By Russ Crawford
During the past year, several blog posts have addressed political activism by athletes. We have read about Colin Kaepernick’s refusal to stand for the national anthem, Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf’s earlier anthem protest, along with several mentions of Tommie Smith’s closed-fist salute at the 1968 Olympics. These are only a few examples of writers exploring the intersections between sports and politics that have become increasingly frequent since Colin Kaepernick began sitting and then kneeling during the National Anthem last fall.
On April 20, 2017, the Sport and Society Initiative at Ohio State University hosted presentations by a number of athletes who had used their visibility as athletes as a platform to advocate for political issues. The Athletic Activism and Social Change panel was moderated by Vince Doria and featured speakers Smith, Abdul-Rauf, and Malcolm Jenkins, who also protested during the anthem this past NFL season. Like Kaepernick, they used their actions during the playing of the Star Spangled Banner to protest racial conditions in America. Their activist moments spanned the time period between 1968 and 2017, and so the event offered an interesting historical perspective.
After playing a short student-made video, featuring Jimmy Hendrix’s version of the anthem, Doria offered an overview of athlete’s social activism. He mentioned Kaepernick, Jenkins, LeBron James and others at the ESPYS, Jackie Robinson’s 1944 refusal to sit in the back of a bus, Muhammad Ali, and other athletes that have protested racial injustice in America.
Following the seniority rule, Smith took the stage first to speak of his background and the 1968 protest at Mexico City. An engaging speaker, Smith mixed humor with his more serious content. He addressed his background, beginning life in a Texas labor camp where his father worked, before speaking of 1968. He described his action on the medal stand as a “cry for freedom,” and, in contrast to those who viewed his action as a “negative message to our country, or an insult to America,” as “a plea, through faith, and there was no hate involved.” He described his motives for the act that included conditions in America, but also in nations such as South Africa and Rhodesia. He maintained that when an individual perceives a wrong, he must act to address that, which was echoed by the other speakers. Though the panel’s topic was serious, Smith provided several of the lighter moments, such as his recollection that his NFL career ended after he caught a pass against the Oakland Raiders, and was feeling good about it, but forgot about Raiders’ defensive back Jack Tatum.
Abdul-Rauf, who played basketball for the Denver Nuggets and other NBA teams, followed Smith, and told the audience how he had grown up with an “inferiority complex” concerning his education. He was put in remedial classes through high school and college, but after LSU basketball coach Dale Brown gave him the Autobiography of Malcolm X and he later converted to Islam, he began reading “profusely.” He drew inspiration from reading everyone from Noam Chomsky to George Washington Carver, and his study made him “angry,” but also helped him “develop a consciousness.” Two quotes inspired him to act. One was from Carver who wrote that “No one has the right to come into this world and go out of it without leaving behind him distinct and legitimate reasons for having passed through it.” The other was from Arundhati Roy that he paraphrased as “Once you see something, you can’t unsee it. To be silent, to say nothing is just as political an act as speaking out.” These ideas inspired him to refuse to stand for the national anthem during the 1996 NBA season.
The final prepared remarks were delivered by Malcolm Jenkins, a former OSU, and current safety for the Philadelphia Eagles. He mentioned that before this past season, when he heard of police shootings of unarmed black men, he would express his outrage by tweeting about it. But there was always something new, and a new hashtag that would distract him. That ended with the 2016 shootings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile by police, which convinced him that he must move out from behind the hashtag, and take some sort of action. He admitted that he did not know what that would be, but he began to search for “ways to get involved.” Growing up in middle class Piscataway, NJ, he knew the history of black athletes protesting, but “felt detached from it” since he hadn’t personally been exposed to racism. After determining to take action, he decided to meeting with a Police Commissioner in Philadelphia to hear about the issues officers dealt with. He also learned more about the effect of the Clinton Administration’s crackdown on crime had on incarcerating many in the black community. Jenkins mentioned that Kaepernick’s actions “started a worldwide conversation,” and saw the quarterback’s action as a way that he could also use his platform as a football player to work towards change.
Jenkins fielded the first question, about how to address people who dislike politics intruding in sports, by saying that sports brings people together, and thus it provides a powerful platform to speak about important issues. Abdul-Rauf maintained that the argument that athletes should just play the game “dehumanizes us,” and that he would not allow that to happen.
Doria also mentioned the 2015 Missouri football protests, and LA Clippers players protesting owner Donald Sterling’s racist remarks to indicate that some player protests have been effective, and asked the panelists if they thought protests could effect change. Jenkins mentioned that players developed “social capital,” and that prominent players can influence the behavior of corporations and their leadership, as in the case of Steph Curry and other NBA players who spoke out against the owner of Under Armour, who backed then-presidential candidate Donald Trump, warning that they might withdraw their endorsements.
The moderator then posited the example of “Equality” a Nike commercial featuring LeBron James and Serena Williams, and noted that some corporations had begun advertising promoting social justice. He wondered if this would become a trend. Here Doria, and the rest of the panelists, should read Thomas Frank’s book Commodify Your Dissent: Salvos from the Baffler (1997). Frank, of What’s the Matter With Kansas (2004) fame, based the book on the ideas in his 1994 article “Dark Age: Why Johnny Can’t Dissent?” in which he argued that marketers had started co-opting the messages of revolution to sell their products. The current crop of socially-conscious commercials is nothing particularly new, as we have seen with oil companies such as BP publicizing their love for the environment.
Questions were drawn from those submitted prior to the talk, and from Doria, but some issues were left unexamined. For instance, everyone who spoke accepted the narrative that people disliked politics mixing with sport. However, numerous academic writers, tweeters, and others have noted that American sporting events are filled with patriotic displays. Michael Butterworth, in “Militarism and Memorializing at the Pro Football Hall of Fame,” explored how the sports leagues such as the NFL use war imagery and feature military displays before, during, and after games. Robert Gudmestad posted “Patriot Games: Military Displays at Professional Football Games,” which made many of the same points. On April 16, 2017, NBC sports writer Craig Calcaterra was criticized for tweeting the image below with the message “Will you keep politics out of sports, please. We like our sports to be politic-free.”
All of the above analyses point out that when people complain that they do not want politics to intrude into sports, they most likely mean that they dislike the intrusion of politics that run counter to theirs. Data displayed on the chart below and published by Business Insider provides some indication why political actions taken by NBA stars such as LeBron James, Carmello Anthony, and others have not caused nearly the outcry that Kaepernick’s have. Research conducted by Mike Shannon and Will Feltus of Scarborough Research indicated that the fan base of the NBA skews heavily toward the left, while football fans, particularly college, but to a lesser extent those of the NFL, lean to the right politically.
Political reactions to Kaepernick’s protest also split along party lines. President Barack Obama, and Senator Tim Kaine (D., Va.), then Democratic nominee for vice president, both gave qualified support to Kaepernick. Some conservative web sites also reported that Hillary Clinton, the Democratic nominee for president, had told reporters in Florida that “I applaud what he is doing,” and “He makes great points,” although other press reports claimed that Clinton had not addressed the issue. Then-candidate Donald Trump did not support Kaepernick. He told a Seattle radio host that “I have followed it and I think it’s personally not a good thing. I think it’s a terrible thing. And maybe he should find a country that works better for him, let him try. It won’t happen.” A month later, when speaking to a rally audience in Colorado, candidate Trump tied Kaepernick’s protest in with the NFL’s ratings decline. “I don’t know if you know, but the NFL’s is way down in their ratings. Way down. And you know why? Two reasons. Number one is, this politics they’re finding is rougher game than football, and more exciting. Honestly, we’ve taken a lot of people away from the NFL. And the other reason is Kaepernick. Kaepernick.”
Although many in sport journalism argued that a variety of issues such as attention diverted by the election, or a long-term trend of cord-cutting, (people dropping out of cable subscriptions) led to the NFL’s rating’s decline, Trump’s contention that Kaepernick’s protests have hurt the NFL has been borne out through some public sampling. The polling firm Rassmussen Reports found in an October survey of one thousand respondents that thirty-two percent said they were less likely to watch an NFL game because of the protests. Later that month, a Seton Hall Sports Poll asked respondents if a number of factors led them to watch the NFL less, and the reason that came in first was “players not standing for the anthem” with fifty-six percent answering affirmatively to that prompt. On Twitter, a trending topic after the regular season started was #boycottNFL, and while some tweets mentioned other issues, the majority gave their reason as flag protests. In the words of @Orwellian_Dilemma “NFL players have the right to hate America. America has the right to hate them back.”
The protests at the University of Missouri that Doria mentioned, and the events surrounding them, have also had adverse consequences for that university. Since 2015, student enrollment has declined markedly, and recently the university reported a more than seven percent drop in enrollment, which has resulted in four hundred jobs being eliminated, and several dormitories being closed.
This was another element not addressed by the panel: though athletes have a platform, and the right to use it, do leagues also have the right to protect their brand by prohibiting such actions? Smith, along with fellow protestor John Carlos, were suspended from the U.S. Olympic Team and expelled from the Olympic Village by the International Olympic Committee headed by American Avery Brundage. The NBA suspended Abdul-Rauf, before reaching a compromise that allowed him to silently pray while standing for the anthem, and after the season, the Nuggets traded him away. Despite its openness to protests of various sorts, the NBA still has a rule requiring players to stand for the anthem, but some teams at the start of the 2016-2017 season linked arms during its’ playing, which seems to have been an acceptable compromise for both players and fans. After Megan Rapinoe kneeled in solidarity with Kaepernick, U.S. Soccer initially left her off the team for the SheBelieves Cup, before later restoring her. The organization then mandated that players stand for the Star Spangled Banner. Kaepernick remains a free agent after opting out of his contract with the 49ers.
Clearly leagues, like the empire, can strike back. The same holds true for consumers, whether they are educational, as evidenced in the MU case, or fans, as in the case of NFL boycotters. Therefore, while protests may raise important issues, they do not come without a cost, to institutions, and to the athletes themselves.
Jenkins, who decided to postpone his protest until after the anniversary of the 9-11 attacks, and who protested by remaining on his feet, but with raised fist, a-la Smith, has seemingly escaped much of the ire that has been aimed at other protestors. Of course, perhaps the primary reason for his relative immunity is that Jenkins is at the top of his game, while Kaepernick talents have been in decline. However, one of the impressions that I took away from the panel was that Jenkins activism, which included dialogue with police officials, along with members of congress, would probably be more productive in the long run than Kaepernick’s actions.
The panel covered little ground that had not already been well trodden, but was a good example of what the SSI has added to the exploration of the connection between sport and society. The Initiative was created through the efforts of Lucia Dunn and Trevon Logan, who are both Professors in the Economics Department at OSU and co-directors of the initiative. Their efforts have had the administrative support of Janet Box-Steffensmeier, the Divisional Dean for Social & Behavioral Sciences in the College of Arts and Sciences. Since its inception, SSI has hosted a number of thought-provoking panels and speakers, and seeks to make OSU number one in sport research to match the record of various Buckeye teams that have reached the pinnacle of NCAA sports. (As a Husker, I grind my teeth every time I hear that, especially after this year’s NU vs. OSU game)
The Initiative, of which I am a Faculty Affiliate, began on October 10, 2015 with presentations by Dunn and Logan on their sport research topics, along with a discussion of the current movement that requires athletes at some Ohio high schools to pay to participate in various sports. They followed that up with a full panel discussion on Pay to Play: Who’s In, Who’s Out and How Much?, which was moderated by Dunn, and featured Ohio State Senator Cliff Hite (perhaps best known for having coached Ben Roethlisberger in high school), Ohio Secretary of State John Husted, Scott Grant of Findlay University, B. David Ridpath of Ohio University, and Jerry Snodgrass of the Ohio High School Athletic Association. Other sessions have featured discussions of Paying College Athletes, Careers in Sports, and the use of analytics in NASCAR. They also sponsor a summer institute for high school students, and have The SSI Newsbeat, a weekly email digest of stories on sport.
The recent panel on athlete activism was indicative of the valuable programming that OSU’s SSI sponsors. Reading about athlete activism is one thing, but to hear from those who have engaged in it provides a more complete story, and one that is less filtered by the agendas of the media. If you live or work close to Columbus, I would recommend signing up for their mailing list, and attending a session. For those farther away, most of their material is also uploaded to the SSI YouTube channel, which also includes additional material.
Russ Crawford is Associate Professor of History at Ohio Northern University in Ada, Ohio. His area of specialty is sport history, and his current project is a history of women playing football. Along with several chapters on sport history, he has published two books. Le Football: The History of American Football in France was recently published by the University of Nebraska Press in August of 2016. His first book, The Use of Sport to Promote the American Way of Life During the Cold War: Cultural Propaganda, 1946-1963, was published by the Edwin Mellen Press in 2008.