Black Athletes Have a Rich History of Activism, But Current Protests Are Taking it to a Whole New Level

Lebron James

LeBron James and Anthony Davis and other members of the Los Angeles Lakers kneel with their teammates during the national anthem in protest ahead of their game against the LA Clippers on July 30, 2020. On Wednesday night, the Milwaukee Bucks were the first NBA team to boycott a match after they refused to take the court against the Orlando Magic in protest against the police shooting of Jacob Blake. Photo: Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

When the Milwaukee Bucks players refused to take the court Wednesday night for their playoff game against the Orlando Magic in protest against the police shooting of Jacob Blake, it was a watershed moment for athletic activism.

“Over the last few days in our home state of Wisconsin, we’ve seen the horrendous video of Jacob Blake being shot in the back seven times by a police officer in Kenosha,” read a statement from the Milwaukee players. “There has been no action, so our focus today cannot be on basketball.”

This astonishing walkout marks the first time in North American sports history that a pro team has ever boycotted a regular season or playoff game in order protest social injustice.

When the Bucks announced their decision, the NBA decided to postpone all other games on the schedule. And it touched off a chain reaction of support. Baseball’s Milwaukee Brewers immediately followed suit, the team tweeting that “we need to pause and reflect” on the shooting and put the “spotlight on racial injustice, inequality and the necessity of change.”

Then tennis player Naomi Osaki joined the protest, saying, “As a Black woman, I feel as though there are more important matters at hand” than playing her semi-final match at the Western & Southern Open.

Later in the week, the NBA player’s union further flexed their newfound political muscle by issuing a statement saying that they had forged an agreement with the owners to convert NBA arenas into polling stations for the November election.

And the NHL, though it lagged a day behind, announced it would postpone its Thursday and Friday games, the league issuing a statement saying, “We understand that the tragedies involving Jacob Blake, George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and others require us to recognize this moment. We pledge to work to use our sport to influence positive change in society.”


“Shut Up and Dribble”


While the mainstream media largely painted the wildcat strikes in a positive tone, there was a time not so long ago when commentators would have pilloried players who took such drastic action.

For most of the history of sports, fans wanted to watch players score goals, catch balls and win games. They didn’t want to hear what athletes — usually characterized as “dumb jocks” — had to say about politics or social justice or anything else for that matter.

Those who transgressed this cosy arrangement often faced backlash from fans and media commentators — not necessarily because they disagreed with the athletes’ opinions but because they weren’t getting paid to share their world view.

And over the years, many athletes bought into this arrangement. It was a formula that worked for players, owners, fans and the media. Stick to sports and stay out of the political realm.

Or, “Shut up and dribble” as Fox News host Laura Ingraham said to NBA superstars LeBron James and Kevin Durant after they dared criticize Donald Trump.

A History of Protest


In the past, there have always been athletes who bucked the trend and refused to remain silent. However, they paid dearly for their efforts.

The most famous, of course, was boxer Muhammad Ali. In 1966, he broke the code of silence. Ali dared question aloud why he should go to Vietnam “while so-called Negro people in Louisville are treated like dogs and denied simple human rights.” For adhering to his principles, Ali not only went to jail, but he also sacrificed the prime years of his boxing career.

At the Mexico City Summer Olympics in 1968, 200-metre gold and silver medalists Tommie Smith and John Carlos stood on the podium and raised their fists in the iconic “Black power” salute during the playing of “The Star-Spangled Banner,” a powerful statement in support of Black human rights. The pair were suspended from the U.S. track team and received harsh criticism for their actions, including one sportswriter who dubbed them “a couple of Black-skinned storm troopers.”

And there were more. Jim Brown, football’s biggest star in the ’60s, never missed an opportunity to speak out against racial injustice. Tennis great Arthur Ashe marched in anti-apartheid parades. And legendary Boston Celtic Bill Russell once led a player revolt in 1961 after he and several teammates were refused service at a whites-only restaurant in Kentucky.

Though they excelled in their fields and were lauded for their bravery, they often earned the reputation of troublemakers who should have stayed in their lanes and focused on sports.


“Republicans Buy Sneakers Too”


And for all the socially engaged Black athletes who endured scorn for raising their voices, there have been many others who feared that any political statement would hurt their brands — which they so closely guarded because they were so lucrative.

Michael Jordan never quite lived down a quip he made to teammates after being asked why he remained silent on social issues. The biggest athlete on the planet at the time, he was earning huge money to endorse everything from Big Macs to Gatorade to underwear.

At the height of his power and influence, he refused to endorse Harvey Gnatt, a Black Democrat who was running against race-baiter Jesse Helms in Jordan’s home state of North Carolina. And he would not speak out on social issues, worried that it would derail the gravy train of corporate support.

“Republicans buy sneakers too,” reasoned Jordan, a financially sound philosophy that fit right into the unapologetic capitalist mentality that held sway during the Reagan era. Other big-name Black athletes, including global superstar Tiger Woods, adopted Jordan’s philosophy, preferring to withhold their opinions on controversial issues for the sake of selling products.

This financially motivated silence, which made Jordan and Woods the subject of much criticism from Black activists, highlights the no-win situation Black athletes used to face.

Because of their skin colour, players of colour are always expected to have an opinion on social matters and share it publicly. However, they were in a bind. If they chose to speak out on the issue, they’d be deemed opinionated or disruptive and risk losing their endorsements. But if they remained silent, they were castigated by others for not using their influence to change society.

They do not face that dilemma anymore. In the “silence-is-violence” era, it’s no longer possible for athletes of any colour to hold their opinions to themselves.


Taking a Knee


And the catalyst that drove this change started four years ago, when an NFL quarterback began using the National Anthem as a vehicle to push his social injustice agenda.

On Aug. 26, 2016, when one of the league’s top quarterbacks — San Francisco 49er Colin Kaepernick — began kneeling during the playing of the National Anthem, he not only struck a nerve in America but, more importantly, brought social protest right onto the field of play.

“I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses Black people and people of colour,” said Kaepernick. As to the backlash that followed, suggesting he was disrespecting the flag, he retorted: “I don’t understand what’s un-American about fighting for liberty and justice for everybody.”

This very visible on-field protest drew national attention and reverberated upwards through the NFL’s executive suites all the way to the White House. After a September 2017 NFL game in which Eric Reid, who continued the kneeling protest after his teammate Kaepernick was drummed out of the league, Trump told a rally in Alabama that NFL owners should “get that son of a bitch off the field right now.”

Trump’s rallying cry drew the support of his base but, surprisingly, not NFL owners, including Jerry Jones, the cantankerous boss of the Dallas Cowboys. When Jones — a Trump supporter — decided to join his players in kneeling for the National Anthem, it marked a true game-changing moment in the history of athletic protest.

The NFL’s biggest power broker made a public statement that he was on board with allowing players to publicly display their political beliefs. If Jones was out on the field taking a knee, then the NFL, which had been considering banning anthem protests, had no choice but to adapt to the times.

Kaepernick, like others in the past, paid the price for speaking up. To this day, he hasn’t taken a snap in the NFL — this despite the fact that other less talented quarterbacks have found roster spots.


LeBron’s Big Voice


But Kaepernick’s protests did not go in vain. His refusal to back down in the face of withering derision emboldened a whole new generation of athletes — including LeBron James — to not be afraid to speak out. And when Nike broke the corporate code and released an ad campaign that supported Kaepernick, it made James’ life a whole lot easier. If Kaepernick could disrupt the sports world with his protests — and continue to receive corporate support — then James could do the same.

“I stand with Kap. I kneel with Kap. I feel like what he was talking about nobody wanted to listen to. Nobody wanted to really understand where he was coming from,” said James after the latter had won a collusion suit against the NFL.

Kaepernick’s successful protest paved the way for James to become a leading Black athlete spokesperson on the issue of police brutality and systemic racism. And he continues to do so, without the fear of sacrificing his career or losing endorsements.

Witness how James’ voice has developed. In 2014, before Kaepernick changed the landscape, Eric Garner, a Black man, was killed by police in a confrontation. In the aftermath, James wore an “I can’t breathe” shirt in warm-ups, explaining (almost apologetically) to reporters that he was doing so as a “shout-out to the family.”

But in 2020, after the police killing of George Floyd and shooting of Jacob Blake, the voice of the biggest, wealthiest and most famous athlete of our times has become far more urgent and forceful.

“And y’all wonder why we say what we say about the Police!! Someone please tell me WTF is this???!!! Exactly another black man being targeted. This shit is so wrong and so sad!! Feel so sorry for him, his family and OUR PEOPLE!! We want JUSTICE,” tweeted James.

James was able to speak out because Kaepernick had changed the landscape and made athletes’ protests acceptable.

And since Kaepernick took a knee, Black athletes have become increasingly fearless. They no longer feel they have to hide in a bubble and shy away from voicing their outrage. Some issues are just too important to ignore, and if athletes feel that speaking out or cancelling a few games will help change society, then they must follow their conscience.

This newfound activism is also upending long-held notions of what an athlete owes fans and what he owes society. After the Milwaukee Bucks walked out on Wednesday’s game, they completely altered the sports landscape.

Dr. Harry Edwards, a long-time Black sports activist who encouraged Smith and Carlos to take their stand way back at the 1968 Olympics, suggests that it’s time sports takes a back seat to important social change.

The 77-year-old, who has been around since the beginnings of Black athletes’ protesting racism, says he sees the Bucks’ walkout as a defining and necessary moment in sports history.

“Kaepernick made a statement. Tommie Smith and John Carlos made a statement. The athletes who are boycotting today with the NBA are sending a message: We are serious about this. Stop killing us! It’s more important that we deal with that than we play a basketball game and entertain you out here. Stop killing us.”


Sports Is No Longer an Escape


Edwards made a strong statement, but one that’s fraught with peril, as many old-school sports fans — who yearn for the days when sports was just about sports — are having a tough time accepting this new era.

Everyone understands why it’s so important that athletes of all backgrounds take as strong a stand as possible against the scourge of racism. It goes without saying that speaking up against police brutality against Black men is more far more important than the outcome of a Bucks-Magic game.

But a large contingent yearn for the days when sports provided a few blessed hours to escape from the darker realities of life. Let the front-page pundits debate the issues. Leave the sports page to those who want a few hours of unfettered enjoyment to block out the world. The focus should be on who won, who lost, who scored and who screwed up.

And as sports increasingly crosses over into entertainment and politics, this sort of freedom is no longer possible. Nowadays, few games take place without an overlay of pressing social and political matters. Whether it’s honouring troops before matches or wearing jerseys with Black Lives Matter slogans, the games are no longer just about the game.

The popularity of professional sports was built on this premise of escapism. But if that very premise is no longer possible, then there’s a real risk that many fans will eventually tune out the message and turn off the game.

That’s an outcome players knew they were risking when they walked out of the playoff game. But by telling the world that the issue had become too big for them to “shut up and dribble,” they showed they changed the rules of the game.

It will be interesting to see for how long sports fans go along with the change.


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