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Activism in sports is nothing new: Why players need to protest

Colin Kaepernick has led a new wave of athlete activism, starting with his decision to take a knee during the national anthem last preseason. He told reporters after the game about his protest,

“I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color. To me, this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way. There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder.”

And while Kaepernick has brought about a new era of sports figures speaking out, athlete protest has been a part of American sports for decades.

In 1967, heavyweight champion of the world Muhammad Ali refused to be drafted into the Vietnam war. He said at the time that he had no beef with the Viet Cong and was fighting his own battles here in America. Ali said,

“I got nothing against no Viet Cong. No Vietnamese ever called me a n*****… Why should they ask me to put on a uniform and go 10,000 miles from home and drop bombs and bullets on Brown people in Vietnam while so-called Negro people in Louisville are treated like dogs and denied simple human rights? No I’m not going 10,000 miles from home to help murder and burn another poor nation simply to continue the domination of white slave masters of the darker people the world over.”

Ali was stripped of his heavyweight title, banned from boxing, and sentenced to 5 years in prison. While he was never sent to prison and fought again in 1970, Ali was ostracized at the time for standing up for what he believed in. Now, Ali is revered as a true hero and a patriot, one of the greatest athletes and activists in the history of our country.

This was the case a year after Ali’s stand against the Vietnam war when Tommie Smith and John Carlos won the gold and bronze respectively in the 200 meter race at the Mexico City Olympics in 1968.

Smith and Carlos took the podium and raised their fists in the air, wearing black gloves in what is considered to be the most powerful display of protest at the Olympics ever. The United States Olympic Committee was outraged and sent Smith and Carlos home immediately.

But regardless of the immediate reaction, Smith and Carlos are now considered heroes and have been honored time and time again for their infamous protest.

In the mid-90s, Denver Nuggets guard Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf refused to stand for the national anthem for political and religious reasons. Abdul-Rauf insisted the oppressive nature of America conflicted with his religious beliefs, saying at the time

“You can’t be for God and for oppression. It’s clear in the Quran, Islam is the only way. I don’t criticize those who stand, so don’t criticize me for sitting.”

Abdul-Raouf was fined and suspended by the NBA for 1 game. Eventually, he reached a deal with the NBA in which he would stand and pray during the national anthem. Abdul-Raouf was traded from the Nuggets to the Kings and started to see his playtime cut short and when his contract was up in 1998, Abdul-Raouf didn’t even get a try out despite being 29 years old.

In the early 2000s, Blue Jays and Mets first baseman Carlos Delgado refused to stand during the playing of God Bless America during the 7th inning of baseball games. The tradition of playing the song started after 9/11 and many found Delgado’s protest disrespectful. But Delgado, like most athletes that protest, had deep-seeded reasons to take a stand (or seat). Delgado was protesting the Iraq war and sitting down during God Bless America was his way of speaking out.

He told the Toronto Star in 2004,

“I think it’s the stupidest war ever. Who are you fighting against? You’re just getting ambushed now. We have more people dead now, after the war, than during the war. You’ve been looking for weapons of mass destruction. Where are they at? You’ve been looking for over a year. Can’t find them. I don’t support that. I don’t support what they do. I think it’s just stupid.”

When asked if he was worried about backlash from his stance, Delgado answered defiantly, “Sometimes, you’ve just got to break the mold. You’ve got to push it a little bit or else you can’t get anything done.” When Delgado signed with the Mets, they released a statement at the time that the team had a policy that every player stand for God Bless America and effectively silenced Delgado’s protest.

Time and time again, athletes that speak out against injustices are silenced or blackballed.

We find ourselves in a similar situation now as athletes are taking a stand to protest the rampant racial inequality in our country. Once again, there are large swaths of our country, including those in the White House, that think player protests are wrong.

Our own president labeled protestors “sons of bitches.”

But there is a new wave of athlete willing to stand up to racial and social injustices. High-profile players like LeBron James, Chris Paul, and Carmelo Anthony aren’t going to sit idly by and stay on the sidelines while there is so much wrong with our country.

LeBron said earlier this week about using his platform,

“As I have this platform and I have a way to inspire… I will lend my voice, I will lend my passion and my money, I will lend my resources to my youth and my inner city and outside of my inner city to let these kids know that there is hope, there’s greater walks of life, and not one individual, no matter if it’s the president of the United States or if it’s someone in your household, can stop your dreams from becoming reality.”

We are very much in a revolutionary era of athlete protest. And while the reaction from conservatives is pretty much the same as it was in the days of Ali, Smith, and Carlos, we know who is on the right side of history.