Athletes have been warriors for justice for decades because sports are political

Tommie Smith and John Carlos statue on the campus of San Jose State University.
Tommie Smith and John Carlos statue on the campus of San Jose State University. Photo: Shutterstock

The United States has entered a new and highly expanded arena in the fight for racial, economic, and social justice.

Recently, entire sports leagues started taking a symbolic knee by boycotting the fields, courts, ice, diamonds, TV anchor desks, and administrative offices to lend their collective voices in support of #BlackLivesMatter and an end of two unequal and racist systems of justice.

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I still clearly see in my mind’s eye the raised, black-gloved fists of gold medalist Tommie Smith and bronze medalist John Carlos soaring into the air of history during the track and field medal ceremony at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics. As the Star Spangled Banner blared throughout the stadium, Smith and Carlos stood in solute to all the human rights workers and the victims of injustice in the United States and throughout the world.

They both ascended the winner’s platform shoe-less wearing black socks to highlight black poverty. Representing black pride, Smith wore a black scarf around his neck, and Carlos unzipped the top of his tracksuit in solidarity with all working class blue collar workers in the United States. He wore a strand of beads, which he declared

…were for those individuals that were lynched, or killed and that no one said a prayer for, that were hung and tarred. It was for those thrown off the side of the boats in the middle passage.

I watched the ceremonies from my university apartment with my roommates, while tear tracks of pride streamed down my face, not merely because of my connections with Smith and Carlos as undergraduate students at the same institution, San José State University, but because they clearly demonstrated the very political nature of sport to forever transform minds, hearts, and souls for the betterment of society.

Not everyone, though, supported their actions, stating that the purpose of sport is for entertainment only, and not to advance a political policy or agenda. Avery Brundage, International Olympic Committee president, scolded the athletes and the U.S. Olympic Committee for bringing domestic politics into “the apolitical, international forum [of] the Olympic Games.”

Soon following Smith’s and Carlos’s actions, the U.S. Olympic Committee suspended them from the team and barred them from the Olympic Village. My university, however, gave them a heroes standing ovation when they returned to campus, and we later honored the two athletes with a 22-foot high statue in 2005.

Anyone who asserts the “apolitical” nature of sport, ask former President Jimmy Carter why he chose to have the U.S. boycott the 1980 Moscow Summer Olympics following the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan.

Ask the athletes and spectators at the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia why they proudly waved rainbow flags and wore rainbow garments, held placards, and publicly embraced and kissed others of the same sex as Russian authorities passed legislation and cracked down on so-called “homosexual propaganda.”

Ask historians whether Jesse Owens’s performance by winning four gold medals in track and field at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, Germany seriously called into question Nazism’s belief in the supremacy of the so-called “Aryan race.”

Ask the relatives of Jackie Robinson whether his very existence as the first black professional baseball player had political implications within the sport as well as the effect of opening and expanding opportunities for people of color in the larger society.

Ask boxer Muhammad Ali whether his opposition to the Vietnam War, a war that he would not enter, and the courage it took in refusing to comply with the military draft was political while negatively affecting his career when he was taken to jail and the sport rescinded his heavyweight national championship.

Ask Michael Sam his experiences over and above the field as the first out gay man recruited by a National Football League team.

Ask Billie Jean King whether politics surrounded her win over Bobby Riggs in 1973 in their “Battle of the Sexes,” and her coming out as lesbian as the first prominent woman athlete.

Ask Martina Navratilova as well of her experiences as an out lesbian on the professional tennis circuit.

Ask Kareem Abdul Jabbar if his statements calling out systemic antisemitism was political in nature.

Ask Steph Curry when he spoke out following the murder of George Floyd that he was fed up with police violence against African Americans and the institutional racism that has been foundational since the inception of the United States had political underpinnings.

Ask Bubba Wallace, Nascar’s only black driver in the top ranks, whether he took a political action to forcefully and courageously move the organization to officially ban the showing of the Confederate flag in all its forms from future events.

Ask every person of all races on sports teams who refuse to attend a White House reception with Trump whether that decision was political.

Perhaps, as time goes by, athletes’ very being may one day have diminished political implications. But, no doubt, sport has always been and will forever have political consequences and possibilities.

By standing up, speaking out, taking a knee, whether players face any consequences, the question still remains over whether professional and amateur athletes should relinquish their First Amendment right of free speech once they don their team jerseys and enter the field, and even when they are on their own time off the field of play.

Tim Tebow, when praying and performing the sign of the cross on his chest on the football field, and talking of his love for Jesus Christ during recorded interviews, not only engaged in religious acts, but also upheld Christian cultural hegemony within an alleged religiously diverse nation, and as such, he promoted his political agenda.

Significant social change advances when members of socially dominant groups join the battle for justice.

Let us not forget the political courage it took for Peter Norman, the white athlete upon the second-place platform along with Tommie Smith and John Carlos in the 1968 Mexico City Olympics, who not only gave his own pair of black gloves to Smith and Carlos in their famous black-gloved solute, but he spoke out in support of their action in the aftermath. For this, he faced social and professional ostracism once he returned to his native Australia.

Speaking truth to power and challenging injustice, while granting individuals the ability to maintain their personal integrity, also often comes with risks: social, professional, and physical.

But this is what defines a hero.

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