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Although it may be easy to fall into the narrative that professional sports are here to entertain us, it would behoove you to acknowledge and appreciate the ability of world-class athletes to be both ornamental and functional. The Black athlete is often ignored for their mental capabilities, but exploited for their physical attributes. Long before the reporter that shall remain nameless decided to tell LeBron James to “shut up and dribble,” athletes at the top of their game have unabashedly spoken up against systemic racism and the oppression that the United States has been built upon. Athlete protests in the U.S. can be dated back to as early as the 1800s, and have only gotten stronger and more pronounced as time has gone on.
One of the more widely known instances of athletes’ activism can be seen in Muhammad Ali, born Cassius Clay. Clay was just 13 years old when 14-year-old Emmett Till was brutally murdered for allegedly offending a white female cashier in Mississippi. The lynching had a lasting effect on the teenager who went on to become one of the greatest boxers of all time. By the time the Olympic champion converted to Islam, he abandoned the figment that hard work and compliance would afford African Americans even footing. In 1966, Ali was classified as immediately eligible to serve in the Vietnam War and he was publicly vocal about his stance as a conscientious objector. When he refused to be inducted into the U.S. Armed Forces, Ali’s boxing career was over. He was stripped of his title and his boxing licenses were suspended. Ironically, football legend Jim Brown — who has denounced Colin Kaepernick’s method of protest — led a group of African American athletes in a “Muhammad Ali Summit” where the group decided to support the boxer’s stance against the Vietnam War.
While Ali was making his point in the boxing world, Tommie Smith and John Carlos were making their case on the track in the 1968 Summer Olympic Games. You undoubtedly have seen the image. Smith and Carlos, the Olympic gold and silver medalists in the 200-meter dash, stood on the podium raising their black-gloved fists as the national anthem played during the medal ceremony. The move was symbolic, yet isolating. The two athletes were suspended from the U.S. track and field team, and banned from the Olympic Village. The silent but symbolic protest was the peak of efforts headlined by Smith and Carlos leading up to the Games. Seeing the Civil Rights movement as passive, the duo helped organize the Olympic Project for Human Rights. They saw the Games as the perfect opportunity to campaign for better treatment of Black athletes and people around the world. The stance killed their track careers, and the two went on to have short football careers in the NFL and CFL. Nevertheless, both Smith and Carlos have publicly supported Kaepernick and his protest during the national anthem.
Before Kaepernick kneeled on the sideline of the San Francisco 49ers, in 1973 specifically, eight members of Brown University’s all-Black cheerleading squad took a stand — by not standing during the national anthem. The women were also backed by Brown President Donald Hornig. Although the Providence City Council denounced the university, Hornig stated that the women have a right to freedom of expression. His support was big considering the negative connotations that have dogged strong-minded Black women.
Women, particularly Black women, are often on the frontlines of many battles and bear the risk of being too aggressive or difficult while standing up for themselves. Venus and Serena Williams have often found themselves the subjects of both racist and sexist attacks in the tennis world due to their confident, powerful and unapologetically Black demeanors. Most notably, the sisters endured racial insults at the Indian Wells tournament in 2001 when an injury forced Venus to drop out of a match against her sister. As a result, the duo boycotted the tournament for 14 years; Serena returned in 2015. In their fight against the racist tennis culture, the sisters sacrificed millions and professional rankings by skipping the competition, proving that social justice is of much more importance.
Ever the fiery competitor, Serena also found herself speaking out against sexism in tennis when she was fined $17,000 and had a game taken away during the US Open final in 2018 after she called the umpire a “thief.” The athlete opined that a male would not have faced such punishment and legend Billie Jean King agreed. King tweeted that “when a woman is emotional, she’s ‘hysterical’ and she’s penalized for it. When a man does the same, he’s ‘outspoken’ & there are no repercussions. Thank you Serena Williams, for calling out this double standard. More voices are needed to do the same.”
Serena has also used her voice to support Kaepernick and Eric Reid. “I think every athlete, every human, and definitely every African American should be completely grateful and honored how Colin and Eric are doing so much more for the greater good, so to say,” Serena said following her win at the 2018 US Open, which both men attended.
Years later, those sentiments are being echoed by other NFL players. Not too long after the killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Rayshard Brooks, Ahmaud Arbery and countless of other recent Black people who unnecessarily lost their lives due to excessive force; a group of players filmed a video aimed at the league. The video called for the NFL to state their condemnation of racism and the systemic oppression of Black people, and admit their wrongdoing in silencing the players that want to peacefully protest. The video garnered a response video from Commissioner Roger Goodell, who apologized but still failed to address Kaepernick. The league also pledged $250 million over the course of 10 years to combat systemic racism. In late July, the NFL informed the public of plans to amplify its social justice initiatives by including helmet decals bearing the names of those killed by police brutality.
Kaepernick, hereafter referred to as Kaep, has become the modern day martyr after he sacrificed his NFL career to combat systemic oppression. After choosing to protest police brutality, he lost what was once a promising career. After failing to get so much as a workout from any of the NFL’s 32 teams, Kaep sued the league for collusion and was awarded an undisclosed settlement. Not one to sit on his hands waiting for a call, he has been busy trying to become the change he wants to see. The star’s “Know Your Rights” camp seeks to “advance the liberation of Black and Brown people through education, self-empowerment mass-mobilization and the creation of new systems that elevate the next generation of change leaders.” In 2018, Kaepernick donated $1 million to 37 different social justice organizations.
“Shut up and dribble.” – Laura Ingraham
When LeBron James criticized Donald Trump during an interview with Cari Champion in 2018, Fox News journalist Laura Ingraham infamously advised the NBA star to “shut up and dribble.” “The best thing she did was help me create more awareness,” responded the athlete. In addition to his on-court dominance, James has been vocal and active in the fight for social justice. King James never misses an opportunity to make his opinion known and to put action behind his words. Most recently, the three-time NBA champion helped to form “More Than a Vote,” an initiative to fight voter suppression.
The NBA, known for supporting its players’ freedom of speech, offered players the option of wearing social justice messages on their jerseys during the NBA restart. The courts also sport “Black Lives Matter” along the sideline. Michael Jordan, one of the league’s icons, has been notorious for his silence on racial, political, and social justice matters, as amplified in “The Last Dance” documentary. In light of the current racial climate, Jordan has even pledged $10 million a year for the next 10 years toward social justice organizations.
On the women’s side of the court, stars Maya Moore and Renee Montgomery traded their WNBA jerseys to put the Black community on their backs instead.
Both stars were in the middle of successful WNBA careers when they made the decision to take a season off to focus on social justice. Moore, a two-time Olympic champion, took a break to work on securing the release of Jonathan Irons. Irons was sentenced to 50 years in prison when he was just 16 years old. Irons was released on July 1, 2020.
Like Moore, Montgomery spent time in Minnesota as a member of the Lynx. During her time there, she came to know the Minneapolis community and was particularly affected by the killing of George Floyd. After consulting with family, Montgomery — who’s also involved with James in “More Than a Vote” — decided to devote her time to the fight for social justice, too.
“The Black athlete has to endure, overcome even more, and constantly go beyond, in order not to give up.”- John White, creator The Black Athlete
In addition to being a Black athlete, in May 2013, former NBA player Jason Collin revealed that he is in another minority group as a member of the LGBTQ community. He became the first active male athlete from one of the four professional sports associations to publicly come out as gay. In a first person story published by Sports Illustrated, Collins also revealed that he switched his jersey number to “98” in honor of Matthew Shepard. Shepard was brutally killed in an anti-gay hate crime in 1998. The 13-year NBA veteran received widespread praise for his bravery in an industry where homophobia was closeted, yet still rampant.
Seven years later, Collins is still the only openly gay NBA player/former player. Though tolerance has increased from a societal standpoint, former NBA champion Dwyane Wade has found himself on the frontlines of another cause — one that has typically been viewed as taboo in the Black community. During an appearance on “The Ellen DeGeneres Show” in February, Wade opened up about his 12-year-old daughter Zaya coming out as transgender. He and the rest of his family remain strong in their support of her no matter the backlash. “We are proud parents of a child in the LGBTQ+ community and we’re proud allies, as well,” Wade told Ellen.
Driving to Diversity
When Bubba Wallace was named the full-time driver of the No. 43 car for Richard Petty Motorsports in 2017, he became the first Black driver to have a full-time Cup ride since Wendell Scott in 1971. His second place finish in the 2018 Daytona 500 was the highest finish ever by a full-time rookie driver. Wallace was hired at the height of the anthem protests and chose not to address the issue at the time. However, following Floyd’s death, he showed his support of the Black Lives Matter movement by wearing an “I Can’t Breathe” shirt and driving a Black Lives Matter car at Martinsville Speedway. Earlier that day, NASCAR had announced the banning of the Confederate flag. Later that month, a noose was found hanging in Wallace’s garage stall at Talladega Superspeedway. Although it was concluded that the noose was placed prior to race weekend, which many say is still up for debate, the show of support from other NASCAR drivers and administration was strong.
NASCAR’s move to banish the Confederate flag, a constant reminder of slavery and hatred, is huge in a sport that has tried doggedly to outrun its racist history. The move is the most recent in a string of efforts to increase diversity in the sport. The Drive for Diversity development program seeks to break down the systemic barriers that have kept minorities out of NASCAR. Additionally, the company named Brandon Thompson, a Black man, the new vice president of diversity and inclusion. As for the impact the banning of the flag will have on fans, both Wallace and NASCAR president Steve Phelps agree that the move will open the door for many more fans — namely those who have previously been repelled by the racist connotation of it.
The world we live in today, while not great, has been shaped by those unafraid to speak out and stand for something — even if it means they could lose everything. Regardless of the fight, be it against racism, sexism, or homophobia; Black athletes have never been able to “stick to sports.” The idea, in and of itself, is impossible. When they leave the court, track, or field, they are still Black in America and that playing field is anything but equal.