In 2018 Fox News host Laura Ingram told LeBron James to “shut up and dribble” after he criticized the president. This sparked the debate, should athletes use their platforms to express opinions on political and social issues. Outspoken athletes have been a part of American sports for decades; and are now seen as heroes. In the past many were public enemies, particularly black athletes. Some had their careers stripped from them and lives ruined, others were lucky enough to have their activism supported. They took a stand on an issue they believed in and lived with the consequences of voicing their beliefs.
Tommie Smith & John Carlos are dear friends of my fathers. I call Tommie either Uncle Tommie or Coach depending on the day. Growing up he was a kind and funny family friend who valued self-discipline. When I was in seventh grade I saw the iconic photo of him and John Carlos and learned of their protest in the 1968 Olympics. They stood on the gold medal podium barefoot with their fists raised and heads down in front of millions of people across the world. It was the first time an unplanned protest was broadcast on that scale. In a time without global connection these two men affected the masses, standing up for the repression of black people in America. They went barefoot to represent the poverty they endured throughout their lives. Tommie wore a black scarf to show his pride in being black. John unzipped his jacket to show solidarity with blue collar workers and wore beads to remember black victims of violence. I would argue that their protest was one of the most impactful moments in history. Two men stopped the world in its tracks in less than a minute.
While their protest was moving it did have consequences. For years they faced death threats and struggled to find work for years. I remember Tommie telling me about how much he struggled, but how his conviction never wavered, “we took a stand for what we knew was right.” This protest showed that there is power in sport and helped set the stage for decades of sport as a platform for change and expression. They used a moment they dreamed of to take a stand for what their struggle.
In 1966 Muhammad Ali took a stand against violence and the war in Vietnam. He became a conscientious objector of the war. To him the Vietnamese were no different than himself; black and brown, poor and victims of systematic oppression. Ali was a member of the nation of Islam and cited the Qur’an: “I’m not trying to dodge the draft. We are not supposed to take part in no wars unless declared by Allah or The Messenger. We don’t take part in Christian wars or wars of any unbelievers… Man, I ain’t got no quarrel with them Viet Cong.” The boxing federations vacated his belts and titles, and denied that the best boxer on earth existed. He didn’t fight for over three years. Ali sacrificed three years in the prime of his career, potentially millions of dollars, for a principle. Once he returned Ali dominated and reclaimed his title as the greatest fighter of all time, proving that some sacrifices do pay off.
Shut up and dribble has died, athletes today have more power than they ever have. The NBA in particular has let players take a stand and use their social platforms to voice their opinions with minimal consequence. Last week the Milwaukee Bucks refused to play in their NBA playoff game to protest the shooting of Jacob Blake and the entire league followed suit. This shows how much the league has bought into supporting its players. Nike and Adidas have both followed suit and taken initiative to stand for fairness within their companies and across the world. Sport is on the forefront of the social justice movements in the United States.
It’s incredible to see how much sports have progressed in this arena. In the 1960s and 70s athletes had no voice, and the ones who did were ostracized from the athletic community. They were no more than their athletic achievements. Now it seems so obvious that these athletes were right, but at the time Ali, Carlos and Smith were hated. We should make it a point to remember what the activists of decades past went through to allow today’s athletes to take a stand. Some leagues still have a long way to go (NFL, MLB) others have taken the steps to begin giving their athletes a platform to take a stand. Last night Jamal Murray, an up and coming star in the NBA, wore a pair of shoes with George Floyd & Breonna Taylor pictured on them. In his post game talk he said that the whole league has found what it is fighting for. They see that they are more than entertainers, they have the power to influence all of society.
If I could get a message out to every pro, it would be that they should feel empowered to use their platform because of their fore bearers like Tommie, John, Muhammad Ali, and even Colin Kaepernick. They sacrificed a lot so that today’s pros can say what they want.
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