The Revolt of the Black Athlete and the White Ally: A Tale of Two Footballers

By Kate Aguilar

“What is happening today amounts to a revolt by the black athlete against the framework and attitudes of American sport, and that such a thing could occur in his own pet province has astonished the white sports follower.  The reason for the astonishment is that the man in the grandstand knows nothing about the Negro athlete whom he professes to understand, appreciate and ennoble as a symbol of the enlightened attitude of the world of sport toward segregation and intolerance.  A wall of ignorance and unfounded suppositions is shielding the fan from the realities of the black athlete’s background and his hopes.” ~ Jack Olsen, “The Black Athlete – A Shameful Story,” Sports Illustrated, a five part series 1968

 “In his famous 1963 ‘Letter from a Birmingham Jail,’ Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. expressed his disappointment in what we would today call white allies.  ‘I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in the stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Council-er or the Ku Klux Klanner,’ Dr. King wrote, ‘but the white moderate who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says ‘I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I can’t agree with your methods of direct action.’” ~ Tom Ziller, “Colin Kaepernick’s Protest Makes People like Drew Brees Uncomfortable. That’s the Point,” 2016

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In some regards, it all began with a football game. Not just any game or the most recent preseason NFL contest during which San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick remained seated for the national anthem. But, instead, San Jose State University’s first game against the University of Texas at El Paso in 1967.  SJS’s President Robert Clark canceled it “under the threat of racial protest.” The United Black Students for Action (UBSA), formed by nascent sociology instructor Harry Edwards and student Kenneth Noel, “promised that the SJS football field would be covered with as many as one thousand demonstrators if their demands weren’t met.”  These demands included the ability for Black students to live in student housing, eat at the campus recreation hall, and choose their own major, among other race-related concerns.  While these issues impacted all African-Americans at SJS, there were only about 70 Blacks of the 22,000 students and 60 or so were athletes. 

The UBSA sought to highlight the plight of the Black athlete within a broader civil rights movement.  While the civil rights movement did not begin with a football game, the cancelation of the season opener would draw national attention to this plight. Governor Ronald Reagan offered to call in the National Guard to “preserve order,” vigorously opposing President Clark’s decision. It was the first time in 100 years of NCAA Division I football that campus protest had sidelined a contest.

The revolt of the Black athlete, a term used to describe Dr. Edwards’ (and others’) mobilization of Black athletes, was not limited to football.  It included Bill Russell, Muhammad Ali, Jim Brown, and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s protest of the Vietnam War at “the Cleveland Summit” in 1967 and John Carlos and Tommie Smith’s raised fists at the 1968 Summer Olympic Games in Mexico.  Still, in many ways, it began with the proposed protest at a college football game.

Scholars of American football have written extensively about the relationship between football, race, masculinity, nationalism, and U.S. imperialism.  Jeffrey Montez de Oca and Kurt Edward Kemper show how football came to serve as a more powerful image of Cold War masculinity than other sports like baseball because of its relationship to militarism. For this reason, it became a “fortress that has held the wall against radical elements,” to quote Washington State University Coach Jim Sweeney (1968-1975). Football has been used to represent the best of and uphold American might, in part by keeping internal dissent in check.

No sport coverage was perhaps more damning to the cultural mythology of sport as an equal playing field than the Sports Illustrated series “The Black Athlete – A Shameful Story.”  Jack Olsen’s five-part series first appeared in July of 1968.  In the first installment, “Part 1: The Cruel Deception,” Olsen wrote, “The cliché that sports has been good to the Negro has been accepted by black and white, liberal and conservative, intellectual and redneck… But Negro athletes do not agree.  Almost to a man, they are dissatisfied, disgruntled and disillusioned.” Olsen further illustrated the segregation and inequity to which the UBSA opposed.

In August of 1991, Sports Illustrated revisited Olsen’s series, which by then had become the most read and famous in the publication’s history.  Journalist William Oscar Johnson noted that 23 years after the series “a large percentage of the black pro athletes who responded to a survey commissioned by Sports Illustrated feel blacks are still treated worse than white athletes…” The majority still had concerns regarding inclusion and advancement.

It is not surprising then that in 2016 a Black athlete would protest systemic racism on, of all things, the football field. 48 years after the canceled SJS opener, this protest occurred when 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick remained seated for the national anthem during preseason games. He later explained, “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color.  To me, it is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way…” Some criticized Kaepernick for not choosing another venue, but as Jason Gay from The Wall Street Journal observed, “Let’s be real. If you want to make a statement in American life in 2016, a football field is the place to do it.” After all, professional football is America’s game; it’s the premier sport entertainment in the U.S.

The court of public opinion continued to weigh in, with leaders as visible as Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump encouraging him to find another country that suit his needs, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell calling for more “respectful” forms of protest, and former safety and NBC analyst Rodney Harrison criticizing his activism because Kaepernick (the son of a White birth mother) was “not Black.” Such opinions were a part of social and mainstream media commentary that called Kaepernick ungrateful, the n-word, un-American, all while insisting he could not speak on Black oppression because he was either White or rich (or both).

To be fair, many from all backgrounds spoke out in favor of Kaepernick’s right to protest and/or the issues he addressed, including a number of veterans. Currently, sales of his jersey are on the rise. There were also arguably well-intentioned critics, like fellow quarterback Drew Brees and Hall of Famer Jerry Rice, who disagreed with his method while supporting his freedom to speak.

What was troubling about some of the commentary from both sides, notwithstanding the vitriol, was the collective amnesia that divorced Kaepernick’s actions from a long history of Black athletic revolt. The belief in his opportunism was borne out of ignorance surrounding how many athletes had used this exact form of direct action to hold accountable the country many of them loved and protected as servicemen. Ignorance surrounding the long and problematic history of White persons, as Martin Luther King, Jr. mentions above and Governor Reagan, Goodell, and Brees represent, seeking to restore “order” at the expense of justice. White and non-White moderates asking for Black persons to protest “respectfully” without questioning whether or not all Americans generally view such direct action as disrespectful and why 48 years after Olsen’s article there is still a need for protest. As Kareem Abdul-Jabbar wrote recently, “What should horrify Americans is not Kaepernick’s choice to remain seated during the national anthem, but that nearly 50 years after Ali was banned from boxing for his stance and Tommie Smith and John Carlos’s raised fists caused public ostracization and numerous death threats, we still need to call attention to the same racial inequities. Failure to fix this problem is what’s really un-American here.”

The concern over method obscures the issues Kaepernick addresses, making him not the systemic racism he calls out the primary target. Cultural critic Michael Eric Dyson points out it also distorts the actual definition of “patriotism.” “There is a big difference between nationalism and patriotism,” he states.  “Nationalism is the uncritical celebration of one’s nation regardless of its moral and political virtue… Patriotism is the belief in the best values of one’s country, and the pursuit of the best means to realize those values.  If the nation strays, then it must be corrected.” In calling Kaepernick unpatriotic and thereby un-American, Commissioner Goodell not only obscures these issues but separates himself from Kaepernick and the experiences of Black men, showing his privilege to do so and himself as part of a problem not a solution. This separation repositions White men like Goodell (who “follow the rules” and “respect order”) as the true Americans, explaining the arguably subconscious need for some Black stars to speak out in opposition to Kaepernick to align themselves with the dominant society.

By making the issue Kaepernick’s decision-making (a problematic conversation regarding the fitness of the Black quarterback more generally), Goodell further plays into the pathology surrounding Black men. Placing the focus on Kaepernick’s choices also absolves Goodell from having to ask how football and the NFL may contribute to these inequities. Kaepernick’s public acknowledgement of institutionalized racism is thus a threat to the social order and American football. Goodell’s labeling of him as unpatriotic dilutes a message that inevitably puts all systems of power that uphold privilege on alert.

Thankfully, in this case, it didn’t end with a football game, at least not by American standards. All of the works I have cited had yet to witness what occurred on Sunday, September 4, when U.S. National Women’s soccer player Megan Rapinoe took a knee during the national anthem before a league game. Rapinoe, a gay White woman, stated that she was “disgusted with the way [Kaepernick] had been treated and the fans and hatred he has received… It is overtly racist.  ‘Stay in your place, black man.’ Just didn’t feel right to me,” she explained.  “We need a more substantive conversation around race relations and the way people of color are treated.”

Rapinoe’s action is significant because she was the first White professional athlete to join in the protest (although other White athletes have spoken out previously on police misconduct). It is significant because she represents the potential of the White ally: someone who uses his or her privilege to amplify the voices of people of color. She could have used her protest to reflect on the oppression she has faced as a gay woman, an experience she draws upon briefly.  By and large, though, she keeps the focus on Kaepernick and the issues he raises. She stated, “It’s important to have white people stand in support of people of color on this. We don’t need to be the leading voice, of course, but standing in support of them is something that’s really powerful.” The power lies in her desire to move beyond ignorance to try to understand and empathize with the concerns of the Black athlete instead of invalidating them, the first step in building multiracial coalitions in sport and elsewhere that move beyond buzz words like diversity and effect change. (Another example of the power of empathy and genuine conversation is former serviceman and Seattle Seahawks long-snapper Nate Boyle’s moving and open letter to Kaepernick).

Like for all White allies, of course, the risk is not the same.  Professor David Leonard reminds us that Whites still have the choice whether or not to acknowledge such issues, where Kaepernick and other people of color live them. Rapinoe will also not likely lose her job, as could happen with Kaepernick. Still, Rapinoe put her reputation on the line. On Wednesday, September 7, the Washington Spirit in a National Women’s Soccer League game against Rapinoe’s Seattle Reign prevented the midfielder from again kneeling by moving up the playing of the national anthem before both teams took the field. The Spirit said in a statement that “to willingly allow anyone to hijack this tradition that means so much to millions of Americans… would effectively be just as disrespectful as doing it ourselves.” The language of “hijacking,” a particularly fraught term that Rapinoe took offense to especially so close to 9/11, positions Rapinoe like Kaepernick as the problem not the issues they seek to magnify.

Interestingly, the leadership of Rapinoe’s team has stood behind her, which differs from the San Francisco 49ers and the NFL (Update: The 49ers have since joined Kaepernick in pledging $1 million to various charities to support racial justice and other issues). Some of Kaepernick’s teammates have acknowledged that he spoke to the team about his decision to do so and appreciate his activism. Yet, NFL executives have been particularly vocal, anonymously of course, in stating they will not allow Kaepernick on their team. One alleged him to be “the most hated person” in the front offices, a curious description considering the actions the league has implicitly condoned by allowing those who break the law and league rules to suit up. The differing reception challenges us all to consider how Rapinoe’s Whiteness, gender, and/or sport of choice may have protected her, in ways not afforded to Kaepernick and Black men.

Regardless of the reception, by kneeling, Rapinoe highlights the potential of collective impact when pairing together the revolt of the Black athlete and the White ally, one who seeks to understand the message behind the method and uses her or his capital to advance the conversation through direct action. She shows the power of a twenty-first century multiracial, multicultural, multisport coalition that takes advantage of not falls prey to a 24-hour newsfeed.  Kaepernick used his celebrity and direct action to draw attention to systemic racism.  Rapinoe (and the other athletes who have joined him) validated the method and the message.  “The very least that I can do is continue the conversation with him by kneeling for the anthem,” Rapinoe avowed, suggesting perhaps it is not in standing but in leveling with and actually listening to one another that we all rise.

Kate Aguilar is a Ph.D. candidate in history at the University of Connecticut. Her dissertation assesses how the intersection of race, gender, and sport helped popularize the Reagan narrative, a conservative zeitgeist of the Reagan presidency that articulated, among other things, a reimagining of American manhood. Prior to becoming a Husky fan, Kate received an M.A. in African American and African Diaspora Studies from Indiana University (2009; Go Hoosiers!) and a B.A. in Black Studies from DePauw University.

Editor’s Postscript: As week one of the NFL season began this weekend many NFL players continued joining Colin Kaepernick with their own demonstrations during the national anthem. Brandon Marshall, a former college teammate of Kaepernick kneeled before the Denver Broncos game on Thursday night. After the game he shared a story from the summer involving racial profiling that provided insight into his motivation for speaking out. Other players continued with their own displays on Sunday.

Arian Foster and three of his Miami Dolphins teammates knelt before their game. Given that the protests took place on September 11th, many fans and media members critiqued their appropriateness on such a solemn and patriotic day. After the game Foster questioned the critics about the timing to speak out: “They say it’s not the time to do this. When is the time? It’s never the time in somebody else’s eye, because they’ll always feel like it’s good enough. And some people don’t. That’s the beautiful thing about this country. If somebody feels it’s not good enough, they have that right. That’s all we’re doing, exercising that right.”

Kansas City Chiefs defensive back Marcus Peters raised his gloved right fist, clearly inspired by Smith and Carlos, while standing with his arms locked in unison with his other teammates. Peters explained his actions were in support of Kaepernick and informed by his own background growing up in Oakland: “I was just stating how I’m black, and I love being black, (and) I’m supporting Colin in what he’s doing as far as raising awareness with the justice system. But I didn’t mean anything (bad) by it.” Chiefs coach Andy Reid supported his players right to demonstrate, stating “This kid comes from Oakland and does a phenomenal job in the community and Oakland. There’s no question he respects … law enforcement, military; you don’t ever question that with this guy. He just wants what is right, like we all do… What the players are doing right now is important. Let’s just all get along, and that would be a beautiful thing.” The Chiefs’ players also released a statement through the team prior to the game about the anthem and their desire to work together with the community on social issues.

Like the Chiefs the Seattle Seahawks also locked arms to show team unity and support. Multiple Tennessee Titans players, like Peters, raised their fists during the anthem prior to their game. Later Sunday Night, New England Patriots players Devin McCourty and Martellus Bennett raised their fists after the anthem (not during as Peters and the Titans players did) to symbolize their solidarity with Kaepernick.

The movement is clearly continuing and gaining steam, despite the continued critics and pushback from fans, politicians, anonymous executives, and media. As these players continue speaking out, they are helping to continue conversations, and share their own personal stories about why racial justice matters to them. This is significant because each story adds another piece to the puzzle, helping fans become allies by empathizing with the players’ humanity. As they demonstrate and share their and their families’ struggles, they become real people to us. The gaining momentum helps remove ad hominem attacks, like those wagered against Kaepernick, and shows the depth and breadth of racial injustice in America, making it more difficult to write off and ignore. Sunday was an important day in the world of race and sports. As Louis Moore noted on Twitter, “If you didn’t know this before, we have (re)entered the Revolt of the Black Athlete.” 

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