While some believe athletes shouldn’t share their opinions on matters that aren’t related to sports, history proves they have been doing so for years.
American sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos won gold and bronze, respectively, in the 200m dash at the 1968 Olympic Summer Games in Mexico. They both wore a single black glove while on the podium and raised their fists in unison for the Black Power salute.
“Because we’re black athletes, what we’re supposed to do is run real fast, and go home, smile, get pats on the back, and still be relegated to second-class living?” Tommie Smith later asked. “I’m supposed to stand up there, and look at the flag, put my hand over my heart, saying how proud I am, because the flag is representing me? I don’t think so. Because it did not.”
Smith and Carlos also took off their shoes to symbolize the poverty that members of their community endured, and wore a scarf and a beaded necklace around their necks to commemorate African-American lives lost to lynching.
The Australian sprinter who won silver, Peter Norman, also silently joined the protest by wearing the same “Olympic Project for Human Rights” pin as Smith and Carlos. The organization fought against racism in sports.
Smith, Carlos and Norman were all shunned from the sport following their protest.
Muhammad Ali did not want to go to war. When the U.S. began conscripting young men for Vietnam, Ali refused to join the ranks despite it being illegal. He was stripped of his world heavyweight boxing title and saw his New York boxing license revoked as a result. Ali was also sentenced to five years in jail, but was released on bail.
When asked to explain his decision, Ali’s thoughts were simple — he chose to follow his faith and the laws of his moral compass:
“Why should they ask me to put on a uniform and go 10,000 miles from home and drop bombs and bullets on brown people in Vietnam while so-called Negro people in Louisville are treated like dogs?” Ali asked. “If I thought the war was going to bring freedom and equality to 22 million of my people, they wouldn’t have to draft me. I’d join tomorrow. But I either have to obey the laws of the land or the laws of Allah. I have nothing to lose by standing up for my beliefs. So I’ll go to jail, so what? We’ve been in jail for 400 years.”
Record-setting Toronto Blue Jays slugger Carlos Delgado is not only remembered for his skill, but also for his protest against the American war in Iraq. Delgado remained in the dugout as “God Bless America” played at games during the 2004 season to protest what he called “the stupidest war ever.’’
“Who are you fighting against? You’re just getting ambushed now. We have more people dead now, after the (official) war, than during the war,” Delgado said. “You’ve been looking for weapons of mass destruction. Where are they at? You’ve been looking for over a year. Can’t find them. I don’t support that.’’
In 2003, a U.S. college basketball player, Toni Smith decided to turn her back on the country’s flag before games. Manhattanville College senior forward’s personal protest drew large crowds and larger amounts of attention. At one game, a Vietnam War veteran rushed towards her in the middle of the court, holding a large U.S. flag.
In a statement, she said that she was protesting the American war in Iraq.
“...Bush's plan for ‘maintaining our safety’ will cause many innocent people, women and children, mothers and babies, to die overseas. Furthermore, going to war will likely provoke more violence in this country,” she argued. “...whether or not people agree with me is irrelevant. It is my right as an American to stand for my beliefs the way others have done against me.”
At a 2010 game, The Phoenix Suns basketball team debuted jerseys that read “Los Suns” (a Spanish reading of The Suns) to protest an Arizona law. The legislation allowed officials to arrest and detain individuals if they had “reasonable suspicion” they were illegal migrants.
“Reasonable suspicion” also gave them the right to request their status papers. Human rights organizations, activists and politicians alike decried SB 1070, saying the law would disproportionately discriminate against Latinx and Asian-American communities.
The team’s managing partner, Robert Sarve, later told press that "there are times you need to stand up and be heard. I respect people's views on the other side but I just felt it was appropriate for me to stand up and make a statement." In the team’s official statement on the protest, Sarver called SB 1070 “a flawed state law” that called “basic principles of equal rights and protection under the law” into question.
In 2014, five St. Louis Rams football players chose to hold their hands in the air before a game. The “hands up, don’t shoot” gesture was a reference to the killing of Michael Brown, an unarmed black 18 year-old who died after being shot by a police officer in Ferguson, a suburb of St. Louis, Mo. The gesture caused outrage among certain fans and officials.
The St. Louis Police Association issued a statement saying they were “profoundly disappointed with the members of the St. Louis Rams football team who chose to ignore the mountains of evidence released from the St. Louis County Grand Jury this week and engage in a display that police officers around the nation found tasteless, offensive, and inflammatory.”
Despite the police group’s anger, both the NFL and the St. Louis Rams said the players would not be disciplined for their actions.
Colin Kaepernick stood “with the people that are being oppressed” when he sat through the Star-Spangled Banner. On Aug 29, 2016, the San Francisco 49ers player chose to protest police brutality against African-Americans by refusing to stand forh the U.S. national anthem. He later stated that “when there is significant change, and I feel like that flag represents what it’s supposed to represent, I’ll stand.”
Kaepernick later changed his protest by taking a knee instead, an act which many other National Football League players have since adopted. In 2018, the NFL banned kneeling or sitting during the anthem.
Still curious? Read about the mysterious death of suffragette Emily Wilding Davison.
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