Athletes use protests throughout history as a form of standing against racial injustice in America 

Grace Meaux

Four years ago Colin Kaepernick, an American civil rights activist and football quarterback, began popularizing protests in sports when he refused to stand for the national anthem to protest police brutality and racial injustice. When he started this protest he stayed seated during the national anthem. However, after discussing the issue with Nate Boyer, a U.S. Army veteran, Kaepernick started kneeling—a sign of respect for fallen soldiers while also an act of protest. 

  Kaepernick’s actions inspired debate over whether social justice issues should be addressed in sports. 52 percent of students support social justice being addressed through sports. 

“I definitely think that it’s super important to bring these topics to attention,” sophomore Bridget Wang said. “These people are so famous and have a platform where they are privileged enough to talk about this and share it with the public and that has been really good for them to bring it to attention to people who might not be aware of what’s going on around them.”

However, protesting in a sports game was not new to 2016. Protests in sports date back to the 1880s. One of the first signs of activism in sports was in 1883 in Major League Baseball when Moses Fleetwood Walker became the first African American to play professional baseball. He accomplished this despite the fact that coaches and players refused to play with someone of his race. 

On March 9, 1966, boxer Muhammid Ali became eligible to fight in the Vietnam War. Ali refused to enlist, believing the war was against his moral and religious beliefs. Although Ali faced possible felony offenses, he continued to protest against the war. 

At the 1968 Olympics, two African American athletes John Carlos and Tommie Smith each raised a black-gloved fist on the Olympic podium during the national anthem as a way to protest racial discrimination.

During the 1995 to 1996 basketball season of the Denver Nuggets, Mahamoud Abdul-Rauf began to appear absent from the standing for the National Anthem. Abdul-Rauf went unnoticed for a majority of the season as he silently stretched in the locker room or kept himself occupied in other ways. Once his ritual did become noticed, Abdul-Rauf explained that he saw the American flag as a symbol of oppression and racism and that standing for the national anthem went against his Muslim beliefs. 

And in 2014, Knox College basketball player Ariyana Smith protested the national anthem during a game. Smith raised her hands and fell to the ground for four and a half minutes to protest the fatal shooting of Michael Brown by law enforcement. 

Protests in sports continue today. NFL teams and players have been canceling practices, postponing games, and kneeling during the national anthem. As for the Dallas Cowboys, in years prior, the NFL shared that owner Jerry Jones stated that he expected his players to stand during the national anthem, but for the 2020 season he mentioned that he was looking for a compromise. Defensive lineman Dontari Poe was the only Cowboys player that kneeled for the beginning of the season. 

On Aug. 26, Milwaukee Bucks became the first full team in the National Basketball Association to boycott a playoff game to protest the shooting of Jacob Blake by law enforcement officers. The NBA collective bargaining agreement says that no player should engage in strikes or any other “stoppages of work.” Through their strike for systemic racism, the Bucks were breaking their own contract with the NBA. 

These recent events have reignited debates over protests in sports. An Aug. 13 survey from ESPN showed that 71 percent of sports fans support athletes and teams addressing issues of social injustice and racial equality. 55 percent of fans felt that players should share their views during sporting events and 49 percent said they should speak out away from the game. 

“I definitely support these professional athletes protesting their games,” sophomore varsity basketball player Madison Mccloud said. “I think because the NBA and WNBA are filled with mostly African Americans they felt that they needed to take a stand for our people and show that we are not going to take this kind of treatment anymore.”

Today, modern technology and social media give players a wider audience to share their own struggles and beliefs. For example, professional basketball player Lebron James, with 47.5 million followers on Twitter, has transformed his page into an outlet for social activism. 

“I think social media can be a powerful source for positive awareness and the way that primary source material is available through videos and things like that is a way that really has not been in any other time,” upper school history teacher and junior class dean Claire Mrozek said. “I think that’s ultimately got to be good. The opportunities for misuse are equally rampant and that’s why it’s really important that everyone looks at things with a critical eye and asks questions.”

Disclaimer: Attempts were made to talk to students who believe these issues should be handled away from the games, but many were not comfortable sharing their stance. 

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