Arts and Entertainment Editor
Politics forced its way into sports decades ago, and now audiences are upset that athletes choose to air their political beliefs? The intersection of politics and sports is hardly a new concept and can be traced, at least in the U.S., back to the founding fathers. Yet, audiences still expect sports to be a politics-free zone — or, at least free from politics they disagree with. If one has an issue with athletes taking a knee during the national anthem, then perhaps they should take issue with sports playing the national anthem in the first place. After all, nothing says nationalistic, political display more than marching military personnel out with flags while someone performs “The Star-Spangled Banner,” which did not become part of sports tradition until the MLB played it at the 1918 World Series near the end of World War I, and NFL played it in 1948 as a sign of unison after the end of World War II. However, protest during sport has existed long before the national anthem became an integral part of sports and, arguably, is a bigger tradition to athletes than the anthem.
Considering the history of segregated sports, it is naïve to suggest that athletes should leave politics off the field, court, etc. when politics literally used to define where they could play. As an Undefeated article details, Black people participating in sports was often seen as a reason to protest or a protest within itself. In 1883, the Chicago White Sox were set to play the Toledo Blue Stockings when Cap Anson, owner of the White Sox, threatened to protest the game because the Blue Stockings’ catcher was Moses Fleetwood Walker, who is credited as one of the first Black men to play in Major League Baseball. However, that did not come without a fight. The Northwestern League introduced a measure to ban Black men from the league, but this failed. Yet, soon after, baseball became a segregated sport and Walker was one of the last Black men to play in the MLB until Jackie Robinson.
Even in a global setting, American sports were far from apolitical. The 1936 Berlin Olympics are famous, or, rather infamous, as a result of Jesse Owens setting a world record for the 200-meter race and earning gold medals in three other competitions, with Ralph Metcalfe finishing one-tenth of a second behind Owens in the 200m. and the 18 African-American competitors earning a total of 14 medals, all in front of Adolf Hitler. This show of excellence gained criticism from both sides of the Atlantic about “letting” Black men compete in sports. The act of simply competing became a political action, setting the stage for the 1968 Olympics. When Tommie Smith and John Carlos were presented with medals for finishing first and third respectively in the 200m., they raised their black-gloved fists during “The Star-Spangled Banner” in what became a famous image of strength and solidarity but were met with boos and condemnation from the crowd. Smith and Carlos became pariahs for their protest, with Carlos even alleging that he was under FBI surveillance as a result of their actions.
Carlos and Smith were hardly the first athletes to face career consequences for protesting or sitting out the national anthem. Basketball player Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf began to sit out the national anthem in the 1995 – 96 season, citing both religious and political reasons for doing so. This did not gain attention until March of 1996 when reporters began to question his behavior. Abdul-Rauf stated that the Koran did not allow him to participate in nationalistic rituals and the U.S. flag was “a symbol of oppression, of tyranny,” adding further, “This country has a long history of that. I don’t think you can argue the facts. You can’t be for God and for oppression.” This history is illustrated in the lengths sports leagues have gone to legally bar and blacklist Black athletes, especially those engaged in protest, from sports. The NBA’s decision, on the same day he made these statements, to suspend Abdul-Rauf without pay until he stood during the national anthem further illustrates the lengths the sporting industry will go to prohibit peaceful protest while still centering the political display of the national anthem.
Laura Ingraham’s comment of “shut up and dribble” directed towards LeBron James emphasizes that athletes are expected to be apolitical figures in and outside of their games. Ingraham continued to say that people do not need to hear politics coming from someone who gets paid $100 million to dribble a ball, but, following that logic, people do not need to hear the commentary of James’s politics from someone with a net worth of 45 million dollars. If Ingraham is paid to broadcast her views, why should James not be allowed to speak of his political views and experience as a Black man in America?
The condemnation of Colin Kaepernick, LeBron James, Megan Rapinoe, and countless other athletes for bringing politics into sports, in contrast to Bretty Favre recently endorsing Donald Trump, ignores the history of sports acting politically and upholding an ultra-nationalistic, racist status quo. People cannot expect athletes to leave their marginalized identities off the field, court, wherever, so they can maintain a seemingly apolitical bubble. The history of sports globally and within the U.S. has gone beyond complicity and actively played a role in politicizing Black athletes, LGBTQIA+ athletes, or any athlete standing in solidarity with marginalized communities. You want to remove politics from sports? Too bad; sports made itself political in the first place.
Featured Image: Courtesy of Sage Amdahl