On Saturday night in Alabama, and then again on twitter, our hate-monger-in chief made it crystal clear that he has a bigger problem with black athletes speaking their minds than with the rise of tiki torch-wielding Nazis in his own backyard. Sunday, football players across the league came out in previously-unseen numbers to make it clear how they feel about the president’s ham-fisted efforts to quash free speech. And as we wrap-up week 3 of the NFL season with QB-turned-activist Colin Kapernick still out of a job due to the despicable and ongoing attempt by the league’s owners to silence him, here are 6 other moments in the history of sports when athletes have dared to transcend their role as national entertainers and took stands against racism and fascism.
1) Master Race No More
Olympian Jesse Owens delivers a swift and graceful repudiation of Hitler’s aryan supremacy theory by besting the Germans, and everybody else in the 1936 Games. In front of an audience that included der fuhrer himself, Owens struck gold 4 times – winning the 100 meter, 200 meter, long jump, and the 4×100 relay.
Not content with the symbolic victory, and knowing that America itself was still lagging behind in the global race towards full equality, Owens later proclaimed that: “When I came back to my native country…I couldn’t ride in the front of the bus. I had to go to the back door. I couldn’t live where I wanted. I wasn’t invited to shake hands with Hitler, but I wasn’t invited to the White House to shake hands with the President, either.” Owens knew the fight against bigotry would be a marathon. What he might not have predicted was that his first strides out of the starting blocks in Berlin would pave the way for generations of “woke” athletes to come.
2) “Aint’t No Viet-Cong Ever Call Me Nigger”
Heavyweight boxing champ Muhammad Ali defies his draft notice for service in Vietnam and issues a bold statement of solidarity with oppressed peoples of color the world over. His anti-war stance cost him his belt and earned him a five-year prison sentence (later overturned by the Supreme Court); but it also galvanized a generation of his progressive-minded peers.
“The Ali Summit” as we now call it, is perhaps the watershed moment in sports-activist history. Future Hall of Famers Bill Russell, Jim Brown, Kareem Abdul-Jabar, and several other athletes and community leaders all came together at a 1967 Cleveland press conference to proclaim their support for Ali’s position and deepen the ties between the anti-war and anti-racist movements. Who knows… if our own orange Il Duce keeps sending hate-tweets about famous black athletes maybe we’ll see something like it again soon.
3) The Pre-Kapernick Sit Downs
Kap gets all the flack but he’s far from the first sports star to use the anthem to air a grievance. Long before his controversial kneeling, two marquee players, one from the hardwood and one from America’s favorite past-time were sitting-it-out for different, if not similar reasons.
Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf, then a sharp-shooting guard for the Denver Nuggets, started skipping the pre-game ritual in 1996 because in his opinion the American flag was a symbol of racism and oppression. He was fined by the league, harassed by fans, received death threats and even had his house burned down. His compromise with the NBA, brokered with help of the player’s union that had his back (You hear that NFLPA?) was that he would pray silently with his head down. To this day he remains committed to the right to protest and recently spoke out in support of Kaepernick and others.
Carlos Delgado, the two-time all-star first baseman who logged time with the Blue Jays and then the Mets, also made a stand by sitting. In the tense political climate that was post-9/11 America, Delgado began planting himself in the dugout during the 2004 season’s new practice of playing “God Bless America” during the seventh inning stretch. Delgado saw the sudden song choice as being used to support America’s ongoing occupation of Iraq. He refused to leave the bench for the whole 162 games that year – including an appearance at Yankee Stadium where boos were probably the nicest thing he heard all day.
4) The Round Mound of Tolerance/“That Ain’t on The Cue Card Chuck!”
Basketball legend and outspoken TNT commentator Charles Barkley shocked studio executives at least two different times when he went off script to address issues of social justice while on the air.
During a Martin Luther King Day broadcast in 2011 the NBA Hall-of-Famer invoked the civil rights leader’s legacy to make a passionate speech affirming the rights of the LGBTQ community. And on a Cinco de Mayo themed game-day, Barkley went on a rant about the passage of Arizona’s S.B. 1070, which basically legalized racial and ethnic profiling by the police. He issued a personal ultimatum to the then-governors of Arizona and Alabama: “Leave those people alone. They work their behind off.” He went on: “The Hispanic community, they’re like the fabric of the cloth. They’re part of our community and any time you try to do any type of racial profiling or racial discrimination is wrong.” Not too shabby for a tv talking head — and a one-time Republican at that!
5) Say It Loud – The Fists Heard ‘Round the World
Everybody knows the picture. It’s the quintessential image of Black Power. Tommie Smith and John Carlos at the 68’ games in Mexico City, with heads down in defiance and with black-gloved fists raised high in the air.
What most don’t know is that the two runners — Smith who won gold in the 200 meter, and Carlos who netted the bronze in the same event — had carefully planned their moment on the world stage. As the two victorious sprinters approached the podium, their outfits cleverly spoke to the myriad struggles and oppressions which they sought to shine a light on. They took off their shoes to protest poverty, wore beads and a scarf to protest lynching and Carlos un-zipped his jacket, despite Olympic rules, as a salute to “all the working-class people — black and white…who had to struggle and work with their hands all day.” How about that for inter-sectionality? Neither the sports world nor the country would ever be the same.
6) Teachers and Teamsters and Cheese-heads?
When mini-dictator and Wisconsin Governor, Paul Walker, launched his attack on the rights of public sector workers in 2011, thousands of union members helped flood the streets and government buildings of Madison in response.
But perhaps none were a more welcome addition to the picket line than the members of everyone’s favorite publicly-owned home team, the Green Bay Packers. About 6 or 7 lesser known players were the first to come out and show face; and then local workers got the big-game play they deserved – Charles Woodson, the team’s defensive captain, union-rep, and all-around football icon released a moving statement in solidarity with all of Wisconsin’s working families. The heinous anti-worker bill was rammed through anyway but workers in Wisconsin will never forget when #21 and his crew of Packers laced up their spikes and knew which side to play for.