A new era of athlete activists inherit a centuries-old fight for justice
What is at stake is not merely lofty ideals, but the very bodies of these athletes and their kinfolk
The Undefeated turned 5 this week and is marking the occasion with a series of essays looking at the last five years in Black America.
I have nothing to say about athlete activism of the last five years or the last 100 years, for that matter, that has not been better said by their actions. Their standing on medal podiums with black-gloved fists raised. Their kneeling. Their refusals to work – sometimes sudden, sometimes organized. Their refusals to face the flag when flown. Their sitting in rowing sculls on waterways up and down the Eastern seaboard protesting for women’s rights and civil rights. Their marching. Their tweets and op-eds and forums. Supplying bail money for arrested activists and protesters. Funding schools and after-school programs. Union leading. Building low-income housing. And police abolition work. And prison abolition work. And sitting in. And talking. And crying – on camera and off. And running and running and running. And getting arrested. And going to jail.
Draft dodging and fundraising. Writing letters to judges, politicians, to the NCAA, to commissioners, athletic directors, presidents and CEOs. Writing more letters to judges, politicians, to the NCAA, to commissioners, athletic directors, presidents and CEOs. Sitting on floors and benches of locker rooms and libraries reading James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time, Carter G. Woodson’s The Mis-Education of the Negro and Martin Luther King Jr.’s Letter from Birmingham Jail. And going to jail. And standing in outfields, sitting in dugouts in Boston, Atlanta and New York while fans yell racial epithets at their backs, while broadcasters and journalists demand they stick to what they’re getting paid to do – provide us circus, spectacle, distraction. And doing this over and over again. In season and out.
If you feel overwhelmed by this abridged history of athlete activism, you should.
If I said anything about this list and athlete activism, I might say that these actions point to the ongoing struggle for civil rights, justice, equity and jobs in America. This list makes shamefully apparent that America refuses its reckoning, refuses to come in under the roof, come in under the shadow of its espoused ideals of justice and democracy. And, it is the young, as it is in every generation, who must bear the ethical and moral failure of the generation before, must resolve to finish the unfinished business of pushing a country, a polis forward.
In other words, the work must be continued because of the ongoingness of disaster, of the catastrophe of anti-Black racism in this country. What the summer of 2020 and the subsequent uprisings made clear was that the civil rights movement and even the Civil War were not over. That the struggle for equality was not some dusty note in a book of history but was present, alive, marching in the streets of Atlanta; Washington; Austin, Texas; and Minneapolis chanting, “No justice, no peace.”
Like many Americans, from moms in Seattle donning gas masks and helmets to teenagers linked arm-in-arm in Washington ready to face the blue- and black-helmeted police, athletes felt the call to activism, the call to continue the civil rights work of Muhammad Ali, Tommie Smith and John Carlos. When NBA players hearing about the police shooting of Jacob Blake, a Black man, in Kenosha, Wisconsin, suddenly refused to protest by not playing, these players were calling back to the bus boycotts and work stoppages of the 1960s, calling back to Georgia Gilmore and the Club from Nowhere, a group of working-class women who helped fund the bus boycott in Montgomery, Alabama.
Much like the young activists during the ’60s who marched in the streets despite the water cannons and dogs, sat at lunch counters in efforts to desegregate public, social spaces, younger athletes, those still in high school, have taken up the mantle of protesting. In Norman, Oklahoma, the Norman High Lady Tigers began kneeling during the national anthem to protest police brutality, limits on women’s rights and racial injustice. They, too, like the youths who protested in the ’50s and ’60s, were mocked and jeered. A play-by-play announcer at one of their games calling them “f—ing n—–s.” Yet, they persisted.
Other amateur athletes have sat or laid down in this uncomfortable but necessary position. In 2014, Knox College basketball player Ariyana Smith performed a die-in, lying on the court for 4 minutes and 30 seconds before the start of a game to protest the killing of Michael Brown by Ferguson, Missouri, police officer Darren Wilson.
Athletes, amateur to professional, have picked up the bloodstained banners of past struggles, banners held by students, activists, and protesters and marched on. For instance, I can’t help but think of students fighting to establish a Black studies department at San Francisco State University in 1968, their long and sometimes violent struggle in the halls and on the campus greens against the police, and not think of the football players at the University of Missouri boycotting football-related activities until university officials resigned due to their negligence in addressing racial injustice on campus.
Or more recently, the University of Texas football players in June 2020 marching out of Darrell K. Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium toward downtown Austin to participate in a march with thousands of others protesting the killing of George Floyd by police officer Derek Chauvin. These same players, inspired by their then-coach Tom Herman’s call to use their voices, would launch a campaign, along with basketball players and track athletes, to cajole the University of Texas to change the racist underpinnings of the school.
In a letter posted to Twitter, these Texas athletes refused to participate in recruitment-related or fundraising events if buildings that carried the names of slave owners or those who “supported the Confederacy and segregation” were not renamed. These activist athletes also took aim at one of the prized, sacrosanct possessions of the university – its school song, “The Eyes of Texas,” a song whose origins began in minstrel shows on campus.
As Texas Monthly noted, “ ’The Eyes of Texas’ is not your typical school song. It’s something closer to a prayer.” Despite the deifying of the song by alumni and the university, this collective of athletes demanded the school song be replaced, and they refused to stay on the field when the song was played at the end of games.
This protest led the university to create a 24-person commission to investigate whether the song was indeed racist, which led to a volley of emails from alumni who castigated the president for allowing the tail to wag the dog. In other words, the president was accused of allowing student-athletes to have any sort of voice or position on the issue. They should, instead, shut up and dribble and run and shoot and be satisfied in their exploitation. In email after email, alumni threatened to pull their funding if their precious song was mussed with.
After four months of research and deliberation, the commission concluded that “The Eyes of Texas” had “no racist intent.” Despite the commission not arriving at the obvious conclusion, I don’t believe the efforts of these student-athlete activists failed. Rather, like those students at San Francisco State in 1968, these Texas athletes participated in the ongoing struggle to decolonize the university. To become more than invited guests or charity cases or merely symbols of the university’s largesse and lip service to “diversity.”
And, it makes sense that student-athletes in the big-money sports, who are also largely students of color, would be at the forefront of the movement to decolonize the university and their surrounding community because of the racial and economic logic that puts their bodies in the space of the university, in the space of the world. The logic of exploitation. That despite the millions and millions of dollars amassed because of the athletic labor of these students, they receive a pittance in return – a scholarship, room and board, a per diem when traveling.
These sorts of conditions and policies reach beyond sport and the coliseum. Activists and writers such as Bayard Rustin, A. Philip Randolph, Lorraine Hansberry and Baldwin wrote and spoke about these sorts of exploitations in plays, speeches and essays. In Letter From the Region of My Mind, Baldwin discusses the notion that for Black folks to make it out of poverty in America they must have a shtick – some sort of stunt, entertaining or singing or dancing or boxing, that America finds exploitable, saccharine and non-hostile. That this gimmick allows America to preen about with the veneer of justice and equality when in actuality the exploitation is still offstage in the form of mendacious record executives, labels, managers and booking agents with their usurious contracts.
It is because of these sorts of conditions and policies that the March on Washington in 1963 was officially entitled the “March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.” That essential to civil rights was the right to a fair wage and protection from economic exploitation. That freedom isn’t merely some lofty idea, but one that has a material and embodied reality.
What these athletes protesting across this vast land signal is that the burning house of America that King feared he was integrating Black folks into is, indeed, still burning. That the country has refused its reckoning. Refused to come in under the roof of its espoused ideals. That racial and economic equality are merely fairy tales we tell ourselves so we can drift off to sleep at night.
And, King’s query, his fear still stands unanswered – are we integrating into a burning house? Are we late in the empire? And, now we must watch it fall, the roof of the house collapsing into the living room and the kitchen. And, what does it mean that the falling empire, the burning house will collapse upon the heads of us who once toiled in this house without compensation and still toil in this house, but now with compensation? We must be clear about what we are protesting for.
Are we protesting to become masters or to tear down the master’s house?
Maya Angelou once said: “When someone shows you who they are, believe them the first time.” When will we believe America is without recompense or justice, that it is a nation that hates its poor and criminalizes poverty, that, at every turn, it will handcuff and delay democracy through the disenfranchising of voters of colors by state legislatures, that it believes the myth of itself – a nation that welcomes all – rather than the truth of its exclusionary immigration practices? What, indeed, are we integrating into?
Here, I can’t help but think of the firebombing of the members of MOVE, a Black separatist organization that espoused an ecopolitical platform, in 1985. The Philadelphia police dropped several bombs on their collectivist house on Osage Avenue, and when folks tried to escape the flames, the police shot at them, killing them and forcing them back into the burning house that also killed them.
America feels like such a burning house. That Black folks are trying to escape the flames of its inequity, the flames of several disasters – those state-created, those virus-induced, those historically inherited – by running from the house in the form of protesting and writing letters and doing police abolition work and kneeling and boycotting and … and … and … the nation shoots back at us, refusing to allow us out of the fire. Refuses to allow us to save ourselves because it is our destruction that is wanted. For this is the legacy of slavery. Our American inheritance.
Athletes throughout this vast land over the last five years feel this historic stirring, this inherited chaos, and refuse to entertain because they understand, corporally, that their bodies on courts and in fields can serve as a distraction, as replacement and projection. As whimsy and abstraction. And, they refuse to allow the nation to recuse itself from the contest, the conflict at hand: the moral reckoning of the country. Its inequities and lies. Because what is at stake are not merely lofty ideals, but the very bodies of these athletes and their kinfolk living in a burning-down house. What is at stake is who gets to live and who must die.