Mack Robinson, Jackie’s brother, didn’t use his silver medal from the 1936 Summer Olympics to meet people. He wore his Olympic team jacket to the only job he could get, as a street sweeper. White residents of Pasadena, Cal., called the cops on Robinson and made him take off the jacket.
Football players at New York University in 1940 didn’t make a poster when the school’s football team declined to use Black player Leonard Bates because of a request from the University of Missouri. They went to NYU’s student council. For protesting, seven students at NYU were suspended for three months.
Bill Russell didn’t ask to see the manager. He led a walkout by Black players on the Boston Celtics and the St. Louis Hawks – after being refused service in a Kentucky restaurant – before a preseason game in 1961. The game went on, with white players only.
Heavyweight boxer Muhammad Ali didn’t put a sign in his yard. He refused induction into the United States Army as a conscientious objector in 1966, because he was against the Vietnam War. Ali was arrested, found guilty of draft evasion, stripped of his boxing titles, barred from the sport and missed four years of his career.
Russell, Jim Brown and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (then Lew Alcindor) didn’t talk among themselves about Ali’s decision and the reaction to it. They banded together with other Black athletes and spoke up.
John Carlos and Tommie Smith didn’t ask the local running club for help. They raised their fists in protest while on the podium after winning gold and bronze medals at the 1968 Olympics. Smith and Carlos were expelled from the Olympics, booed, vilified.
Fourteen Black football players at the University of Wyoming didn’t write essays. They sought permission to wear black armbands for a game against BYU in 1969 to protest the Mormon Church’s rule against Black clergy. Wyoming’s “Black 14” were kicked off the team.
Nine players on Syracuse University’s 1970 football team didn’t sit around their dorm rooms and complain about wanting better medical attention and academic support, and an integrated coaching staff. They asked for those things from their team and their school, and sat out the entire season.
Colin Kaepernick didn’t make a speech before a Pop Warner game. He took a knee during the National Anthem before an NFL game in 2016 to protest police brutality. He was booed by fans, called unpatriotic, un-American. Critics said he hated the military despite talking through the idea with former Green Beret Nate Boyer. The decision basically ended Kaepernick’s career.
New York-based jockeys didn’t meet with police. Before the first race on Belmont Park’s Opening Day in June, they knelt in solidarity with Black Lives Matter protesters, who protested the killing of George Floyd in Minnesota police custody a few days earlier.
LeBron James didn’t just complain about election results. He joined with Trae Young, Skylar Diggins-Smith, Jalen Rose and others to create the voting rights group More Than a Vote. Its mission is to protect Black voting rights and to educate people about the voting process. This 2020 effort joined his work to fund college tuition for low-income students at the University of Akron and starting a grade school in the city, his hometown.
The Milwaukee Bucks didn’t send thoughts and prayers after Jacob Blake was shot seven times in the back by a police officer in Wisconsin this week. They boycotted their NBA playoff game. Other teams followed, so did teams from the WNBA, Major League Baseball, National Hockey League and Major League Soccer.
NBA coach Doc Rivers didn’t go to HR. He spoke from the heart about his reaction to the Blake shooting, about outrage, about fear, about wishing he could “just be a coach.”
Former NBA player Robert Horry didn’t write a letter to the editor. On ESPN, he talked about racism and its place and its impact on his family. It was personal, painful, hard.
People protesting the police shooting of Louisville resident Breonna Taylor didn’t picket the 4-H show. They stood in front of Churchill Downs, and vowed to do it again on Kentucky Derby Day. A Louisville native, Ali would have stood right there with them.
Sixty years after their protest, NYU honored those students for their work toward social justice. In 1971, the Supreme Court overturned Ali’s conviction and he is revered as “The Greatest.”
Russell, Brown and Jabbar are legends in sports and life and doing the right thing, sought out – still – to comment about the role of sports in society.
Fifty years after being dismissed from the team, those Wyoming players were honored by the school, received team jerseys and letterman jackets, invited to speak to students. And the Mormon church allows Black clergy now.
Syracuse ultimately gave those football players the Chancellor’s Medal and their letterman jackets. Smith and Carlos are used as examples for their stance, for their courage during one of our country’s darkest times.
James, Kaepernick, Rivers, Horry, the New York jockeys, those athletes from all the leagues that didn’t play this week . . . well, we’ll see what’s being said in 50 years.
So don’t argue that protests against racism, police brutality and other causes shouldn’t involve sports, that athletes or anyone else should “stick to” something. Protests have always involved sports. They’ve always been uncomfortable to some people.
You want to make a statement and stand up for something? Do it around a sporting event, a team, an arena, anything people identify with and consider important.
And keep right on doing it.
Published in The Saratoga Special Saturday, Aug. 29, 2020. See full edition.