Why Athlete Protests Still Matter
“Stick to sports.” The most common phrase athletes hear when using their platform to give a voice to those who cannot speak up for themselves. A three-word phrase dripping with condescension and contempt. It is an attempt to tell athletes that they do not have the intellectual capacity to speak about such nuance. It is an attempt to tell the athlete that they are beholden to fans or that the fan owns the athlete’s time. How dare an athlete soil the purity of sport with any kind of uncomfortable conversation? “Stick to sports” ultimately is the conservative rebuttal to the legions of athlete who have stood up, or sat down, to protest the institutionalized racism, inequality and injustices of our society.
On the 49th anniversary, Tommie Smith and John Carlos’ Black Power salute on the medal stand at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City remains as poignant then as Colin Kaepernick taking a knee now. With millions of eyes worldwide trained on them, Smith and Carlos walked to the podium not to celebrate their accomplishment but to confront the world and the United States with the social and economic injustices that are so pervasive. They took their shoes off to protest poverty. They wore beads and a scarf to protest lynchings all over the South. And as the anthem played, they lowered their heads, and raised their fists in a Black Power salute.
Death threats, suspension from the US track team and a barrage of negative criticism from the the punditry world that all said one thing. “Stick to sports.”
Sports is not the place for protest, they say. Our team, our country, our flag, that is what we are all unified around. By protesting, the argument is, athletes are bringing divisiveness and dissent to the one place that we are supposedly all together. Sport is both important to national culture but also is immune to the rest of the national discourse.
Have we forgotten what Jackie Robinson faced? How Muhammad Ali was black balled? How the NFL has allegedly colluded against Colin Kaepernick? Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf? The list of athletes whose careers suffered not because of their athletic ability but because they were Black and had the audacity to speak out against the omnipresent injustices in our society.
Sports have been, and continue to be, reflective of the struggles of our society. Sport is one of the few places where we can challenge the injustices of society by forcing a conversation to be had about the injustices. “Stick to sports” is the attempt to change the conversation. Rather than talking about institutionalized racism, systemic police brutality, or economic injustice, “stick to sports” is the attempt to trivialize the voice of athletes.
As I thought about the direction of where I wanted to go with these piece, I noticed something. Track and field athletes have a long history as the forging ground for athlete protests. It wasn’t just Tommie Smith and John Carlos in 1968. In 1972 Vince Matthews and Wayne Collett were permanently banned from the Olympics for their protest of the anthem in Munich. In 1973, Long Island track fans booed college athletes for their protest and Eastern Michigan was disqualified from the meet. A meet director at the Madison Square Garden decided to not play the national anthem because “its purpose and relevance to sports events has never been established.”
All athletes should realize the power they have and the role they play in our cultural discourse. Every elite athlete knows what it’s like to have a wide-eyed teen ask for a signature. They know what it’s like to get a Facebook message asking what training they should be doing. Every athlete has at least one fan, someone that looks to them and admires them for their discipline, perseverance, their skills and God-given talents. When athletes talk, people listen.
Tommie Smith and John Carlos stood up on that podium in 1968 and sacrificed their moments of athletic triumph to give a voice to the those in Harlem who can’t afford a meal. They sacrificed for those Black men that silently swung from the poplar trees in the South. In a moment that every athlete dreams to one day experience, they raised their fists to salute those who were beat outside the Democratic National Convention, and the thousands of Black men and women that faced brutality at the hands of those sworn to protect.
They gave a voice to those who could not speak. They forced those who refused to listen, to listen. Many will refuse to hear the message that Tommie Smith, John Carlos, Ali, Michael Bennett and Kaepernick preach. Maybe most. But there will be some that will take a second to learn, to read, to think.
The fight for equality is not won in one day. It is won with one uncomfortable conversation at a time. And sports has been and always will be the place that forces the conversation to be had. Sports, culture, politics, they are all intertwined. They always have been. So yeah, maybe “stick to sports” is exactly the right response, because sports is the powerful battleground for our civil discourse.