#Athletes&Activism Edition

I can imagine what Colin Kaepernick thought when he decided to kneel during the national anthem in 2016. In the vein of Jackie Robinson’s own battle with racial discrimination in professional sports, it was likely: “I cannot stand and sing the anthem. I cannot salute the flag; I know that I am a Black man in a White world.”

Paralympians are still calling for reform and increased support for people with disabilities. Hundreds of people across the world protested China’s human rights abuses, as the Winter Olympics in Beijing went on as usual. And, at the time of writing, Brittney Griner, an elite women’s basketball player, is still being detained by Russian officials on minor charges. At home and abroad, marginalized athletes face harassment, discrimination, and political scrutiny when they speak out against injustice, or simply attempt to live their lives.

I must admit, I am not a “Sports Person.” I’ve never cleared my schedule to catch The Big Game, and I’ll never know the joy of watching my favorite team win. If anything, I’ve long harbored disdain for an industry that purports to be meritocratic, but succumbs to the same biases found in other sectors.

Yet, in the last decade, a wave of organizing within the sports community on gender and racial equity makes me believe that change is possible. In this edition of the Ujima WIRE, we’ll explore how athletes use their platform to interrogate power, capital, agency and other forces that uphold the very industry they participate in.

Sports Activism B.C. (Before Colin)

With all its pomp and circumstance, the Olympics has always been the world’s biggest stage. For some, the Olympics presents a rare opportunity to put global politics aside, and allow talent to reign supreme. But, this neutrality has never materialized, and how could it?

In 1968, John Carlos and Tommie Smith medaled in track and field, and famously raised their fists in a Black Power salute — Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated only months earlier, and protests against the Vietnam War raged on. Thirty years before, Jesse Owens won four gold medals at the 1936 Olympic games in Germany and refused to participate in the Nazi salute.

These Americans spoke out, and represented their country, but there were consequences. Carlos and Smith were quickly kicked out of the Olympic village after their stunt, suspended from the U.S. team, and received death threats in the years after. Upon returning to Cleveland, Owens received no invitation to the White House for his record-breaking performance, and instead had to use a freight elevator to attend his non-presidential reception at the Waldorf Astoria. It’s important to note that Peter O’Connor, a White athlete, who scaled a flag pole for Irish Independence at the 1906 Olympics, was still allowed to compete two days later.

“After I came home from the Olympics, it became increasingly apparent that everyone was going to slap me on the back, want to shake my hand, or have me up to their suite. But no one was going to offer me a job,” Owens later reflected on his experience.

Closer to home, American athletes have long been engaged in efforts to integrate segregated sports institutions. Six decades before Jackie Robinson broke Major League Baseball’s color barrier, Moses Fleetwood Walker became the first Black athlete to play professional baseball.

Althea Gibson was the first Black person to play at the US Open, as racists heckled her from the crowd (an experience shared by Serena Williams in 2001 and more recently Naomi Osaka). While the U.S. women’s soccer team recently reached a settlement on their equal pay lawsuit, women athletes continue to make less than men within the same sport.

Boston has its own colorful chapter in sports history. One that includes Kathrine Switzer, the first woman to run the Boston Marathon, despite attempts to physically remove her from the race. And, who can forget Bill Russell’s leadership when he, and other Black members of the Boston Celtics, boycotted a game after being refused service at a restaurant in Kentucky? Russell remains an ardent civil rights activist — participating in the March on Washington in 1963 and later standing alongside Muhammad Ali at the Cleveland Summit — despite public backlash.

I’ll Play You, For Your Rights

The International Olympic Committee has for decades maintained some of the strictest rules against protests through the ever-controversial Rule 50. This rule states that there shall be “no kinds of demonstration or political, religious, or racial propaganda” permitted “in any Olympic sites, venues or other areas.” At the height of the Black Lives Matter protests in 2020, the U.S. Soccer Federation and the NFL passed policies requiring athletes to stand during the National Anthem, but later rescinded them due to public outcry. Sports organizations actively regulate athlete activism, but athletes continue to find ways around it

Athletes, at the end of the day, are workers. In the long tradition of labor organizing, withholding labor — through a strike and other means — can yield results. Long before the Milwaukee Bucks boycotted their playoff game against the Orlando Magic to protest the senseless killing of James Blake, WNBA players led movements against gun violence and anti-abortion laws. Some believe that the WNBA’s precedent of political action enabled the success of the three-day NBA wildcat strike in 2021.

Players and unions with collective bargaining agreements have the capacity to amplify national conversations and hit sports associations where it hurts: viewership and revenue. In 2020, the NFL suffered its first regular-season TV audience downturn in three years. The following year, the league unveiled a flurry of social justice programs and campaigns for racial equity.

Today’s athletes, thanks to broadened reach from social media, have a range of organizing tactics at their disposal. Strikes, boycotts, public statements, and direct actions are tried and true among athletes the world over.

Student Athletes and the Future of Sports Activism

Despite the hard won success of athletes who mobilize for causes they care about, one question still lingers. Is the sports field the new plantation?

The largely White leadership of sports organizations still does not reflect the demographics of professional teams, despite years of diversity initiatives. While professional athletics might leverage their celebrity or union protections, student athletes don’t have that luxury.

In his 2010 expose of the NCAA (National Collegiate Athletics Association), sociologist Billy Hawkins explores the fraught relationship between white collegiate institutions and Black athletes. As The Guardian explained, “For Hawkins, the structure of big-time college sports reflect long-standing systems of economic, political, social, and cultural coercion, producing an ‘intercollegiate athletic industrial complex,’ at PWIs — a new version for a plantation mentality that has long exploited Black people in the US for economic gain.”

In the 2018–2019 season, the top five universities generated $8.3 billion in athletic revenue. While student athletes receive only the cost of tuition in exchange for their labor, which may not include health insurance. Up until recently, college athletes were unable to receive outside compensation under the guise of preserving the “amateurism” of college sports. Now, college athletes may make money from things such as sponsorship and public appearances — activities that were once prohibited — but many believe such rights should be the floor, not the ceiling.

There is now a growing movement across colleges and universities for student athletes to unionize in order to access more academic support and fair compensation. Ramogi Huma, a former college football player, founded the National College Players Association, a nonprofit advocacy group, as a step in that direction.

With such a steep hill to climb, stronger protections for student and professional athletes alike will take their activism to new heights.


Paige Curtis is the Culture & Communications Manager at the Boston Ujima Project.



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Boston Ujima Project

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