What to Learn From the History of Protest in Sports

John Carlos and Tommie Smith raised their fists during the awards ceremony at the 1968 Olympic Games as homage to the Black Power movement. They stood with the presence of solidarity and empowerment by their sides. Global society was in uproar. Perhaps, were it not for the advocacy by Billie Jean King for Title IX, gender equality among the athletic community would not even come close to being a topic of discussion. The instance stands as a trademark for individuality and liberty. The late Muhammad Ali refused to be drafted into the Vietnam War and he did so with such eloquence. The then-21-year-old Toni Smith, Manhattanville College women’s basketball senior guard, expressed great opposition for the Iraq War by turning her back on the United States flag back in 2003. The athlete was verbally obliterated. Viciously taunted by the words of angry Americans. Words that were intended to defy her message. Their demeanors resonated. The moment reflects as a spark of déjà vu. Star quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers, Colin Kaepernick takes the knee during the National Anthem to highlight police brutality in the U.S., it manifested outrage and perhaps presented a disillusioned narrative for many. With all of these bold moments throughout history, it appears we have yet to learn a thing from those who show us the integral picture that defines and how we can diminish the concept of inequality in America.

It is evident that throughout history, the action of protesting can give a great number of lessons that teaches how humanity can do better. In recent events, athletes such as Colin Kaepernick and Steph Curry have used their platforms to defy a system that is abhorrently unfair to many. These lessons continue to present solutions that can be applied onto the political issue that currently buries the nation. Considering that sports have a large platform throughout the country,  it has always been used as a vessel to challenge and modify conventions. It is reasonable (and constitutional) that athletes use the same platform as a canvas to present opinions regarding a corrupt system. Yes, this is certainly necessary.

Jackie Robinson, a quintessential paragon in breaking the color barrier in the MLB, describes it best in his 1972 autobiography about viewing the U.S. flag from a different point of view in response from facing racism during his time:

“I cannot stand and sing the anthem. I cannot salute the flag; I know that I am a black man in a white world.”

Many athletes today take it within their belief that the current abrasive economic convention must be confronted. They emulate critical roles that can enable social change. This, at the forefront, has opened a path to a society where inclusivity and representation for the minority is encouraged heavily. Suggesting that athletes should “stay out of politics” erases the significant attention these issues desperately need. This also diminishes the courage and liberty to free democracy that differs the country from authoritarian states. The United States has always struggled with the idea of applying equal ideals to everyone. The same ideals that are enshrined in our sacred Constitution and Bill of Rights. There are many aspects that differentiate the United States from other countries, however, there is a great number of characteristics that certainly do not pertain to American values. Using various ways of protesting is in no way unpatriotic. Pinpointing that our Union is imperfect is everything but weakness. 

Although the United States is steeped in the principles of individual liberty, freedom of expression and democracy, people of color, immigrants and women have struggled to receive the full benefits of citizenship

Sports have been composed to cultivate and persuade a large platform of people. Now more than ever, athletes seem to look to resolve issues that affect others outside their boundaries rather than looking for personal glory. It is not the responsibility of every breathing American to stand in solace alongside them. However, their message must remain loud and clear until a plan of action is within our reach, whether this involves gender equality or police brutality awareness. Throughout the history of sports, many athletes have always had a specific insight into working towards a goal. With an elevating fist or kneeling down across a playing field, it is a profound way to say something about our nation. We need to start listening more.

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tyler tamez
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