Sitting Down and Taking a Stand
Over the last few months, many individuals in the sports world have been taking stances about the state of race relations in the United States.
A group of four elite basketball players stood on-stage at the 2016 ESPY awards and spoke on the need to stop police violence toward black individuals and potential retaliations toward law enforcement. Many in the sports world gave the four men praise for this action.
More recently, San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick did not stand during the playing of the national anthem during a preseason game in protest for treatment of racial minorities in the country. In stark contrast, many within and outside the sports world lambasted him and his action with consistent use of the word “disrespectful.”
Regardless of situation, there were still members of a contingency who would react to said actions with frustration. A number of individuals on Twitter would instruct the athletes to “stay in their lane” or focus solely on their sport. Many of these individuals feel as if sports are not the place for political introspection.
However, that sentiment could not be further from the truth.
Take, for example, the 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin, Germany. American track star Jesse Owens won four medals in a competition where German leader Adolf Hitler planned to showcase the dominance of Nazi Germany and purported Aryan superiority.
Owens pretty much blew the latter notion out of the water. According to one German journalist, Hitler eventually shook Owens’ hand away from the press’ eyeshot. Meanwhile, President Franklin Roosevelt made little, if any, recognition of the athlete’s accomplishments.
During a Republican rally in Baltimore that October, Owens spoke out about the situation.
“Hitler did not snub me,” he said. “I am not knocking the President. Remember, I am not a politician, but remember that the President did not send me a message of congratulations because, people said, he was too busy.”
He may not have been a politician, but Owens outspoke about his treatment from the President in a time when the Jim Crow flew unabashedly through the South. The runner left his lane but was unafraid to speak his mind. Yet his hero status remained largely untarnished.
Athletes John Carlos and Tommie Smith could not say the same for their political statement 32 years later in Mexico City.
Smith won the gold medal in the 200 meters, running a record-breaking time of 19.83 seconds. Carlos won bronze, finishing .04 seconds behind silver medalist Peter Norman of Australia. But the results were not the only thing that went down in Olympic history.
After the race, the three went to the podium, the two American athletes shoeless with black socks among other representations of protests of black power and blue-collar solidarity. All three medalists also wore Olympic Project for Human Rights badges, since Norman expressed empathy with their ideals.
During “The Star-Spangled Banner,” Carlos and Smith raised their hands in a Black Power salute with heads bowed, an image forever captured in the annals of popular culture. They left the podium to a rain of boos. But none of the athletes regretted the action.
“We are black, and we are proud to be black,” Smith said. “Black America will understand what we did tonight.”
Based on the reactions to this protest, few others realized the gravity of these actions at the time.
President of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) ordered the two American runners suspended from the U.S. team, stating the act was an affront to the apolitical nature of the Games. But he was also a prominent Nazi sympathizer, so this view may be the impetus behind his reaction.
However, that was not the case. Members of the American sports world ostracized and heavily criticized Smith and Carlos. The two of them and their families received death threats. Even Norman faced flak from the Australian media and government.
These incidents were part of a string of similar protests against the typically white establishment in the U.S. Two years earlier, boxer Muhammad Ali lost his boxing titles after facing draft evasion charges for not wanting to fight in the Vietnam War.
Track athletes Wayne Collett and Vincent Matthews were banned from the Olympics after a protest similar to the Smith and Carlos one at the 1972 Munich Olympics. And these incidents are just some of the most notable ones of the era.
One main thing they had in common: punishment for not “staying in their lane.”
Today, these athletes receive praise for their courage and their ability to take a stance in a time we now recognize was rife with racial inequality. This renown happens beyond the sports world, too, since both Ali and the American runners are symbols of black efforts toward equality.
Yet many still want to leave the politics out of sports. It’s not an invalid argument or wish, since many use sports to escape from otherwise bleak political situations and other doldrums and despairs of everyday life.
But to think that sports are inherently apolitical is to oversimplify the power of different feats of athleticism.
In a previous piece (“Catharsis with a swing of the bat”), the topic of sports as a source of healing came up in the context of different tragedies. However, sports can provide something else: a platform for unity behind a common goal.
Look at movies surrounding team athletic achievement. “Invictus,” “Miracle” and even the three “Mighty Ducks” movies all focus on coming together. On the surface, the harmony wins the team the game. But deeper meanings show other motivations.
The most prominent example is “Invictus,” based on the true story of how the South African rugby team defeated the heavily favored New Zealand team to win the Rugby World Cup for a nation coming out of the clutches of apartheid. The Springboks, now integrated, were a symbol of unity that could happen under president Nelson Mandela.
They won the Cup as a team – an integrated, multiracial team. They acted as a smaller allegory for what the nation of South Africa could be. Just as importantly, they showed just how important sports can be in a much larger sociopolitical climate.
Athletes like Smith, Carlos, Ali and a number of others realized this fact and have used –and continue to use – their platform to bring awareness to inequality.
Thus explains the ESPYs opening speech from premier NBA players and Kaepernick’s protest during the national anthem. Agree or disagree, it is their way of using the platform for awareness. They have the freedom to do so, just as those who disagree with it have the freedom to criticize them.
So you can tell them to stay in their lane, but know that, in theory, they’re already in it.