Tommie Smith, John Carlos, Muhammad Ali and most recently Colin Kaepernick. These are just some of the athletes who have taken a political stance while at the top of their game. Let us take a look at how athletes perform political activism in the modern day and how it is being received by the public
In the third preseason game of the NFL season quarterback Colin Kaepernick of the San Francisco 49ers decided to sit down during the national anthem, something that has caused an immense discussion to erupt in the United States. His reasoning for not standing up was that he protested police violence against African Americans and other minorities. The backlash of this came almost immediately, with many accusing him of committing treason and not respecting the United States military. Despite the outrage, Kaepernick’s actions have also gained a lot of positive traction, with many people joining him in the kneeling protest.
Prior to a Miami Heat basketball game, singer Denasia Lawrence sang the national anthem. That in it self is of course nothing out of the ordinary; what was so special about it was the fact that she was kneeling as she sang. On top of this, she also wore a black lives matter shirt under her jacket. This shows that Colin Kaepernick has inspired people around the United States, and has undoubtedly become an unlikely leading figure in the Black Lives Matter movement. He is however not the only athlete who has faced criticism for protesting social issues.
In June this year Muhammad Ali passed away. He was celebrated as not only one of the greatest professional boxers of all time but also as someone who dared to take a stance against both war and racism. In 1967, Ali refused to fight in the Vietnam war, citing that Vietnamese people had never harmed him while black people in his hometown of Louisville were striped of basic human rights. He was quickly found guilty of treason and faced up to five years in prison. He did however appeal it to the Supreme Court where the conviction was overturned.
Being a human rights activist as well as a professional athlete is something that is frowned upon as shown by the Colin Kaepernick example. A lot of people who take a political stance will face some opposition (what would otherwise be the point of protesting). But the fact is that more and more athletes are supporting Kaepernick’s movement and it is bound to ease some of the aggression towards it.
The case of Colin Kaepernick exemplifies that the public far from accepts political activism in sports. A large drop in viewer rating seen this season in the NFL additionally supports this: according to a poll conducted by Yahoo Sports and YouGov, 40 percent blame the protests by Kaepernick and other sportspersons as the reason. But why is that? Could it be that people use sports as a way to tune out of political discourses?
Maybe, but it is something that several NFL franchise owners consider to be true. It has been reported by NFL player Doug Baldwin of the Seattle Seahawks that some NFL owners force their players to stand during the national anthem. This is something that many consider to be a violation of the First amendment of the United States Constitution. A perfect example of this was on the opening night of the NBA season: The Philadelphia 76ers denied singer Sevyn Streeter to sing the national anthem (which she was hired for) due to the fact that she wore a shirt stating: “We matter”. This caused several players on the Philadelphia roster to openly criticize the manner of which the team handled the situation.
This goes to show that the protests performed by both athletes and civilians are dividing the United States population into two camps. But the beauty of sports is that once the game starts, you forget all that. Whether you are an athlete or a fan, the only thing that you think about is winning and once the game starts, you tend to not think about anything else that doesn not concern the game. A perfect example of this was during this summer’s Olympics in Rio de Janeiro. Two gymnasts competed fiercely against one another, Hong Un-jong from North Korea and Lee Eun-ju from South Korea. The competition did not go as either of them had planned and the American sensation Simone Biles picked up the gold medal. And although many were talking about Bile’s performance, the talk of the town was the selfie that Hong Un-jong and Lee Eun-ju took after the competition.
Uniting people of such cultural diversity is one of the many aspects of the Olympics that have large potential for cultural and political exchange. By making a stand one is bound to aggravate some people no matter what, and it is hard to think of a protest that does not cause a stir. When making a statement at a sporting event where people are already in high gear, it is not hard to see why it has such a mobilizing effect on people. Sports and politics go hand in hand and that’s the way it will always be, let’s just hope it brings people together.