LOS ANGELES, CA-Social activism among athletes sounds like a trendy hashtag on social media these days. But the truth of the matter is that this is nothing new. Sit-ins, boycotts, fighting for equality and social justice causes has been a call to arms by athletes for years. Jack Johnson, Joe Louis, Muhammad Ali, and the great Jesse Owens were open and out front about fighting in-your-face bigotry.
The whole controversy around the national anthem, whether to kneel or stand, has been around for a while. It just didn’t start with former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick and running back Marshawn Lynch. The revered Jackie Robinson, the first black player to play Major League Baseball, rebutted America’s national anthem on the stand of racial inequity.
“There I was, the black grandson of a slave, the son of a black sharecropper, part of a historic occasion, a symbolic hero to my people,” Robinson said in I Never Had It Made. “The air was sparkling. The sunlight was warm. The band struck up the national anthem. The flag billowed in the wind. It should have been a glorious moment for me as the stirring words of the national anthem poured from the stands. Perhaps, it was, but then again, perhaps, the anthem could be called the theme song for a drama called The Noble Experiment.
“Today, as I look back on that opening game of my first world series, I must tell you that it was Mr. Rickey’s drama and that I was only a principal actor. As I write this twenty years later, I cannot stand and sing the anthem. I cannot salute the flag; I know that I am a black man in a white world. In 1972, in 1947, at my birth in 1919, I know that I never had it made.”
The articulation of social activism among athletes-professional or amateur- have ramped up considerably in recent years. The “woke” athlete has become the norm these days. But being socially conscious doesn’t always translate into these individuals being accepted or warmly embraced for their moral or personal beliefs.
Sometimes, backlash comes with the territory. It can come with fury and show up unapologetically vile. Just ask Dr. John Carlos. He knows this better than a lot of people. Carlos lost his first wife, Kim, to suicide, indirectly related to the firestorm raked on his family following the Black Power Salute he and Tommie Smith executed at the medal podium at the 1968 Olympics.
His children were routinely taunted with threats. Carlos and Smith endured decades of humiliation and scorn as a result of their actions following the men’s 200 meters in Mexico City, Mexico.
“People are concerned about freedom, equality, justice, and most of all that most us have seemed to have lost this thing called love,” Carlos said while speaking during the “The Athlete Voice” panel discussion at the Laureus Summit 2018, which was hosted in honor of the 100th birthday of Nelson Mandela at the Conga Room in downtown Los Angeles.
Fast forward 50 years later, both Smith and Carlos are celebrated heroes now to a younger generation of athletes looking to find their platform in wanting to change the communities they come from and society in general.
“What’s ironic, when you look up at the medal count, it was nation versus nation, the strongest and the hardest, whole nine yards…they kicked us off the team, but they didn’t take our medal count,” Carlos said. “You can’t have it both ways. Most people in American don’t know they lost 2,000 lives in Mexico City as a result of individuals stepping up and saying, hey, man, I want to have equality in my life. I want to have a better life.”
Carlos and Smith are two of the well-known athletic figures to come from that generation of athletes expressing a desire for social change. Kareem Abdul Jabbar (Lew Alcindor), Ali, Jim Brown, Robinson and Bill Russell are other figures stepping out of their comfort zones of entertaining people to speak out on social injustices, especially pertaining to the plight of African Americans.
Today, that mantle has been lifted by LeBron James, Chris Paul, the Williams sisters, Kaepernick, Chris Kluwe, Malcolm Jenkins and a host of others.
If you’re one of those individuals like Fox News host Laura Ingraham who believes that athletes should do nothing more than “shut up and dribble” as she alluded to NBA megastar LeBron James after he criticized President Donald Trump, you’re either incredibly ignorant of the facts, stupid or both.
It is interesting to me that certain people readily point to the United States Constitution and the First Amendment and cite Article I only when it is convenient for them and meets that criteria of appeasement in their narrow-minded eyes.
To some, athletes don’t have the privilege to exercise their right to free speech, whether it is in the form of National Football League players kneeling in protest or Serena and Venus Williams railing out on unequal equal pay for women in sports. The gamut on this social front is wide-ranging and complex.
Yet, the athlete, throughout the history of America, have been significant in leading the charge of a societal makeover. There’s plenty of examples to pull from. American high jumper Eroseanna “Rose” Robinson refused to stand for the national anthem during the 1959 Pan American Games. Olympic legend Edwin Moses has been knee-deep in pushing the anti-doping movement in sports, especially in track and field. The list is extensive and goes back decades.
“In the year 2000, at our first annual sports awards, Nelson Mandela talked about the power of sport,” Moses said. “It’s a very famous speech. Lots of different organizations have used his words when he said that sport has the power to change the world. Sport can give hope…sport is a tool to do good.”
Moses, a two-time gold medalist (1976, 1984 Olympics) and two-time world champion in the 400 hurdles, said there is a stark difference in the manner which today’s athletes are able to get their message across compared to when he competed.
“The athletes have far greater opportunities to make visible what they’re doing,” Moses said. “My generation you had to hope you got newspaper coverage. The world is different now. There are a lot more platforms. I was one of the few with a big mouth, because having a big mouth could be detrimental to your financial well-being. I spoke out against amateurism and that forced the amateurism rule to be changed. I spoke out against the anti-doping issues. That is still an ongoing battle. There are countries, like Russia, that don’t believe in fair play. I’ve been outspoken on everything.”