Athletic Activism

by Austin Chen, Sports Editor
photo courtesy of the New York Times

It takes very little to see how much narcissistic nationalism is present in American sports. Every bit of spectacle from the military flyovers to the color guards to the ritualistic anthem presentation is designed to drum up positive emotions for the greatest, most powerful nation in the world — the United States of America.

At nearly every level of every sport, the pregame rituals are the same: spectators stand up and remove their hats, players get into neat rows, and everyone gives into the same subconsciously absorbed routine of performative patriotism for a couple of minutes as the national anthem blares in the foreground.

In 2016, however, before a preseason match-up between the NFL’s San Francisco 49ers and San Diego Chargers, two men were conspicuously absent from the 49ers’ anthem formation. Quarterback Colin Kaepernick and safety Eric Reid refused to pay tribute to a flag and song that claimed to represent freedom and liberty for all while millions of Black Americans lived under the oppressive shadow of racist, corrupt, murderous and terroristic policing. Instead, they knelt on the sideline. Whether or not Kaepernick foresaw the chaos that such a simple act would incur is impossible to know, but we do know that the issues he and many of his fellow players that season sought to bring attention to are now inescapable even to those who once criticized him.

In 2018, when Kaepernick was still attempting a comeback despite a plethora of failed tryouts since his de facto exile from the NFL, he worked out for the Seattle Seahawks. He remained unsigned afterwards, and fans sought to determine whether or not the Seahawks made their decision after learning of the QB’s desire to continue his protests.

Respected sources, including long-time NFL insider Adam Schefter, reported conflicting answers, but with the NFL’s vice president of communications at the time, Joe Lockhart, writing for CNN on May 30 that, “No teams wanted to sign a player — even one as talented as Kaepernick — whom they saw as controversial, and, therefore, bad for business,” the whole situation reeked of an unsavory truth.

Here in 2020, with America finally reaping the seeds of righteous anger it has sown for centuries, longtime Seahawks head coach Pete Carroll said of Kaepernick, “we owe a tremendous amount to him for sure.” Just not a roster spot, apparently.

Carroll’s latent hypocrisy is just one of many lackluster or outright disrespectful responses in sports to the current state of social upheaval in America. New Orleans Saints quarterback and franchise legend Drew Brees said in an interview with Yahoo Finance on June 3 that he “will never agree with anybody disrespecting the flag of the United States of America or our country” in response to protests set off by the police murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, in addition to countless other people of color. His response is representative of the misunderstanding many had (and still have) regarding the nature of the protests: because the protests seek to expose and demand accountability for the worst this country has to offer, they will inevitably “disrespect” it in the process. 

Sometimes, the truth is hard to swallow, especially because each individual’s vision and personal experience of America is vastly different than someone else’s. Brees made matters worse with his public apology, posting a stock photo on his Instagram of a black hand holding a white hand in apparent solidarity, while including, “I am sick about the way my comments were perceived yesterday” in his apology. While it has been reported that Brees’s apology to his teammates was moving and full of emotion, and while it seems that his teammates have forgiven him, blaming the fallout of his action on the people who were hurt indicates a lack of accountability nonetheless.

Despite the aforementioned problematic outliers, the response from professional athletes has been overwhelmingly in favor of the protests, with responses ranging from a desire to become educated and utilize privilege in constructive ways to leading the way by participating in protests.

Boston Celtics forward Jaylen Brown, Portland Trailblazer guard Damian Lillard and Las Vegas Aces center Liz Cambage have been leading protests in Atlanta, Portland and Australia, respectively, with a multitude of other athletes participating in protests as well. Oklahoma City Thunder guard Russell Westbrook, along with former Oklahoma Sooners Blake Griffin and Trae Young, even sent a letter to the governor of Oklahoma and the Oklahoma Pardon and Parole Board regarding condemned inmate Julius Jones. 

Normally, social action on this scale has been absent from professional sports, and it’s certainly encouraging that so many athletes with large platforms have been utilizing those platforms to amplify the movement.

In terms of coaches and management, the response has also been supportive of the movement. While Denver Broncos head coach Vic Fangio ignorantly claimed that he “doesn’t see racism” in the NFL, coaches like the Houston Texans’ Bill O’Brien, the Los Angeles Rams’ Sean McVay and the San Antonio Spurs’ Gregg Popovich have all backed the movement to degrees that vary from taking to the streets themselves to simply voicing their support.

Many of the most influential voices in sports, particularly in the NBA, have also vociferously thrown their weight behind the movement. Celtics legend and 11-time-champion Bill Russell, who has had a long history of social activism (former President Barack Obama bestowed the Presidential Medal of Freedom onto Russell in 2010 for his efforts during the Civil Rights Movement), has been active on social media, recently posting a photo of himself taking a knee while calling out President Trump for purposefully misconstruing what the act represents.

NBA legends LeBron James and Michael Jordan have also been making headlines for their reactions to the protests. James has been socially active in the past, most notably for wearing an “I Can’t Breathe” T-shirt during warmups after the murder of Eric Garner in Dec. 2017. He has also been active on his Twitter both in the past and recently, criticizing everything from biased media coverage to hypocritical statements, even calling the President a “bum.” Jordan and Nike’s Jordan Brand attracted attention for committing to donating $100 million over the next ten years to help foster racial equality, social justice and greater access to education.

At the end of the day, those with careers in professional sports have large platforms solely due to the nature of their work. Obviously, as autonomous human beings, they can say what they believe, but it is wildly irresponsible to use that platform to delegitimize or denigrate a movement whose goals are both clear and just. How they choose to leverage their status and public image is ultimately up to them, but it reflects poorly on their character if they choose to indirectly harm the most oppressed members of our society. 

Colin Kaepernick sacrificed his career in pursuit of social justice to ensure that others wouldn’t have to, and to waste that sacrifice by staying silent is simply ignorant. Fortunately, the tide seems to be turning in favor of socially active athletes becoming the norm, but the real work remains after mass media turns off the cameras. What happens then, and whose voices stay loud, will be the true indicator of just how much progress we’ve made.