Athletes Who Didn’t “Stick to Sports”

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History Research Paper

Patrick LaBelle

US History 151

1 December 2019

Athletes Who Didn’t Stick to Sports

Athletics are undoubtedly among the most popular forms of entertainment for the American people with many athletes being looked at to provide some form of escape from the harsh realities that everyday life brings to the masses. This can cause a sentiment that athletes are just people putting on a show for our enjoyment and nothing more. It is because of this that many people are reluctant to support athletes who don’t just “stick to sports” but also delve into larger issues facing society. Laura Ingraham summed up the sentiments of many Americans on her Fox News show when she made the statement that athletes such as LeBron James should “shut up and dribble” instead of giving any political commentary. Furthermore, the President of the United States put out a comment saying that owners who see a player kneeling should “get that son of a bitch off the field”. However, despite the comments of a boisterous few, history has displayed time and time again through the actions of athletes including Muhammed Ali, Tommie Smith, John Carlos, and Colin Kaepernick just how impactful activism within the realm of sport can be despite the immediate backlash it typically entails.

No athlete has ever embodied the athlete activist spirit quite as well as “The Greatest”- Muhammed Ali. Despite facing extreme backlash for his refusal to serve in the Vietnam war after his declaration of being a conscientious objector, Ali stuck true to his beliefs and supported doing what was right instead of doing what most did. He is a prime example of why the belief that athletes can’t have social impact is simply not true. Muhammed Ali was blunt when asked why he would risk his whole career and even imprisonment in order to protest the war saying “What’s wrong with me going to jail for something I believe in?” before adding “Boys are dying in Vietnam for something they don’t believe.”. There was nobody more willing to cut to the core of an issue than Muhammad Ali. Talking about something as frankly as he does about the United States military involvement in Vietnam took a lot of bravery during that time. Not only was he protesting the war he was also the heavyweight champion of the world which is important to note as it seems strange how even someone who partook in such a barbaric sport would still be opposed to the atrocities of war. In addition to moral religious dilemmas regarding the war Ali also spoke on the hypocrisy of America (white Americans specifically) for having the audacity to force black people to go to war to fight for equality when they didn’t even have equality in America. In a fiery response to college students who didn’t agree with his opposition to serving in the war Ali said “You won’t even stand up for me in America for my religious beliefs and you want me to go somewhere and fight when you won’t even stand up for me at home!”. It is remarkable to think about just how unpopular this statement was during this time period. Ali was considered a traitor by some simply for refusing to kill for a country that doesn’t even seem to care about his faith, religion, or in the broadest sense- him. However, as the years went by and the true picture of Vietnam came out it seems as though nobody was “on the right side of history” quite as much as Muhammed Ali although my next examples certainly give him a run for his money.

On October 16th, 1968 American track stars Tommie Smith and John Carlos finished first and third respectively at the Olympic Games being hosted in Mexico City. Smith had just set a world record in the 200m final but historically this would pale in comparison to a small gesture on the podium in the moments after; a black fist raised in the air. Smith along with Carlos had planned the gesture well in advance along with other Olympic hopefuls while at San Jose State. Smith declared “It was a cry for freedom coming from a young twenty-four-year old’s lips” when looking back on the day before clarifying that the protest was not just for black rights but human rights as a whole saying how he worked for the “Olympic Project for Human Rights” (a group that threatened to boycott the Olympics entirely if Muhammed Ali’s titles were not restored). It is important to note that the protest was far from a popular one at the time and many news outlets were reluctant to even show the act of dissent. The protest took a backseat to Smith’s record-breaking time for the most part and those who did cover the protest often took a negative stance including one piece written at the time by sports journalism icon Brent Musburger. In a scathing article, Musberger claimed that the two courageous men looked like “a couple of black-skinned storm troopers”. When the media responds to acts of protest in this manner it takes the focus off of what the people involved are actually protesting. Musberger would go on to write that working against racism is fine just not during a “fun and games tournament” such as the Olympics. This is an interesting place to draw the line considering the primary goal of protest is to draw attention to an issue. It doesn’t seem outlandish to think that the scale of the Olympics provided the perfect time and place for a peaceful protest that could be witnessed around the world. Despite winning the gold and bronze medal, Smith and Carlos were banned from the rest of the games in addition to being called a “disgrace” by the president of the International Olympic committee Avery Brundage. However, in a similar way to Muhammed Ali, history has looked favorably upon the two men as people who took a stand for what they believed in despite knowing they would face backlash for it and face major career and personal consequences. They are two people who must be kept in mind when trying to analyze what one particular athlete has been doing in the present day.

When Colin Kaepernick took a knee three years ago the American media lost their minds and political pundits started rubbing their hands together. Debate swirled over whether or not it was disrespectful to kneel for the anthem and if Kaepernick “hated the troops” so much so that the question of what Kaepernick was kneeling for was almost entirely overlooked. In the interview immediately following the protest Kaepernick explained his decision to kneel during the national anthem by saying “There are a lot of things going on that are unjust and people need to be held accountable for”. When pressed on what issues specifically he would like to see change Kaepernick voiced his disapproval of police brutality. “There’s people being murdered unjustly and not being held accountable” before saying “that’s not right by anyone’s standards”.

When questioned about whether the activism was a distraction from the team’s goal of making it to a Super Bowl Kaepernick retorted with “No, we’re focused on football while we’re in meetings and when we’re on the field” before adding “But in our free time we have conversations about this and that’s not something we should be ashamed about or shy away from…there’s a social responsibility we have to be educated on these things and talk about these things”. There is no doubt that Colin Kaepernick has become one of if not the most polarizing athletes of our time and it is not hard to understand why when people continuously demonize what he is trying to do. Bill O’Reilly of Fox News claimed that Kaepernick is “missing the bigger picture of his country” but I do not understand what “bigger picture” he is referring to. Is it the fact that police are able to murder unarmed civilians without any consequences? Is it the fact that mass incarceration has created what some scholars call “the first genuine prison society in history”? I don’t ask this facetiously I would truly like to know. Based on the historical precedence provided by athletes such as Ali, Smith, and Carlos there seem to be undeniable similarities to what is happening in the present day with Colin Kaepernick. The NFL serves as “fun and games tournament” for millions of Americans every Sunday and it is no surprise that people don’t seem to enjoy having the fun interrupted with a little bit of bitter reality. However, the notion that athletes have never been in the right when standing up for what they believe in is just flat out incorrect.

America is approaching a pivotal time in its history with people being able to access more information at their fingertips than ever before. The internet has created an extremely low barrier to entry for obtaining knowledge about issues that would previously have been reserved for only the most elite in society. However, the rhetoric used on TV and other mediums continuously focuses on people and events rather than getting down and dirty into the ideas- the true core of the issues being talked about. The responsibility of deciding what is right and wrong cannot be left solely up to the media to determine; it has to be decided by the people too. The courageous actions of Muhammed Ali, Tommie Smith, and John Carlos demonstrate how just because an opinion or stance is unpopular at the time does not make it wrong (with the same logic applying to popular ideas). With that in mind, it is of the utmost importance that the current case of Colin Kaepernick taking a stand against police brutality and inequality be looked at through the most critical of lenses. This could be one of the first times that Americans get it right in the present day instead of looking back in reverence years from now when people forget all about the issues he is trying to raise awareness for. There is a fantastic quote commonly attributed to former first lady of the United States Elanor Roosevelt that states “Great minds discuss ideas; average minds discuss events; small minds discuss people”. It is so easy to get bogged down in the details of certain people and events that the idea never even gets talked about. However, with the knowledge of brave athletes in the past there is certainly hope for a brighter future. A future where the exchange of ideas is put before the exchange of ignorance.



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