Recently San Francisco quarterback Colin Kaepernik was in the news for his refusal to stand during the national anthem to protest the unjustified killings of young African Americans by police in the past few years. Kaepernik explained that he is not against all police officers, but that rogue police are making things more dangerous for both the African American community and for the good police officers who have tried to do their jobs the right way. If you look at American history in the twentieth century, certain athletes have used their fame as platforms in the fight for social justice. A few names that come to mind are Jackie Robinson, Billie Jean King, John Carlos, Tommie Smith, Muhammad Ali, Bill Russell, Jim Brown, Bill Walton, and Arthur Ashe. These athletes made significant contributions to the civil rights movement, the feminist movement, the anti-war movement and the LGBT rights movement.
Gary Smith wrote the article Why Don’t More Athletes Take A Stand for Sports Illustrated that asks why today’s athletes aren’t taking stands on issues the way athletes like Ali, Russell, and King did a generation ago? Smith wrote:
…scores of modern athletes, led by Woods and Jordan, create remarkable charity foundations, raise funds and donate millions. Taken one step further—watered with an investment of time and heart nearly equal to the money—a miracle such as Andre Agassi’s academy for at-risk children in Las Vegas has bloomed in the desert. But when it comes to social action that might step on toes, that might send a shiver down the spine of their publicists or their corporate sponsors, what have American athletes done?
“The scared generation,” former Yankees pitcher Jim Bouton calls them.
“They’ve put the dollar bill in front of the human race,” grouses Carlos. “That’s why they stopped standing up.”
“They have to speak up,” insists Harry Edwards, a track and field and basketball star at San Jose State in the early ’60s who went on to become a sociology professor there and at Cal. “They’re the most visible expression of achievement and financial success in this country. Actors in Hollywood have always been very outspoken. Athletes have surpassed them as the Number 1 entertainers; they should be at least as outspoken. Those who set the table that today’s athletes are dining at, they exercised that responsibility. Now you have to get past an athlete’s corporate and personal advisers, and so he’s got to think what’s in the best interest of Buick and Nike and Starbucks and General Electric.”
Filmmakers Ken Burns, Sarah Burns and David McMahon recently created the documentary film JACKIE ROBINSON. Robinson was the first African American player to play major league baseball, and he was also an important civil rights activist who supported Martin Luther King Jr. and the civil rights movement. A fierce integrationist, Robinson used his immense fame to speak out against the discrimination he saw on and off the field, challenging sports fans, columnists and even his teammates to get rid of their prejudices and to give African Americans equal opportunities in the coaching ranks and as owners of sports franchises. After baseball, he was a widely-read newspaper columnist, political activist and tireless advocate for civil rights within the Republican Party and in the wider society. Robinson was a Republican at a time when the Republican Party was still a strong supporter of the civil rights of minority communities. During the 1964 election season, Robinson supported Nelson Rockefeller and strongly opposed Barry Goldwater, who was trying to appeal to the Southern white segregationist vote. During the 1964 Republican convention, Robinson clashed with Goldwater supporters, rightfully seeing that this fight was part of a bigger war within the Republican Party. When the Republican Party began relying on Southern white segregationists to win elections, Robinson saw that the Republican Party would betray its former support of minority civil rights.
Another great PBS documentary is BILLY JEAN KING. Billie Jean King was a champion tennis player who used her fame as the best woman tennis player in the world to fight for the rights of women and for the equality of all people. When King found out that women tennis players earned a pittance of what their male counterparts earned, King helped form the Virginia Slims Series (pre-cursor to WTA Tour), founded the Women’s Sports Foundation and Women’s Sports magazine, and co-founded World TeamTennis (WTT). She played a famous tennis match with Bobby Riggs to prove that women deserved respect as athletes. She was a tireless promoter of Title IX, which stated that no woman can be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving federal financial assistance. When she retired, King also became a strong promoter of LGBT rights.
A great documentary that was recently showcased in PBS is THE TRIALS OF MUHAMMAD ALI. This documentary tells the story of Muhammad Ali’s refusal to serve in the Vietnam War, and the consequences of Ali’s act of conscience. Ali was stripped of his boxing championship and was banned from boxing, and it made him a pariah in much of the American public. During this time, Ali went on college lecture tours and television appearances to face directly his critics and speak out against the Vietnam War and against racism at home. Ali matured as a political activist, and became an important voice for social justice for many young people.
Another great documentary recommendation is SALUTE. SALUTE is a documentary that chronicles Peter Norman’s involvement in the Black Power salute at the 1968 Olympics. The picture of the three men on the winner’s podium after the Men’s 200m final at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics is still considered one of the most powerful images of modern history. Almost forgotten in the ensuing years is the seemingly quiet and composed man in the left of the picture, the Australian silver medalist Peter Norman.
Norman strongly supported Tommie Smith and John Carlos’s political gesture because of Norman’s own concerns about the way the Aborigines were treated in his native Australia. Peter Norman, Tommie Smith and John Carlos all suffered for their stand. They had to give up their athletic careers, they had a hard time finding work to earn a living, and they were treated badly by much of the public. Norman developed an alcohol problem due to his suffering, but he never renounced his support of Smith and Carlos. When Smith and Carlos found out about Norman’s struggles, they reached out to him and the three men became close friends.