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Colin Kaepernick and the Legacy of Protest in Sports
How do today’s demonstrations against racism on the field compare to the social activism of legendary athletes?
In honor of Martin Luther King, Jr., a recent New Yorker* cover features the iconic civil rights hero kneeling, arms linked with Seattle Seahawks defensive end Michael Bennett and former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick. It’s a striking, potent image that forces us to consider King’s legacy of peaceful protest in the context of modern day activists who have taken a knee during the national anthem in opposition to racial inequity.
What is it about these athletes’ activism that makes so many Americans uncomfortable?
Matthew Hernandez provided an insightful take on this topic in his 2016 dissertation, Beautiful Arrogance .Calling members of a minority group “arrogant” is a way to reinforce oppression, he argued. In the case of Kaepernick, “people from a wide range of different political and social outlooks…have charged [him] with arrogance,” Hernandez wrote, pointing out that the definition of “arrogance” suggests an attitude of superiority.
“But,” Hernandez added:
wanting to use one’s social capital to draw attention to instances of injustice does not shout, “I’m the best.” Kaepernick being called arrogant is just one instance of what seems to me a much larger pattern.
Exploring historical resources, a pattern indeed emerges of black athletes who have publicly protested racism and have been called “arrogant” and “ungrateful” in doing so. We look at some of these most iconic sports protests in civil rights history and show how researchers can uncover a goldmine of valuable context and insights on this topic using dissertations.
In 1987, it had been 40 years since “Jackie Robinson broke through the barrier that kept blacks out of major league baseball,” Juan Williams for The Washington Post wrote in an overview of the legendary athlete’s career on and off the field.
“The cheering came only for Jackie Robinson, the athlete, the first black major leaguer, Hall of Fame player, and star of the Brooklyn Dodgers,” Williams observed. “There was no cheering for Jackie Robinson, the social activist.”
Talk of Kaepernick’s “arrogance” echoes reactions to Robinson’s vocal challenges of the racist status quo. There was always the implication that Robinson didn’t know his place in society; that he was only supposed to play, and discuss, baseball. His job was to entertain, not make people uncomfortable with his politics.
According to Williams, Robinson told reporters that:
He had many fans, especially whites, who liked him only as the underdog, a black man being assaulted by racist players who cursed him and purposely ripped his leg with their spikes. But those same fans, said Robinson, didn’t like it when their underdog shouted back at his attackers – “the minute I began to sound off, I became a swell-head, wise guy, an uppity [expletive].”
Robinson retired from baseball in 1957 and continued a controversial career in social activism until his death in 1974. Williams said that before Robinson died, he remembered the excitement of hearing the national anthem at the opening of the 1947 World Series, and being the first black player to make it to the championship.
But toward the end of his life, Robinson wrote: “I cannot stand and sing the anthem – I cannot salute the flag; I know that I am a black man in a white world…I know that I never had it made.”
Heavyweight boxing champion Muhammad Ali outraged critics during the civil rights movement in 1964 when he joined the Nation of Islam and changed his name from Cassius Clay, which he considered his “slave name.” He became an outspoken opponent of racial oppression, but the media and numerous others didn’t take him seriously and refused to refer to Ali by his chosen name.
Ali provoked deeper fury when, due to his religious beliefs, he resisted the military draft. Ali said fighting the war in Vietnam went against the teaching of the Qu’ran and he couldn’t justify traveling halfway around the world to kill on behalf of a country that abused and exploited people of color. In the documentary, The Trials of Muhammad Ali he proclaimed, “It has been said that I have two alternatives, either I go to jail or go to the army. But I would like to say that there is another alternative. And that alternative is justice.”
As the draft board denied Ali’s status as a conscientious objector, the New York State Athletic Commission suspended his boxing license indefinitely and the World Boxing Association stripped him of his title. Convicted of dodging the draft, Ali was fined $10,000 and sentenced to five years in prison. He appealed to the Supreme Court and a decision came down in his favor, but he wouldn’t be allowed to fight again until 1970, costing him what were likely the peak years of his boxing career.
Tommie Smith and John Carlos
One of the most iconic images in civil rights history is from the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City depicting athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos during their medal ceremony. As they respectively took the gold and bronze medals in the 100-meter dash, the two men lowered their heads and raised their gloved fists in a controversial black power salute.
But, as Smith wrote in his 2007 autobiography:
[P]ut aside what you thought you knew about what happened on the victory stand in Mexico City that night. This was not the Black Power movement. To this very day, the gesture made on the victory stand is described as a Black Power salute; it was not…
According to Smith, the gesture stood for human rights. Looking closer at the image, you see three men on that victory stand – the third is silver medal winner Peter Norman from Australia – all of them wearing the same badge on their chests, representing the Olympic Project for Human Rights, which was formed to protest racial segregation around the world.
The clenched fists in black gloves were a symbol of black unity in the United States, signifying people of color rising up against racism and exploitation – as well as the calling for the restoration of Ali’s title as heavyweight champion.
In response to the protest by Smith and Carlos, The New York Times noted:
This demonstration produced a mixed reaction among United States officials and members of the United States squad, black and white. Some hailed it as a gesture of independence and a move in support of a worthy cause. Many others said they were offended and embarrassed. A few were vehemently indignant.
Middle America also had split reactions to the protest – some of them violent, including making death threats against the athletes. Others lashed out with bitter words, or responded with admiration and support, as demonstrated by a sampling of comments printed in The Chicago Tribune.6 One reader wrote that Smith and Carlos had “shown flagrant disrespect for their country and the competition” and called for the athletes to return their medals “since they have dishonored all Americans – black and white.”
Another writer complained that the protest was “a betrayal of the very system which allowed [Smith and Carlos] to pursue their studies and develop into great athletes – probably at little cost to themselves.”
But one letter expressed another perspective:
The dignity of the American black athlete flared from the Olympic stadium late last Wednesday when the medal-winning sprinters, Tommie Smith and John Carlos, dared to become black men…Tommie Smith and John Carlos have moved from slaves to men.
For further research…there’s a dissertation for that
For researchers interested in investigating the history of athletes and civil rights protests, here is a sample of dissertations on the subject from ProQuest Dissertations and Theses Global:
Ezra, M. L. (2001). Muhammad Ali's Main Bout: Black Nationalism and The Civil Rights Movement, 1964–1967 (Order No. 3053385).
Kelly, C. B. (2017). Internal Activism and its Implications for Organizational Legitimacy: A Case Study of the NBA's Reaction To The National Anthem Protests In Sports. (Order No. 10280804).
Mccormick, M. D. (2016). Full Court Press: Rebellion, Resistance, and the Black Athletes of the Civil Rights Movement. (Order No. 10145421).
Newmann, T. S. (1981). Muhammad Ali, nee Cassius Clay (The New York Times' Coverage Of Muhammad Ali From September 6, 1960 To April 30, 1967). (Order No. EP36664).
Ruiz, M. (2014). The Ritual Significance of the National Pastime Over the Long Duration: Democracy, Racial Progress, and African Americans in Baseball (Order No. 3646386).
Witherspoon, K. B. (2003). Protest at The Pyramid: The 1968 Mexico City Olympics and Politicization Of The Olympic Games (Order No. 3137391).
Smith, M. M. (1999). Identity And Citizenship: African American Athletes, Sport, And The Freedom Struggles Of The 1960s (Order No. 9951727).
Mccormick, M. D. (2016). Full Court Press: Rebellion, Resistance, and the Black Athletes Of The Civil Rights Movement (Order No. 10145421).
Ratchford, J. (2011). Black Fists and Fool's Gold: The 1960s Black Athletic Revolt Reconsidered (Order No. 3481130).
Dissertations are an invaluable source of academically reviewed, scholarly thinking. For many researchers, one of the biggest concerns when writing a paper is that they have missed relevant articles or information. With deep coverage and extensive bibliographies that surface sources and ideas that would otherwise be missed, dissertations are essential and illuminating resources.
ProQuest Dissertations & Theses Global is the largest commercial repository of graduate dissertations and theses containing over 4 million works from across the globe, and with more than 130,000 added to the database each year. A recent ACRL/CHOICE review hailed the database as “highly recommended for beginning students through professionals/practitioners.”
- Hernandez, M. (2017). Beautiful Arrogance (Order No. 10264282). Available from ProQuest Dissertations & Theses Global. (1917532586).
- Williams, J. (1987, Apr 12). After the Cheering Stopped, Jackie Robinson Played Harder Than Ever. In 1947, He Broke Baseball's Color Line. Then, Unlike So Many of Today's Star Athletes, He Used Fame as a Way to Help His People. The Washington Post (Pre-1997 Fulltext). Available from Global Newsstream.
- Siegel, B. (Director), & Pikelny, R., & Siegel, B. (Producers). (2013). The Trials of Muhammad Ali [Video file]. Available from Alexander Street Black Thought and Culture.
- Smith, T., Steele, D., & Steele, D. (2007). Silent Gesture: Autobiography of Tommie Smith. Available from Ebook Central.
- Sheehans, Joseph M. Special to The New,York Times. 2 Black Power Advocates Ousted from Olympics. (1968, Oct 19).) Available from ProQuest Historical Newspapers.
- Easley, S. H. (1968, Oct 23). 'SILENT PROTEST' AT OLYMPICS. Chicago Tribune (1963-Current File). Available from ProQuest Historical Newspapers.
*The most recent and archived issues of the New Yorker are available from ProQuest Central.