Kaepernick & The History of US Athletes Protesting Discrimination
The Internet went and got itself all in a tizzy about Colin Kaepernick’s refusal to stand during the National Anthem as a protest about this nation’s treatment of black people.
Now, of course what he’s doing makes sense. Why should anyone respect the symbol of a nation that is still struggling to even acknowledge its problems? We have to deal in realities at this point and the reality is that black lives matter. No “buts” and no “and so dos” and no “even thoughs“. Leave it and believe it.
However, Kaepernick is not the only athlete to stand up (by sitting out) for his beliefs and get a whole lot of flack for it. And in fact, he’s not alone in news of athletes protesting recently for the same cause.
But if you take a step back into history, there were not only numerous huge demonstrations made that changed history…there were demonstrations made by athletes that were almost forgotten by history.
Tommie Smith and John Carlos
During the 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico City, Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised their gloved fists in their air during their medal ceremony to the fist-clenching horror of white Americans back home. Captured in this glorious moment by photographer John Dominis, they also wore no shoes to represent black poverty and a scarf and prayer beads respectively to represent lynching. As a result, they were suspended and forced to leave the games. After all, them’s the rules. Wait, what? There were no rules about that? It was just outraged pressure from people that kicked them out? Yeah, that sounds about right.
If you start talking about the first woman to run the Boston Marathon, you’ll probably see a picture of Kathrine Switzer being pushed off the track by a race official. And yes, that was super lame and she managed to keep running anyway because she had shit to do. However, you probably didn’t hear about Roberta “Bobbi” Gibb, who ran the year earlier when women were absolutely banned from participating and they made sure to tell her that in a refusal letter after she applied for her number, citing “women aren’t allowed, and furthermore are not physiologically able.”And like all great women, she was all “nah, I’m gonna do it anyway”. So she did, finishing in the top third. But don’t worry, because Sports Illustrated still managed to call her a “a tidy-looking and pretty 23-year-old blonde” when writing about her triumph.
You know, of course, or at least I hope you do, that Jackie Robinson was a revolutionary and history-making baseball player. Did you know that he was in the military and also court-martialed? In a moment echoed years later by Rosa Parks, he was riding on a bus next to another officer’s wife when the bus driver told him to move to the back. He refused and then refused to show his ID, so he was arrested. After a four-hour trial, he was thankfully acquitted and went on to become a huge star and symbol for athletes throughout history…as we all as a prominent civil rights activist.
Alice Milliat and the Fédération Sportive Féminine Internationale (FSFI)
It was 1922 and women were slowly being ungiven the shit end of the stick. Unfortunately, the International Olympics Committee still thought it was moving a little too fast and wasn’t about to let that affect how many women could compete in the Olympics. So Alice Milliant started her own goddamned Olympics for Women. By doing so, new standards and new sports organization devoted to women were created and after 16 years (oof), the IOC finally got off its ass and determined that women should be more represented in its games. As Milliat once said, ““Unfortunately, we have no leaders; the men involved with men’s sport do not realize that they could do themselves a favour by showing some interest in women’s sport; they shut themselves away in their everlasting male egoism…”
The 1936 Summer Olympics (man, the Olympics sure does figure into a lot of protests) were famous for two things: Jesse Owens and Hitler. Knowing that nothing angers people quite like the Nazis, Hitler’s participation in the games sparked quite a number of protests. So it’s unlikely that you heard about Cornelius Johnson and his fellow medalists Albritton and Thurber raising an obscure salute to more or less mock the Fuhrer. Side note, Mock the Fuhrer would be a great band name. Called the Bellamy salute, it involves an arm raised with its palm facing up in conjunction with the Pledge of Allegiance. Obviously, it was discontinued because of the Nazi salute being so very similar. But when Cornelius Johnson was standing for his medal, he frankly had enough of Hitler’s continued assbaggery at the Olympics and decided to bust it out.
When the world lost Muhammad Ali, it mourned. How easy it might have been to forget, then, about the incredible anger people felt the three times he refused to be drafted into the Vietnam war. In fact, they were so angry, they took away his heavyweight title and his license to box altogether. They even tried to throw him in prison. Once America’s hero, he then had to fight the law, a common enough theme in our history for citizens of color. But really, his whole life was like a protest, especially when you revisit his interview where he completely demolishes the apparently super long-lived “not all white people” defense.