by Staff Writer Sumani Alem
On August 26, NBA players from the Milwaukee Bucks and Orlando Magic collectively boycotted Game 5 of the NBA playoffs to protest the police shooting of Jacob Blake, a 29-year-old African American man who was shot seven times by police in Kenosha, Wisconsin on August 23. The same day, Japanese tennis player Naomi Osaka withdrew from the Western & Southern Open Semifinals to protest the shooting. Some critics have condemned their actions, claiming that sports, activism, and politics should never mix. However, there has always been a history of activism in sports, and change will only come if athletes take a stand against systemic injustice.
During the 1940s and 1950s, legend Jackie Robinson, also the first African American to play in the Major League Baseball (MLB), was one of the most well-known athlete activists, giving speeches, doing interviews, and writing a newspaper column for the Pittsburgh Courier to support the Civil Rights Movement. People initially insulted Robinson at his games and sent him death threat letters. The Philadelphia Phillies even threatened to boycott their games if Robinson played, and some restaurants and hotels refused to let him inside. Over the following years, however, his actions garnered support, and people of all races attended his games to encourage him. Today, he is regarded as one of the most revolutionary baseball players. Not only did he initiate an end to racial segregation in sports by becoming the first African American to play in the major leagues, but he also inspired Black teens to pursue their athletic talents. During Robinson’s time, one of the most prevalent systemic issues the nation faced was racial segregation, and now it is police brutality. Athletes today have continued their activism to stand up against society’s most pressing issues.
One of the most well-known instances of activism in recent years is former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick sitting during the national anthem at the third preseason game on Aug. 26, 2016. After the game, he explained to NFL Media that the US “oppresses Black people and people of color.” His sitdown made headlines the following day, with several individuals criticizing him and sending him death threats. President Donald Trump even remarked on The Dori Monson Show three days after the game that “[Kaepernick] should find a country that works better for him.” Despite this opposition, Kaepernick continued his protests and other professional athletes were inspired by his example and followed similarly. On Sept. 11, 2016, four NFL players from the Miami Dolphins kneeled before their game against the Seattle Seahawks. In addition, Los Angeles Lakers Forward LeBron James has shown his support for the Black Lives Matter movement by donating and demanding justice for Breonna Taylor, a 26-year-old African American woman who was shot by police in Louisville, Kentucky on Mar. 13, 2020. Like Kaepernick, James was also met with criticism for his activism. In a news segment from 2018 that has been recently circulating, Fox News host Laura Ingraham claims that James should “shut up and dribble”. Evidently, people vehemently oppose athletes who identify as activists, but why is that the case?
Kaepernick kneeling pregame with a teammate.
Sports is, and always has been, political. Sports is not an amateur business that is merely about the act of playing; it is a professional industry that comprises both business and entertainment. Ingraham’s criticism of James is invalid and deeply ignorant because athletes are not just athletes — they are celebrities who people look up to and place on a pedestal. Athletes advocate for the Black Lives Matter movement and push for equality because they know people will listen and be inspired to act on their own. Although athletes are not the single force that is driving the Black Lives Matter movement, it is still important for them to build awareness and support of the cause because they are in a unique and powerful position that gives them extreme visibility in this struggle for equality and justice. They support these causes out of conviction, risking their careers and financial security. After Kaepernick sat during the national anthem, he said, “I have to stand up for people that are oppressed. … If they take football away, my endorsements from me, I know that I stood up for what is right.” He knew his career was in jeopardy, but he believed that racial inequity issues were more important than his public image, so he firmly stood by his actions, regardless of the potential repercussions.
Famous athletes can play it safe and remain apolitical, but those who are truly courageous are remembered forever as they risk their fame, fortune, and huge fan base to take a stand. NBA’s recent boycott was so effective because it forced NBA Commissioner Adam Silver and other team owners to use their wealth and platforms to empower African Americans, something they had failed to address prior. Sports need athletes like LeBron James and teams like the Milwaukee Bucks who can prioritize social change over their profession.
Racial equality is an ongoing process that doesn’t happen overnight or end with a single legislation, but when athletes publicly address these issues, they take a step towards creating a nation where people aren’t judged by the color of their skin. Although bringing political issues into sports may divide viewers, it is of utmost necessity for athletes to use their platforms so society doesn’t fall into a loop of systemic injustice. In times of such social and political turmoil, silence is compliance.