August 26, 2016, was the perfect day for football in Santa Clara, California. Sunny skies as far as the eyes were over Levi Stadium while excited football fans packed into their seats to watch The Green Bay Packers take on the San Francisco 49ers in the preseason match-up. As the National Anthem played in the air everything seemed as normal as any other game, almost. Beat reporter, Jennifer Chan, while standing and taking photos for her story caught something unusual, 49 ers quarterback Colin Kapernick seated during the anthem. The backlash was immediate with some, including then-President Donald Trump, calling for his firing. Kaepernick later explained his reasoning to NFL media after the game.
“I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color,” Kaepernick said. “To me, this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way. There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder.”
This event transpired weeks after the shooting deaths of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile by police officers and was also followed by marches and protest advocating for humane treatment of black people by law enforcement. What the public at large was unaware of was that this event was another example of black athletes using their platform for social change. A tradition that went back farther than anyone realized.
If I was to place a marker for where this trend began it would be during the Jim Crow era with a boxer named Jack Johnson. Johnson was the first Black American world heavyweight boxing champion after beating Jeff Jeffries in 1910. With his win, he became the face of the racial treatment them black athletes faced due to the belief that black people were too stupid to have the self-control to train and compete against white athletes.
As time when on, more and more Black athletes use their position of power to bring attention to social justice issues. one of the most famous ones was a boxer from St Louis named Cassius Clay or more famously known as Muhammad Ali. Ali used his position as a heavyweight champion to bring attention to the horrors of The Vietnam War and the racist treatment of black soldiers by refusing to be drafted into a conflict that was purely politically motivated. While this choice brought about more adversity to Muhammad Ali in the end he was vindicated when the Supreme Court Justice agreed with his right to not be drafted.
While I could continue telling stories of black athletes’ acts of activism a question that I’ve always had is does it matter? Do the actions of these athletes taking a stand publicly inspire the populace especially the Black American citizen? According to surveys conducted by Politico, the answer is yes. According to their research, Politico reported that many black voters did feel inspired to vote after seeing Colin Kaepernick protest during the football season. During the 2016 presidential election, black voters did not turn out as they had previously which allowed Donald Trump to gain a victory over Hillary Clinton. This fact has led the Democratic National Convention to mobilize teams to engage more with the black community when it comes to registering to vote and having access to vote. One way that they did engage with black voters was incorporating LeBron James into rallies with presidential candidate Joe Biden. While it cannot be said that James’ endorsement was a huge factor in Biden’s win it can be said through their surveys “a majority of black voters did support James’s political standing”(Towler et al., 2020) when it came to choosing the candidate they would vote for.
While no data is showing conclusive evidence connecting black athletes’ political activism to immediate social change what cannot be overlooked is that when these athletes speak people do listen. During my readings, I did find a lack of information on black female athletes taking political stance I believe that this is due to them already fighting many other battles including mental health issues due to societal pressure and the defeminization that they face from sexist audiences. Time will only tell if the foot hole that black athletes have will continue to grow or diminish as more and more political events take place.
A&E Networks Television. (2021, May 13). Jack Johnson. Biography.com. Retrieved October 21, 2021, from https://www.biography.com/athlete/jack-johnson.
Encyclopædia Britannica, inc. (n.d.). Colin Kaepernick. Encyclopædia Britannica. Retrieved October 21, 2021, from https://www.britannica.com/biography/Colin-Kaepernick.
Person. (2016, August 28). Niners QB Kaepernick refuses to stand for anthem in protest. ABC7 San Francisco. Retrieved October 21, 2021, from https://abc7news.com/sports/niners-qb-kaepernick-refuses-to-stand-for-anthem-in-protest/1487494/.
Towler, C. C., Crawford, N. N., & III, R. A. B. (2020, October 5). Why black athletes’ political activism matters. POLITICO. Retrieved October 21, 2021, from https://www.politico.com/news/magazine/2020/10/04/why-black-athletes-political-activism-matters-425473.