A new crop of activist athletes takes a stand

Brooklyn Nets players kneel in honor of the Black Lives Matter movement prior to an NBA basketball game against the Portland Trail Blazers on Aug. 13 in Lake Buena Vista, Florida. Photo: Associated Press
By Robert C. Jones Jr.

Brooklyn Nets players kneel in honor of the Black Lives Matter movement prior to an NBA basketball game against the Portland Trail Blazers on Aug. 13 in Lake Buena Vista, Florida. Photo: Associated Press

A new crop of activist athletes takes a stand

By Robert C. Jones Jr.
More than 50 years after Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised black-gloved fists at the 1968 Olympic Games to protest racial injustice in the U.S., a new generation of athletes has taken up the mantle.

Back then, their actions were deemed radical—raising a pair of black-gloved fists on the medal-acceptance podium at the 1968 Summer Olympics to protest racial injustice and inequality in the United States and across the globe.

Tommie Smith and John Carlos, the gold and bronze medalists in the 200-meter race at those historic games, knew that their Black Power Salute could very well cost them their careers—and it did. But it was something the two Black track and field stars knew they had to do. 

Today, they are not only revered, but their actions on the victory stand in the night air of Mexico City more than 50 years ago are inspiring a new generation of activist athletes who, in the wake of recent police shootings of Black men and women in the U.S., are boycotting games, donning the names of shooting victims on their uniforms and sneakers, kneeling during the playing of The Star Spangled Banner, and taking to social media platforms to voice their concerns. 

“I think we’re definitely seeing a more conscious type of athlete, one who is concerned about the overall well-being of their community,” said Tywan Martin, associate professor of kinesiology and sport sciences in the University of Miami School of Education and Human Development, whose research examines how thoughts and ideas about sports brands are used to influence fan behavior. 

“I think of the time two years ago when [conservative television host] Laura Ingraham told LeBron James to ‘shut up and dribble,’ that she wasn’t interested in the political views of someone who gets paid millions of dollars a year just to bounce a ball,” Martin said. “But what professional athletes like LeBron are saying is that just because they’re part of that top 1 percent of earners does not mean they don’t care about the rest of the country, specifically the people in communities and neighborhoods who face the challenges that Blacks have historically experienced with law enforcement.” 

Players with the NBA’s Milwaukee Bucks sent that message loud and clear on Aug. 26 when they boycotted their playoff game against the Orlando Magic following the police shooting of Jacob Blake in the team’s home state of Wisconsin. The boycott reverberated around the sports world, inspiring WNBA, Major League Baseball, and Major League Soccer teams to initiate similar protests. 

Such activism isn’t novel, said Windy Dees, associate professor of kinesiology and sport sciences in the School of Education and Human Development. “Athletes have been activists for decades and have used their prominent roles to bring awareness to social issues,” she said. “The difference today is that social media allows them to have a personal and consistent voice that speaks directly to millions of fans. And we are also living in a time where there is much more support for athletes, so this makes their activism extremely powerful.” 

Alex R. Piquero, chair of the College of Arts and Sciences’ Department of Sociology and a Distinguished Scholar in Arts and Sciences, echoed Dees’ sentiment, saying not only has social media given athletes a platform through which to express their opinions and issue calls for social justice, but that the proliferation of cellphone cameras now allows them to post those messages almost instantaneously to Twitter, Instagram, and other social networking services. “Now, the message and messaging from these athletes, who are brands unto themselves, reach many millions more people around the world than was possible in the middle 20th century,” Piquero said. 

But what hasn’t changed is the message—a demand for an end to racial injustice and inequality that was the primary goal behind the civil rights movement of the 1960s. 

That movement was one of the key factors that motivated a young Donald Spivey to abandon a promising collegiate football career at the University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign during the ’60s and dedicate himself to the fight to end racial discrimination. 

When Smith and Carlos stepped onto the medal-acceptance podium in Mexico City in October of 1968, wearing only socks on their feet to symbolize Black poverty and raising their black-gloved fists in protest, Spivey, now a Distinguished Professor of History at the University of Miami, was watching the event unfold on television with his fraternity brothers of Omega Psi Phi. 

“We all cheered when Carlos and Smith, on the victors’ stand, raised their black-gloved fists during the playing of the American national anthem,” recalled Spivey, who is also special advisor to President Julio Frenk on racial justice and has written extensively about the Olympic protest movement of 1968.  “The issues were complex and involved national and international concerns,” he said. “The focus of Carlos and Smith was on racism and the horrible treatment of Black folk in the U.S., South Africa, and throughout the world. The times told you on a daily basis that if you were Black, stay back.” 

Like Smith and Carlos, who faced backlash including death threats when they returned to the U.S., today’s socially conscious athletes face similar criticism from those fans who don’t want to see politics intertwined with professional sports. 

“We have already seen the backlash that occurred when Colin Kaepernick began kneeling in the NFL,” Dees said. “There will always be people who do not want to have political discourse surrounding sporting events. But, when you play the national anthem at games, bring military on the field for recognition, and invite political leaders to attend and speak, you are weaving political threads into the fabric of sporting events, and we have been doing those things for a very long time.” 

Whatever the case, fans will continue to watch sports “because they love sports,” Piquero said. “Sports are a bonding experience, a release from the day-to-day stress we all face in our lives. There will always be sports and always be fans to watch them. Nevertheless, the athletes today who speak out know full well they will upset some people. But athletes are following their own moral compass and doing what they think is right. It does not really matter what we think of them or their opinions.” 

But can their actions help bring about change? Martin thinks so. “But it has to be consistent,” he said. “It can’t be a one-off. It has to be a lifelong effort, from the leagues to the teams to the athletes. I think what happens is, change is so slow to occur and so many hurdles are put in the way that people tire of the effort. But in order for this to have sustainability it has to be sustainable.” 

“Black athletes now dominate professional basketball and football. To have them and other major professional athletic teams, including the WNBA and Major League Baseball, take positive stands is very positive,” said Spivey. “How far will it actually go? We will have to see if the river, beyond being wide, is truly deep.”