Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Athletes as Activists

Rebekah Buchanan

As I participated in WIU's Homecoming this weekend, tailgating and watching the football game, I continued to return to the reaction to the NFL athletes, coaches, and owners kneeling during the National Anthem as a protest to the racial injustices in our country. The rhetoric that these athletes, starting with Colin Kaepernick and now the NFL, are un-American and unpatriotic shows the changes in the way we define patriotism and the fact that we refuse to listen to why these athletes are protesting.

Kaepernick was not protesting the flag or the Anthem. When he first took a knee last year he did so to bring awareness to the police violence in black communities. His choice was an important one and one that caused him personal and professional backlash, but one he had the right to make and one I believe was important. And because of recent backlash to this choice, backlash which does not seem to understand the nature of the protest, the NFL continues each Sunday to bring the freedom of speech to the forefront for American sports fans.

Athletes are more than just players working for our entertainment. They are individuals who more often than not have their beliefs and politics brought into question. The decisions made in politics and the laws of our country impact them just as they do anyone else. For black athletes in particular, the division between politics and play are complicated and complex. Yet, why is it that all of a sudden, when these men kneel during the National Anthem they are called unpatriotic and shamed? We have a long history of athletes peacefully protesting political decisions and social justice issues. Remembering some of the ways in which black athletes have shown their political views in the face of adversity may start to show the value in the most recent protests across the NFL.

Muhammad Ali is known as the greatest boxer of all time. During the 1960s he became a cultural icon and political activist, using his position as the heavyweight champion of the world to call out civil rights atrocities. He refused to serve in Vietnam, openly critiquing America’s involvement in the War. For his choice to stand for what he believed and make a political statement, Ali was stripped of his boxing license and title and vilified by many.

Like the NFL players of today, Ali was criticized for doing what he saw as the right thing to do. And, by the mid-1970s he was recognized as making a choice that was important well before its time. He became a national hero for his protests and belief to stand against an unjust war. He showed the connections between sports, popular culture, and political activism. He has become an American icon, was given a state funeral and is celebrated throughout the world.

Bill Russell, Boston Celtics basketball great used his position to participate in the 1963 Civil Rights March on Washington and defend Muhammad Ali. He led integrated basketball camps in Jackson, Mississippi in the 1960s. As a college player in the 1950s Russell’s stats were not tracked and when travelling to the South, black players were often refused rooms in hotels. In 1961, Russell and his black teammates were refused service in a Lexington, Kentucky restaurant, so they boycotted the game. 

In 1968 Tommie Smith and John Carlos held up black gloved fists as they stood on the podium at the Mexico City Olympics. Protesting racism, Smith and Carlos were also vilified. They were suspended from the U.S. Track and Field Team. They received death threats. Yet, this image of protest has become an iconic one. When asked about it for an HBO documentary, Smith said, “We were just human beings who saw a need to bring attention to the inequality in our country…There was nothing but a raised fist in the air and a bowed head, acknowledging the American flag—not symbolizing a hatred for it.”

After his time in the Major Leagues, Jackie Robinson refused to stand for the National Anthem. He repeatedly stated that it was not about the flag, but about race. Athletes’ protests against racial injustices and the systematic racism in our country are not new. There is a long history of athlete activists who have questioned the systematic ways in which the United States treats people of color.  So why is it that there is still such a criticism of these athletes? Why is the rhetoric around these protests being labeled as unpatriotic? Why are we choosing to not address the racism but instead try to define patriotism?

As a country, the right to peacefully protest is awarded all individuals living here. American soldiers of all races have died defending that right, and to deny it is much more unpatriotic and disrespectful than taking a knee at a football game. The belief that black athletes do not have this right to protest, or that anyone can decide when and where citizens can protest, goes against the very thing that makes our country so great-the right to speak up and voice dissent. 

These athletes are American citizens who believe that we can make change in our country. They believe that their roles are larger than just playing football. They believe that they should use their positions to call into question the way our county treats our citizens of color. As Americans, it is unpatriotic to refuse that right and as citizens living together it is unwise to not listen to the reasons behind the protests.

As with athletes such as Muhammad Ali, Jackie Robinson, Bill Russell, Tommie Smith, John Carlos and countless others I believe that we will look back at these NFL protests and see the importance of them in calling out racial injustice and the heroic activism of Colin Kaepernick. Why not start to do so now?

Rebekah Buchanan is an Associate Professor of English at Western Illinois University.

The opinions expressed are not necessarily those of the University or Tri States Public Radio.  Diverse viewpoints are welcome and encouraged.