This past week, fans and citizens chose sides as many NFL players decided to take a knee in protest after Donald Trump made some disparaging remarks threatening their livelihood. Never in history has a sitting president made such remarks; thus, the response of players is a wake-up call that racial injustice is a problem that people no longer want to ignore.
Let’s be clear, for those that still won’t listen to reason. NFL players aren’t kneeling to disrespect a piece of fabric. They aren’t kneeling to dishonor a song written by a slaveholder who endorsed the murder of soldiers who fled slavery. They aren’t kneeling to dishonor veterans who actually served to protect the right that guaranteed the ability to peacefully protest. They are protesting because like many of us, we are tired of the racial injustices visited upon people of color in this country. They are protesting because it’s unfathomable that in this day and age, somehow our president, whose job it is to protect the interests of this country, is one of the biggest racists to ever hold office. Another fact is while the majority of athletes in U.S. sports are people of color, the majority of the owners as well as those that do business with them are white.
But for those that know their history, this isn’t the first time that athletes have protested the acts of this country against its citizens. There have been many instances over the years where athletes have stood up to protest against a nation that still treats some of its citizens poorly. Let’s examine some of those times below:
1966 – Muhammad Ali protests the Vietnam War
Already controversial for converting to Islam, when asked his stance regarding the war which, by the way, was popular with America at that point in time, said: “Man, I ain’t got no quarrel with them Viet Cong.” He then refused to do service with the US military on the basis of his Muslim beliefs. He was convicted of draft dodging (the conviction was overturned in 1971 on technical grounds) and lost his boxing license for a few years as well as lots of money. But because he stood up for his beliefs, he and many Americans took a stance against the war which became very unpopular, especially since Black Americans weren’t being treated right at home. Ali’s act of defiance made him the icon he became and a role model for many.
1968 – Mexico City Summer Olympics
John Carlos and Tommie Smith had just won the gold and bronze in the 200 meter race. As they were being awarded their medals, they gave a Black Power salute. Silver medalist Peter Norman, in solidarity, wore a human rights pin on his jacket. The IOC gave harsh criticism of the gesture, calling it unfit for the apolitical international forum of the Olympics Games. Smith and Carlos were then suspended from the Games and never allowed to participate again. It’s interesting to note, however, that in 1936 the Nazi salute was deemed acceptable at the Berlin Games while simultaneously expelling Jewish athletes who wanted to compete. It’s also interesting to note Avery Brundage, who was IOC President during the incident in Mexico City, was also a Nazi sympathizer.
Carlos and Smith’s protest was also linked to Muhammad Ali’s protest and treatment at home by citizens who refused to acknowledge the fight for civil rights. Upon returning home, they received harsh treatment and Peter Norman, for his participation, was left off of the 1972 Australian team.
1996 Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf Protests
20 years prior to Colin Kaepernick’s knee, NBA player Chris Jackson of the Denver Nuggets converted to Islam. To protest racial inequality, he sat on the bench of NBA games during the playing of the anthem. When asked why he was protesting, he said, “This country has a long history of [racism]. I don’t think you can argue the facts. You can’t be for God and for oppression.” Eventually, he was fined by the NBA $31,000 for his protest; however an agreement was reached, because there were laws that permitted him the right to exercise his religious freedom in the workplace. But by that point, he faced harsh criticism and a shortened career for standing up for his beliefs. It’s no surprise if you look at Kaepernick’s and Adbul-Rauf’s protests: they are similar.
2014 The NBA Protests Donald Sterling
In 2014, then-Denver Nuggets owner Donald Sterling was recorded making racist statements with his mistress. TMZ broke the story in which he was heard saying, “You can sleep with [black people]. You can bring them in, you can do whatever you want. The little I ask you is not to promote it on that … and not to bring them to my games,” among other things. Reaction from the NBA was swift: not only did players speak up, but eventually Sterling was banned from the NBA for life, fined 2.5 million dollars, and forced to sell the team.
2016 Adam Jones and Boston Taunt Incident
In May this year, Adam Jones of the Baltimore Orioles was the victim of racist taunts while playing against the Red Sox. Jones stated: “A disrespectful fan threw a bag of peanuts at me. I was called the N-word a handful of times tonight. Thanks. Pretty awesome.’’ The Red Sox apologized to Jones and apparently ejected two fans.
These are just a few documented incidents that have happened in the U.S.
But make no mistake, the U.S. doesn’t have corner on racist behaviors when it comes to sports.
In October 2011, during a soccer game between Liverpool and Manchester United, Luis Suarez made a racial statement to Patrice Evra. In the resulting investigation, Suarez was fined 53,000 dollars and banned for 8 games.
In April 2014, Dani Alvez, who played for Barcelona, had a fan throw a banana at him. He picked it up, ate it, and kept playing. The fan was subsequently banned for life from the stadium.
In 2015, 20 years after apartheid was abolished in South Africa, Black rugby players have fought to play on a squad that still brings on mostly white athletes.
In February 2017, Everton Luiz, a Brazilian soccer player, had fans make ape noises which caused him to leave the field in tears.
So, while there has been a well-documented history of racist incidents and protests in sports, the question now is: what can be done to curtail them? This is not to silence people who protest injustice, but the question is: what will our leaders do to ensure that every citizen actually has equal rights? Once our government actually starts to move towards true equality of its citizens, possibly these incidents can become a thing of the past.
…but for now, it’s wishful thinking.