Kneeling & Tweeting… and Speaking Truth to Power

Written by :
Published on : September 28, 2017

 

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.

 

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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.

 

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“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.

 

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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.

 

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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.

 

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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.

 

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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.

 

 


Muhammad Ali: The Greatest

Written by :
Published on : June 4, 2016

 

 

The Greatest. That’s a term that gets thrown around a lot in today’s world of professional sports. People use it to describe someone who has accomplished incredible feats in their respective areas of expertise, and often times just to describe someone who they are particularly fond of. It’s a bit cliché and tired but sometimes that word fits someone perfectly. That is the case with Muhammad Ali, who the world lost yesterday at age 74.

 

Muhammad Ali was a three-time world heavy weight champion, with a professional record of 56-5, including 37 knockouts. He is the prototype of today’s modern athlete. Just as quick as his hands and his feet, were his wits. He could dance circles around his opponents in the ring, and talk circles around anyone who was unfortunate enough to tangle with him, and deliver a knockout blow in either fashion. He was proud, he was razor-tongued, he was vicious with his enemies and fervent in his defense of what he believed was right. And he was talented. Oh man, was he talented.

 

“Float like a butterfly…”

 

To watch Muhammad Ali boxing was to watch art in the making. The style and grace with which he moved is unrivaled among fighters, past or present. The speed of his hands was enough to baffle, enrage and subdue his opponents. His talents were such that he routinely toyed with them in brash, some might say arrogant, displays of his boxing prowess. It often seemed like he barely touched the other fighter, but down they would go.

 

When fighters tried to get to him, he couldn’t be touched. He would bob and weave his head away from oncoming punches with such confidence. I could never imagine trying to fight someone who was that evasive. How do you beat something you can’t hit, something that slips away at the last possible second every single time? Floyd Mayweather Jr is a brilliant tactician in the ring, but for a heavyweight like Muhammad Ali to be able to move like that is truly awe-inspiring. At his peak, especially before his 3 1/2 year lay-off, he may have been the most graceful man on earth. Hell, the most graceful human ever. He was pretty.

 

“Sting like a bee.”

 

The left jab was his go-to move in the ring. He could throw it at you from any angle and it was just as effective. His unorthodox style of defense, leaving his hands low and daring other fighters to over extend themselves in an attempt to try to hit what they thought was an open target, left them vulnerable to his barrage of punches. Often with devastating results. He would leave them stumbling around the ring, desperately trying to remember their names and where they were. He could knock you out, but if you made him really mad he would just toy with you. Bringing you to the edge of oblivion before backing off so that he could continue the punishment without having the fight stopped. When he was on his game, he could do whatever he wanted. And he wasn’t afraid to let everyone in the world know it.

 

The sting of his tongue was every bit as lethal as either of his fists. Not only did he perfect the art of trash talking your opponent, he may well have invented it in its modern form. He used his incendiary monologues to get inside of the heads of whoever he was fighting. He said whatever was necessary in order to get a mental edge. As a fierce competitor, winning is all that matters and he would attack his opponents, sometimes crossing the line. But the fact of the matter was that he was showing everyone where the line was in the first place. The world had never seen someone like him, and though many people have tried, his linguistic talents have never been replicated.

 

 

Athletics aside, Muhammad Ali was a man of principle and conviction. He stood up for what he believed and refused to apologize for doing what he thought was right. He changed his birth name, Cassius Marcellus Clay, Jr, to Muhammad Ali and sent a message to the world about self determination and taking a stand. When he refused to be conscripted into the Vietnam War as a conscientious objector, he was standing up against a war and a system that he believed was unjust. He was unwavering and because of that he lost 3 years of his prime in the ring. The Supreme Court eventually overturned his conviction of draft evasion and he returned to reclaim the title that had been stripped from him. He might have been a little less fleet of foot than before but he was just unrelenting in the pursuit of his goals.

 

After his retirement and his diagnosis with parkinsons, he continued to impact the world in a positive way through his humanitarian efforts. He helped many causes by working to improve the lives of those less fortunate and spreading a message of peace and understanding.

 

He was the Greatest. He is the Greatest and will aways be the Greatest. Muhammad Ali is the embodiment of the American Spirit. Unapologetic and unrelenting. He knew what he was and he knew what he wanted, and would not let anyone tell him he couldn’t have it. He upset the status quo in a country that was beginning the fight to throw off the shackles of racism and segregation. He made the establishment nervous because he was was loud and in your face and could back it up. The world will never see another like him. Rest in Peace, Champion.

 

 


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