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Athletes getting back in the protest game

It’s been a long time since the activist heyday of the Sixties, but athletes are starting to speak out more

Philando Castile. Alton Sterling. The Dallas and Baton Rouge police officers: A summer of horrific gun violence that continues daily from Orlando to Milwaukee is prompting athletes and activists across the country to ask themselves what can be done. This week, The Undefeated looks at some of the issues involved and holds a town hall discussion in Chicago, the site of some of the nation’s worst gun violence.


Sprinter John Carlos, facing discrimination while growing up in Harlem, vowed as a young boy to eventually use his athletic gifts to fight the injustice he faced.

After Carlos won a bronze medal in the 200-meter dash at the 1968 Olympics, he seized the moment. In an effort to spotlight the plight of blacks in America, both Carlos and gold medal winner Tommie Smith stood silently on the medal stand in bare feet, each hoisting a gloved fist above his head. To this day, it remains one of the most iconic acts of defiance in American sports history.

So what happened in the decades that followed? The movement of athletes who spoke publicly about social reform in the 1960s — with Muhammad Ali, Jim Brown, Bill Russell and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar being among the most prominent — appeared to, collectively, fade to black. For the better part of the next three decades, athletes — perhaps fearing the loss of jobs and endorsements in the era before huge multimillion-dollar guaranteed contracts — were often mere observers when it came to social protest.

Recently, athletes have demonstrated a willingness to re-enter the field. That resonated loudly in 2012 when LeBron James tweeted a photo of the entire Miami Heat team donning hoodies and standing with their heads bowed in a tribute to Trayvon Martin, an unarmed Florida teenager who was shot to death after being profiled by a neighborhood crime-watch volunteer.

Since then, more athletes have been taking public stands:

  • In April 2014, numerous players and NBA owners expressed outrage after Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling was recorded making racially insensitive remarks. Even basketball great Michael Jordan, long criticized for being a silent spectator on social issues, spoke out: “I am appalled that this type of ignorance still exists within our country and at the highest levels of our sport.” Under increasing pressure from players, Sterling was forced to sell the team.
  • In November 2014, Ariyana Smith of the Knox College (Illinois) women’s basketball team left the bench during the national anthem, and stood under the basket with her hands up. When the anthem ended, she dropped to the ground and lay there for four minutes and 30 seconds — signifying the four hours, 30 minutes that Michael Brown’s body remained on the street in Ferguson, Missouri, after the teenager was shot by police officer Darren Wilson. Smith’s protest came in the town where a grand jury failed to indict Wilson. When the anthem was played at the game following her one-game suspension, Smith and her teammates locked and raised their arms in unison.
  • In December 2014, five players with the St. Louis Rams — Tavon Austin, Stedman Bailey, Chris Givens, Kenny Britt and Jared Cook — entered the field with raised arms, mimicking the “hands up, don’t shoot” gesture used by protesters in nearby Ferguson. Local law enforcement supporters burned Rams’ gear in protest of the gesture.
  • Two weeks later, Cleveland Browns receiver Andrew Hawkins took the field during warm-ups before a game against the Cincinnati Bengals wearing a black T-shirt that read “Justice for Tamir Rice and John Crawford” on the front and “The Real Battle for Ohio” on the back. A local police union official demanded an apology, and described the protest as “pathetic.” Hawkins, with the support of the Browns, stood behind his message: “My wearing the T-shirt was a stance against wrong individuals doing the wrong thing for the wrong reason to innocent people.”
  • Last month, the WNBA’s Minnesota Lynx posed in T-shirts that read “Change Starts With Us Justice and Accountability” on the front, and the names of Philando Castile and Alton Sterling, who were shot to death by police, on the back — along with a logo acknowledging five Dallas law enforcement officials shot to death during a Black Lives Matter protest. In response to their actions, four officers working security for the Lynx walked off their posts.

Yes, today’s athletes increasingly appear woke, to the delight of those who’ve been waiting for this moment since the late 1960s. The recent actions pale compared with Jackie Robinson breaking the color barrier in baseball, Muhammad Ali challenging the Vietnam War and Curt Flood taking his fight for free agency to the Supreme Court. But today’s athletes are beginning to engage.

“In that era, guys took on social issues and their presence forced the country to address larger social issues like racism,” said Donald McPherson, a former NFL quarterback who is a social activist when he’s not working as a commentator for football games on the Big East network. “The echo chamber these guys live in via social media allows them to feel they have the support of a large population of people that support their causes. It helps that, today, athletes are financially comfortable to take a stand.”

Money equals freedom. When even second-tier NBA players are signing multiyear contracts for tens of millions of dollars, the players are in a better position to express their opinions without jeopardizing their livelihoods.

There are still risks, of course. While NBA salaries are guaranteed, players can lose endorsement income. That might have an impact on a player making close to the league minimum. But when LeBron James, Chris Paul, Dwyane Wade and Carmelo Anthony spoke out against social injustice at the beginning of last month’s ESPYS, there was over a combined $632 million in career earnings on the stage. To them, risking a few million while taking a stand might not have a tremendous impact.

Carlos and Smith didn’t have that cushion in 1968. Both were immediately kicked out of the Olympic Village and faced years of financial struggles. The ex-wife of Carlos committed suicide in 1977, which took the Olympian down the path of depression.

“There were threats against us after the Olympics,” said Smith, who played briefly in the NFL with the Bengals during the 1969 season. “It had an impact. But, for me, there are no regrets. I came into an academic environment that involved more than getting an education. It was an environment that taught me that you must do more than you’re capable of.”

In the days after Carlos and Smith were banned from the Olympic Village, three more Americans made a statement. Lee Evans (a teammate of Carlos and Smith at San Jose State), Larry James and Ron Freeman swept the medals in the 400 meters. Each wore black berets similar to those worn by members of the Black Panther Party when they approached the medal stand.

Boxer George Foreman took a different approach, celebrating his gold medal by walking around the ring holding two American flags. Despite being harshly criticized at the time by many black Olympians, Foreman holds firms to his belief that athletes and activism are a bad mix.

“Sports is free. It’s when the whole world can come together and compete,” Foreman told The Undefeated. “[Some] athletes don’t know what they’re talking about and don’t even know what they are standing for. They just have someone in their ear … So I don’t like it, and I never did like it.”

While noted sports activists like Ali, Russell, Brown and Abdul-Jabbar were vocal in the 1960s, some say their activity might have been strategic. While Ali was outspoken for his entire career, Brown had retired in 1966 (a year before the “Ali Summit” in Cleveland) and Russell was near the end of his career. Abdul-Jabbar went on to become one of the best players in NBA history, but was never able to parlay his success into a coaching or front office position.

Other not-so-famous players suffered major consequences for their activism.

Chicago Bulls shooting guard Craig Hodges showed up at the White House wearing a dashiki after his team won the 1992 title, and handed President George Bush a letter requesting that more be done for black communities in America. He never played another NBA game, despite being one of the best 3-point shooters in the league and coming off his third straight 3-point shootout title during the 1992 All-Star weekend. He claimed he was blackballed for his actions.

Denver Nuggets guard Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf was suspended for one game during the 1996 season after refusing to stand during the national anthem. Abdul-Rauf, who had converted to Islam, called the American flag “a symbol of oppression and tyranny.” He was traded after the season despite averaging 19.2 points, which led the Nuggets. The backlash followed him the rest of his career, which ended prematurely when he was age 31, following the 2000-01 season.

“There was a vulnerability for people speaking out, and in the 1970s, ’80s and ’90s, it was about how much economic power you have and how much are you willing to risk for what you believe in,” said McPherson, who played seven years in the NFL and Canadian Football League after a stellar career at Syracuse that earned him a spot in the College Football Hall of Fame. “That’s why Michael Jordan took so much heat because everyone felt he had the economic capital that he would be able to address social justice issues. I’m glad he finally stepped up.”

The 2016 Summer Games in Rio de Janeiro revealed two more risk-takers.

American swimmer Simone Manuel introduced the Black Lives Matter movement during her press conference shortly after winning the 100-meter freestyle event, becoming the first African-American woman to win an individual gold medal in swimming. “It means a lot, especially with what is going on in the world today, some of the issues of police brutality,” Manuel told reporters. “This win hopefully brings hope and change to some of the issues that are going on. My color comes with the territory.”

And Ethiopian Olympic marathon runner Feyisa Lilesa made a statement that had life-threatening implications when he crossed his arms above his head as he finished his race, and did the same later during the medal ceremony. That gesture is often used by anti-government protesters in Ethiopia, a nation where the opposition has been violently crushed. When the Ethiopian delegation flew home this week, Lilesa remained in Brazil, as he feared for his own safety.

“What [Lilesa] did is a tremendous gesture, and it brings attention to what’s going on in Ethiopia for people who might not be aware,” said Louis Moore, a history professor at Grand Valley State University in Michigan who has written pieces on the activism of Cleveland Cavalier star LeBron James and 1936 Olympic track champion Jesse Owens. “And we can’t overlook the recent actions of women, who were never really encouraged or allowed to be involved. From Simone Manuel to the protests by the WNBA players, these are people who have a lot to lose. They put their contracts and endorsements at great risk.”

The actions by current athletes make Harry Edwards, who helped spark the protest movement as a professor at San Jose State University, proud.

“Young people have always been at the forefront,” Edwards said. “Back then it was greats like Muhammad Ali, Arthur Ashe, Bill Russell, Tommie Smith and John Carlos. What they do is all for love of this country. You don’t do what they did and pay the price that they paid if you don’t love this country.”

Carlos sees what’s happening today as an extension of what he did nearly 58 years ago.

“All the young individual athletes who have perspective as to how they can possibly lend their support to make change, this is why they’re stepping up now,” Carlos said. “The athletes who look up to us today just realize they’re just an extension of a life-long relay.”

Jerry Bembry is a senior writer at The Undefeated. His bucket list items include being serenaded by Lizz Wright, and watching the Knicks play an NBA game in June.