Athletes in America have been using their prestige to influence political and social changes for decades. At the time of their protests, they are viewed as controversial figures. As time passes though, we acknowledge these men as heroes.
One of the most beautiful things about sports is how it can bring people together. Have you ever ran into someone who shares the same fandom as you? No matter if you’re in your team’s home state, or perhaps another country, there is a kinship between you and another fan. We immortalize players and hold them to a higher standard than the average man. Especially in football, where the NFL stole the Christian holy day and turned it into a new religion: Football Sunday. Many fans forget that these players aren’t privileged, or holy, but they are hardworking Americans, just like us. Imagine training your body to the peak of physical perfection, daily. These men work hard, on and off the field. They have families and friends that aren’t famous and they have children who may not achieve the same level of stardom. Athletes are still grounded in the same reality as everyone else. They want the best for their families and friends, and fortunately, they can accomplish that goal. When you hear the completely asinine comment that, "these entitled millionaires are just here to entertain us," be cautious of the person speaking. They believe that successful people should have less of a voice, which is more un-American that any NFL protest currently taking place.
There’s nothing new about affluent athletes using their platform to make a political statement. Throughout history, men and women who are considered legends have protested controversial topics. Essentially, nothing has changed. At the time of the protest, the athletes involved are controversial, and face hatred and discrimination. Hindsight is always 20/20 though, and many of these polarizing figures are now regarded as heroes. An athlete like Colin Kaepernick, who many suspect is being blackballed by the NFL, may seem controversial presently In the future, the public's narrative will change. His actions as a philanthropist and an activist have already secured him a spot in the history books, but there is a long list of athletes that paved the way before him.
The most famous athlete to lose everything due to protesting is Muhammad Ali. On April 28, 1967, Ali publicly refused to be drafted into the U.S. Army. He disagreed with the Vietnam War and sympathized with the Vietnam people. The pubic deemed that sympathizing with an enemy of America was the most unpatriotic act possible. In response, Ali famously stated that, “They never called me n*gger, they never lynched me, they didn’t put no dogs on me, they didn’t rob me of my nationality, rape and kill my mother or father… shoot them for what?” Almost immediately he was stripped of his heavyweight title, convicted of draft evasion, sentenced to five years in prison, and banned from boxing.
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Just one year later, Tommie Smith and John Carlos famously held up the fist of Black power at the Olympics in Mexico City. Smith and Carlos won first and third place, respectively, in the 200-meter dash. Australian athlete Pete Norman took second place, and all three of the sprinters wore human’s right badges on their jackets. Norman disapproved of Australia’s White Australia Policy, which was a name given to several laws that made it difficult for non-white immigrants to relocate to the country. As the three men approached the podium to receive their awards, Smith and Carlos took off their shoes and walked in black socks to represent black poverty. As the Star-Spangled Banner played, Smith and Carlos lowered their heads and raised their fists, wearing black gloves to symbolize black power. After their racially-driven protest, both athletes were kicked off the US Olympic team and expelled from the Olympics. When they returned home, Smith and Carlos received death threats, were attacked by the media, and largely ostracized by the American public. Today, both men are considered heroes.
At the following Olympic Games in 1972, Vince Matthews and Wayne Collet refused to face the flag while the national anthem played. At the conclusion of the song, Collet raised a fist for black power. Afterwards, both men were also released from the US Olympic team and barred from participating in any Olympic events.
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"When I came back to my native country, after all the stories about Hitler, I couldn't ride in the front of the bus. I had to go to the back door. I couldn't live where I wanted. I wasn't invited to shake hands with Hitler, but I wasn't invited to the White House to shake hands with the President, either,”- Jesse Owens
Jesse Owens is undoubtedly the best track athlete of all time. He set three world records, and tied a fourth one, within 45 minutes. During Hitler’s reign, The Olympics were held in Berlin. The year was 1936, three years before WWII would start. Owens absolutely destroyed the Nazi belief that the Aryan race was somehow superior by annihilating his opponents and winning four gold medals. After his historical performance, Owens returned to America and was shocked by his reception. He wasn't seen as a hero, and his fame did not stop racism from eliminating his opportunities. At first, he was reluctant to join any activist movements and even criticized Tommie Smith and John Carlos. As he grew older though he became more militant. In his book I Have Changed, Jesse writes that, “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.”
Decades later, in 1996, the NBA suspended Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf because he refused to stand for the national anthem. At the time, league rules stated that players and staff must "stand and line up in a dignified posture" during both the American and Canadian national anthems. Although his suspension did not last long, the Nuggets traded him at the end of the season. Abdul-Rauf averaged a team-high 19.2 points and 6.8 assists at the time, and even scored 32 points on Michael Jordan and the epic 72-win 95-96 Bulls squad. Within two years he was blackballed from the league entirely. Abdul-Rauf’s house was burned down, and he faced several death threats after his NBA career was taken from him. Today, he is a supporter of Colin Kaepernick.
No matter what your stance is on the protests taking place in the NFL, the reality of the situation is that these men are making history. They are neither the first, nor the last, athletes to make controversial political statements. People with voices that reach farther than the average man have a responsibility to use those voices. The idea that millionaires should stay quiet about political issues is ridiculous because political decisions still affect their lives, and the lives of their families. This past Sunday, we watched billionaire NFL team owners take a knee. It doesn’t matter why they did it at this point. The point is, the entire country is talking about a movement that Colin Kaepernick orchestrated. Without his leadership, none of these protests would have come to pass. Although, without the courage of the heroes that came before him, Colin may not have decided to take that knee in the first place. In the words of famous Irish political philosopher Edmund Burke, “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.”