships for college while also aiding them with food and clothing. James turned his social awareness into social activism in a relatively short time period.
Early on in the 2014 NBA season NBA players wore shirts during warm-ups which donned the phrase “I Can’t Breathe,” the infamous last words of Eric Garner who was choked to death by a New York City police officer, a move which violated NYPD protocol.
Some players which wore the shirt included LeBron James, Kobe Bryant, Derrick Rose, Kyrie Irving, and many more.
J.A. Adande of ESPN wrote at the time he didn’t even consider this a protest because of its small scope, saying wearing a t-shirt in warm-ups does not compare to marching through the streets, therefore he thought people had no right to be upset at the players. However, some fans criticized the move for being “too political,” but these comments were few and far between.
The most effective NBA protest took place later in the 2014 season. TMZ released a clip in April of Donald Sterling (the owner of the Los Angeles Clippers at the time) taking issue with his mistress for taking a picture with Magic Johnson at an NBA game. He criticized her for publicly associating with an African-American and a man who has the HIV virus.
The Los Angeles Clippers were led by point guard Chris Paul, an African-American and president of the NBA Players Association, and Doc Rivers, one of the few African-American coaches in the NBA.
The players considered boycotting their next game, and most likely would have if it had not been a playoff game. Instead, players wore their warm-up shirts inside-out, refusing to show the Clippers logo on their chest until it wasn’t an option when the game started. LeBron James and other members of the Miami Heat soon did the same to show unity between the players.
Just four days after TMZ released the clip of Sterling, NBA commissioner Adam Silver issued a lifetime ban from the NBA to Sterling.
The WNBA has also used t-shirts to protest, but more controversy surrounded their actions than NBA protests. After the deaths of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile in 2016, players during pregame warm-ups and post-game press conferences wore shirts which read “Change starts with us” on the front with Sterling and Castile’s names on the back above the phrase “Black Lives Matter.”
The police officers on security detail for the post-game press conference walked out, abandoning their post of protection and showing the players’ lives did not matter to them at the moment. The WNBA initially fined the players as well, but this was later rescinded.
Most people who have a problem with protests in sports do not realize it has been prevalent for decades.
Martin Luther King Jr. once said “A riot is the language of the unheard,” and many of these players represent communities in which these riots take place in, so when they are given the opportunity to give the people they represent a voice then it is only natural they do so.
Protests in sports are not un-American; the powers that be attempting to silence athletes is un-American.
“Seeing protests in sports is the perfect example of an American citizen using his First Amendment rights,” said Evan Heichelbech, the editor-in-chief and former sports editor at the College Heights Herald. “While some fans consider sports as an escape, it is not their right to decide if an athlete’s voice or stance on certain issues should or should not be heard.”
Sports are meant to be entertaining, but this is the reality people talk about when they use the phrase “more than a game.”