Black athletes have long history of not sticking to sports

ERRIN HAINES WHACK | 2/12/2018, 9:05 a.m.
This year’s NFL season featured two of America’s pastimes: football and race, with pregame protests dividing fans along color lines ...
From left: Boxer Jack Johnson, U.S. Olympic athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Muhammad Ali and football players Eli Harold, Colin Kaepernick, and Eric Reid. Associated Press

(AP) – This year’s NFL season featured two of America’s pastimes: football and race, with pregame protests dividing fans along color lines and making Sunday afternoons among the most segregated hours in the country.

While some fans would prefer players stick to sports, many Black athletes have chosen a different path by protesting, making people uncomfortable.

“The whole purpose of the demonstrations is to get [fans’] attention,” Kareem Abdul-Jabbar said. “These are the people that ignore the fact that people are being shot dead in the street. They’ve found ways to ignore it.”

For weeks, some NFL players, most of them African American, knelt silently on the sidelines as the national anthem played before kickoff. Their goal: to raise awareness about disparities in policing in communities of color, and about persistent, systemic racism in America.

It was a new approach to an age-old problem.

For generations, Black athletes from heavyweight boxer Jack Johnson to tennis champions Venus and Serena Williams to former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick have protested in ways large and small to highlight injustice, galvanize support and move the country forward. Often met with backlash from fans uninterested in mixing sports and social issues, many have taken stances that have cost them their careers.

The roots of Black athlete activism can be traced to the dawn of Black freedom. Even after slavery ended, Black Americans were barred from full participation in the public sphere: denied the right to vote, access to mass media, or equal housing and schools.

Because they were blocked from entry in most civic institutions for much of the 20th century, Black people found public visibility and expression in other arenas – often cultural ones, like music and sports.

Johnson fought – and beat – White boxers at the height of Jim Crow, when Blacks were presumed to be inferior, and dated White women, upending the social norms of the day.

When he finally lost, it would be a generation before another Black boxer would be allowed to compete at such a level, and the message had been sent to Black athletes that disrupting society came with consequences.

“It’s because of what happens to him that others know they have to toe the line,” said New York University historian Jeffrey Sammons. “They can’t be seen as defiant or opponents of the system. They know they can’t succeed without living up to expectations and being humble, unassuming and supportive of the established order.”

Then came along Muhammad Ali, who was not one to toe the line.

Ali was the most visible and influential athlete of his generation when he protested the Vietnam War as racially unjust by refusing to be drafted in 1967, a move that cost him his livelihood, derailing his fighting career for years.

Ali’s actions influenced others. Basketball player Abdul-Jabbar boycotted the 1968 Summer Olympics. At the same games, held in Mexico City, American track athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos held raised fists covered in Black leather gloves as the national anthem played after winning gold and bronze medals in the 200-meter race.