Sports & Politics Are As American As Apple Pie & Ice Cream

Have Americans really forgot that many monumental political movements in this country were sparked by sports?

I ask that you put aside, momentarily, your stance on whether or not you agree with the optics of NFL players kneeling during the Star Spangled Banner. I urge you to disarm yourself of the hair-trigger responses necessary to plead a case with where your idea of the 1st Amendment ends. And most of all, please forget anything a certain resident of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue has to say for a moment. What I’d like you to do is…think. Can we do that for me?

Keep politics out of sports!!! 

I watch sports as an escape from politics!

Stick to football!!! 

I’m sure you’ve heard them all and then some.

And, while it makes sense in theory, it’s just not practically realistic at all. Telling athletes to — and I hate to quote LaVar Ball — stay in their lane is highly shortsighted, problematic and most of all hypocritical. Unless none of you dentists, teachers, barbers or salesmen have never spoken strongly on your takes on countless games every week, how can you tell the very same athletes you critique that their profession precludes them from offering their stance on something different?

Stick to  making sandwiches, Brandon from Subway! 

Keep sports out of my bar & grill, Randy! 

Ridiculous right?

Sports have been, at least, a platform and, at most, a flat-out catalyst for political statements and movements to be made for decades in the United States. This is nothing new, people! So, why must we pretend that NFL players protesting is sending our sports into some abyss from which we’ll never return?

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If you’re of the opinion that these athletes are dead wrong and have no right to challenge your comfort-levels, trust me when I tell you that history will render you incorrect. In fifty years, when Colin Kaepernick, LeBron James and Michael Bennett — among others — are mentioned in connection with fighting against racial inequality and police brutality, would you really want to be counted in the group who rallied against that cause?

Still don’t trust me? Let’s take look at some major sports / political statements made in the history of the U.S. and how the vilified athletes turned out to be beloved figures in history.


Jesse Owens Stands Up For America When America Shunned Him

jesseOwens, widely considered the greatest Olympian in history, won four gold medals during the 1936 Berlin Olympics. While Adolf Hitler’s  intentions were that the 1936 Berlin Games be a showcase for the concept of Aryan racial supremacy and Nazi ideology, it was a black man who left the largest impression on the ’36 Games.

While Hitler actually congratulated Owens and the German fans chanted his name, it was, in fact, the conduct of President Franklin D. Roosevelt — who refused to invite Owens to the White House or even acknowledge his triumphs — that disappointed the Olympic hero. Owens would say months after the Olympics,. “Hitler didn’t snub me—it was our president who snubbed me. The president didn’t even send me a telegram.”

Owens was even forced to enter through the back door and use the service elevator of the Waldorf Astoria (N.Y.) for a reception in his honor after returning home.

During, and after, the Games, Owens was sent off on an international publicity tour by the United States Olympic Committee (USOC) with no financial compensation. When he tired of begging strangers for food on the tour, he quit and initiated his own itinerary where he could make money and support his family.  The USOC responded by expelling Owens from the American Amateur Athletics Union, negating his ability to cash in on endorsements.

Later in life, Owens openly stated his distaste for the American system, saying, “I realized now that militancy in the best sense of the word was the only answer where the black man was concerned, that any black man who wasn’t a militant in 1970 was either blind or a coward.”

Owens is now as beloved as any American in history — sports or otherwise.


Branch Rickey & Jackie Robinson Break Baseball’s Color Barrier

jackieIn 1946, Brooklyn Dodgers president and general manager, Branch Rickey signed Jackie Robinson to a minor league contract.

It is still one of the most important moments in American sports history — if not the history of America in general.

Rickey, a former baseball player turned executive, had been waiting for the chance to re-integrate baseball for years. In the wake of World War II, he found his central figure in Jackie Robinson.

Robinson soon became the first African-American to play Major League Baseball in almost 50 years.  This broke baseball’s color barrier and created monumental waves around the country.

Robinson made his Dodger debut in 1947, quickly proving himself as one of the best players of his generation.  Within ten years black men were freely able to play in MLB.

Rickey’s 1946 move came eight years ahead of Rosia Parks and ten years before the Martin Luther King, Jr. became a national figure.

Rickey was careful in his selection of Robinson, not just because of his abilities, but also his demeanor and faith.

Rickey and Robinson had — and continue to have — an impact on baseball, sports and America like none before or since.  This example stands for generations to admire study.


Muhammad Ali Refuses Induction Into the U.S. Army

aliMuhammad Ali was boxing’s heavyweight champion of the world in 1967, and perhaps the  most famous and recognizable athlete on the planet.

In 1967, America was so deeply entrenched in the Vietnam war that Ali was drafted to the join the military.  He steadfastly refused enlistment. Ali’s stand was deeply rooted in his religious beliefs as a Muslim and his widely stated opposition to the war in Vietnam.

Ali was immediately arrested and then found guilty of draft evasion.  He was stripped of the title and saw his fighting license suspended.  Ali did not step into the ring for three years.

In 1971, the Supreme court overruled the conviction, and he regained his heavyweight title in 1975 by knocking out George Foreman in Kinshasa, Zaire.

Ali’s refusal of induction is the most famous episode of an athlete making a major political statement.  His decision was a lighting-rod of controversy in regards to the Vietnam war and the draft.

At the time, polls showed that most Americans disagreed with Ali’s refusal to serve.  However, in the following decades, his position has taken on the heroic ideal of an individual standing up for his beliefs and against war.

Ali died in 2016 as one of the most appreciated and beloved athletes in history.

John Carlos and Tommie Smith’s Black Power Salute

carlosThe is one of the most famous images in American history; two American track and field Olympians standing atop the medal platform, heads bowed…hands raised to the sky with black-gloved fists clenched in protest.

At the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City, American sprinter Tommie Smith took gold in the 200 meter, while fellow U.S. runner John Carlos finished captured bronze.

Smith and Carlos accepted their medals and headed to the platform for the playing of the national anthem.  As the Star Spangled Banner began both Carlos and Smith initiated the “Black Power salute.”

They were heavily booed as they left the platform and left the stadium.

Smith and Carlos were protesting the treatment of black people and other minorities in the United States.

Both were expelled from the games and roundly criticized for their actions. Smith and Carlos both went on to become NFL players. Their use of the Olympic platform to carryout peaceful protest is topic for debate until this day.

The photograph of their protest is now the most reproduced image in the history of the Olympics.


Pat Tillman Gives Up the NFL To Join the US Army

tillmanThe story of Pat Tillman is well documented.

After the attacks on America on September 11, 2001, the former Arizona State and Arizona Cardinal standout safety left a promising NFL career behind to enlist in the United States Army.

The Cardinals had offered Tillman a three year, 3.6 million dollar extension, but Tillman refused the offer and decided to join the Army in May 2002.

Tillman Initially served in Iraq, and became an Army Ranger in 2003.

Later, he was deployed to Afghanistan. It was there that he was killed by friendly fire on April 22, 2004.

To this day, no one is entirely sure of Tillman’s motivation for leaving behind his NFL career. Although, there remains plenty of speculation. His political and religious beliefs differ depending on the source.

However, there is little doubt that the 9/11 attacks had a profound effect on Tillman. Enough, that he believed it was more important to go to war for his country than to play football.  It was a bold personal, social and political statement which looms even heavier in the aftermath of his untimely death.


The list doesn’t end there, folks. There’s the Phoenix Suns who donned their Los Suns jerseys in response to new immigration laws in 2010. There’s NBA player Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf‘s sitting — and later standing with bowed head — during the national anthem. Then, there are countless athletes refusing White House invitations — from Obama and from Trump.

The point is that regardless of which side you may sit, kneel or stand on an issue, someone is always standing on the other side. Sports and politics hardly ever meet on under good terms. Whether it’s public displays of religion or political view, those that do not prescribe to the same beliefs will be uncomfortable. That’s essentially the point of peaceful protest; create discomfort and cause folks to take notice. Otherwise, what’s the point of protesting at all.

But, to pretend that politics and sports have never been meshed before in America is foolish…it’s willfully ignorant…it’s un-American.

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