Using Sport Studies to Support Student-Athlete Protestors

By Andrew McGregor

“We have (re)entered the Revolt of the Black Athlete,” Louis Moore proclaimed on Twitter two weeks ago amidst a wave of protests and demonstrations by prominent professional football players following the lead of San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick. Moore’s comment harkens us back to the original “Revolt of the Black Athlete” in late-1960s, when black athletes became outspoken political activists. Tommie Smith, John Carlos, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Muhammad Ali, Bill Russell, Curt Flood, Jim Brown, and many others came together, joined by sociologist Harry Edwards to advocate for racial justice and equality in America. In the weeks since Kaepernick’s original protest, the number of demonstrations has grown as has the number of black men slain at the hands of law enforcement officers sworn to protect them. At least 15 African Americans have been killed, reminding us of another era in American history.

During the era of Jim Crow at the turn of the twentieth-century, lynchings and racial violence were at an all time high. The violence inspired activism of its own kind, including the founding of the NAACP in 1909 and several unsuccessful anti-lynching bills. Amidst this violence, W.E.B. Du Bois, one of the NAACP’s founders, outlined the idea of “double-consciousness” in his 1903 book The Souls of Black Folks. Du Bois, described double consciousness as a “sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity.” Because of this, Du Bois explained, “One ever feels his twoness,—an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.” The violence of our current moment mirrors much of that of 100 years ago, continuing to pull African Americans in two directions and preventing them from reconciling their split identities, split treatment, split sense of justice in American society.

This double consciousness animates the current activism seen in movements like Black Lives Matter and the demonstrations of athletes like Kaepernick. It is heightened by the violence and injustice along racial lines seen in the interactions between African American and police. Refusing to stand for the national anthem plays on this very concept by asserting a second identity that can not be comfortably unified with American freedom and opportunity.

Making these connections between violence, activism, double-consciousness, civil rights, and the position of the black athlete is crucial to understanding our contemporary moment. While it certainly is more complex, more nuanced, and more historically grounded than I have explained here, this history is important for grappling with the inspiration, context, and substance of the ongoing struggle. To regular readers of Sport in American History this is likely obvious, but as the protests spread to college and high school athletes this educational component is critical. Over the last few weeks we have seen numerous fans, players, and coaches misunderstand this history. Our role as educators and scholars of these events is to help foster dialogue about them so that the demonstrations are not done in vain.

This past week several coaches spoke out about athlete demonstrations — or potential demonstrations — continuing the national conversation but in a different vain than originally intended. They made the protests a freedom of speech issue rather than discussing the purpose or cause of the demonstration. For example, Brian Polian, head football coach of the University of Nevada, told his players that they must stand for the anthem, but did not restrict any other activity. Saturday, 11 of his Wolf Pack players raised their first during the anthem before their game at Purdue University. When asked about the demonstration after the game, Polian offered a lukewarm answer downplaying the protest and citing his legal obligations. “Frankly my opinion about it doesn’t matter,” he told to the Reno Gazette-Journal, “Legally they have a right to do that and frankly I don’t want to get hung up on something like that. We’re seeing young people express themselves throughout the country and show social awareness. It was a 1½-minute thing and they have the right to do it and off we roll. I legally have to give them free reign. I’m in no position to tell them what they can and cannot do.” Polian’s answer is revealing of the attitude of college coaches who want to avoid a distraction but prevent backlash from completely silencing players.

In reality the conversation is unneeded because public universities and high schools are required to recognize athletes’ first amendment rights to protest. This is not the case at private schools, however, where at least one catholic high school student has been suspended for his demonstration. The conversation about legal obligation deflects attention from the protest and allows people to argue over the form of demonstration and if they should be happening rather than its substance.

One coach who participated in this debate early on was University of Michigan football coach Jim Harbaugh. Harbaugh who previously coached Colin Kaepernick and the 49ers and initially disagreed with the protests, saying “I acknowledge his right to do that, but I don’t respect the motivation or the action.”  He later clarified his comments on Twitter, “I apologize for misspeaking my true sentiments. To clarify, I support Colin’s motivation. It’s his method of action that I take exception to.” This weekend, however, Harbaugh offered unwavering support for his Wolverine players who demonstrated before their game against Penn State. “I’ve been thinking a lot about this over the last four, five, six weeks, “ Harbaugh said after the game, “Because I am the football coach doesn’t mean I can dictate to people what they believe. I support our guys.” It’s difficult to fully know what changed Harbaugh’s mind. Perhaps it was that his players stood and raised their fists rather than kneeled, or maybe it was the fact that they were his players instead of a former player. He may also have been thinking about the image of his program and himself as a leader.

Indeed in reacting to these protests, coaches and administrators are increasingly thinking of their brand, ticket buyers, and donor bases. Many, like Polian, are trying to remain neutral, though their neutrality speaks loudly. Neutrality is funny thing because it’s impossible to achieve. Saying you support student-athletes on legal grounds is far from neutral because it emphasizes your duty to do so. It suggests that the decision has been made for you rather than willing support coming from an understanding of their experience. It shows a lack of empathy; a lack of true leadership. Instead of focusing on branding and donations, which seemingly requires a sense of neutrality, educational institutions should instead focus on educating. Each protests offers a chance for coaches and athletic departments to discuss larger issues that can be framed through the educational process. Social awareness and activism can be linked to larger historical legacies of black activism or cited as an example of the critical thinking skills taught in the classes athletes are taking.

Of course this requires coaches and administrators understand and be aware of this history and the educational process. Dabo Swinney’s blatant misunderstanding of history when discussing the protests and the legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr. suggests he’s a bit out of touch with current understandings of the civil rights movement. Perhaps I am being naive or selfish here, but I think it is important for coaches and administrators to reach out to faculty (or for faculty to reach out to them) to better understand the motivations, contexts, and histories inspiring this new wave of activism. I am not alone in thinking this way. Just last week I had a chance encounter with an athletic administrator who told me the demonstrations are something the NCAA is monitoring and thinking about. We talked about the issue briefly, and I shared my experiences talking with student-athletes in my course on “the Black Athlete.” Conversations like these, I believe, are important and a central part of continuing the dialogue. 

As sport scholars we can and should play a role. We have the tools and knowledge to teach students, coaches, and administrators about the histories that foreground the current movement. It is important that we make ourselves known as campus resources. We can help explain and connect athlete demonstrations to concepts such as double consciousness, the Revolt of the Black Athlete, and Black Lives Matter.  The current moment offers us a chance to emphasize the educational aspect of college athletics and provide places for students, administrators, and even fans writ large to discuss ways to end racial injustice. By doing so, we are supporting the courageous student-athletes — some of whom may be our former students — in taking a stand and trying to make change. Just like for athletes protesting, sports are a platform for us too.

Andrew McGregor is a PhD Candidate in the Department of History at Purdue University, where he teaches courses in history and African American studies. He is also the founding co-editor of this blog. His current research explores the intersections of college football, race, masculinity, and politics in postwar America through the lens of Bud Wilkinson and the University of Oklahoma football dynasty. You can reach him via email at or on Twitter: @admcgregor85

4 thoughts on “Using Sport Studies to Support Student-Athlete Protestors

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