LOOKBACK: Top athletes who spoke out against oppression
MANILA, Philippines – The Black Lives Matter movement spreading at a rapid rate across the United States has seen its fair share of athletes joining the cause.
From all-time greats like Michael Jordan to local stars like Chris Ross, these athletes have used their influence to spread the message of dissent against police brutality that has since claimed many innocent lives.
But as history tells us, these were not the first group of athletes to use their platform to speak out against oppression.
In fact, the world of sports has had a long history of top athletes standing their ground and speaking out against various issues stemming from oppression.
One of the most popular current examples of these athletes is LeBron James, who has been actively speaking out on social media against police brutality that cost the life of African-American George Floyd and hurt many other peaceful protesters.
If you still haven’t figured out why the protesting is going on. Why we’re acting as we are is because we are simply F-N tired of this treatment right here! Can we break it down for you any simpler than this right here???? . And to my people don’t worry I won’t stop until I see https://t.co/e4pJ0PvwJj— LeBron James (@KingJames) June 4, 2020
Four years earlier, James had himself been the victim of racist abuse as his Los Angeles home was vandalized with racist slurs such as the N-word.
His comments on political and social issues even caught the attention of top US network FOX News, whose reporter Laura Ingraham infamously told James last February 2018 to just “shut up and dribble.”
This comment backfired massively as it spawned an entire sub-movement that empowered athletes to speak out even more than ever.
In that same year, the Showtime network completed and aired a documentary called – what else – Shut Up And Dribble, a three-part series giving a “powerful inside look at the changing role of black athletes in today's cultural and political environments.”
The series was met with positive reviews and currently holds an 89% rating on top critic website Rotten Tomatoes.
Like James, Colin Kaepernick is another present-day athlete who has been largely supported, but equally ridiculed for his political stances.
In 2016, the former San Francisco 49ers quarterback gained national media attention for sitting and kneeling during the US national anthem in protest against police brutality.
This action was soon followed by many other NFL players before it was outright banned in 2018, meaning future offenders would be fined by the league.
However, the ban was lifted this year in the wake of the George Floyd protests as NFL commissioner Roger Goodell admitted the league was “wrong for not listening to NFL players earlier.”
After Kaepernick opted to test the free agency waters in 2016, he soon found out that no other team wanted to sign him despite being statistically-proven to be a starting-caliber quarterback.
This led to Kaepernick filing a grievance against the NFL in 2017, citing collusion by team owners against him. The case went to court until Kaepernick accepted an undisclosed settlement in 2019.
Although his voice in the political arena remains as strong as ever, the 32-year-old has not been signed as an NFL player again for 4 years and counting.
Tommie Smith and John Carlos
Even though the present day has been extremely difficult for minorities in the US, the 1960s was just as deadly, as the African-American civil rights movement was in full swing with Martin Luther King and Malcolm X leading the way.
In the 1968 Olympics in Mexico, star sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos took it upon themselves to broadcast their fight with the whole world looking on.
After setting the then-world record in the 200-meter race and winning the gold medal, Smith took to the podium along with Carlos, who copped bronze.
As the US national anthem played in customary honor of the gold medalist, Smith and Carlos raised their black-gloved fists high with their heads bowed to symbolize the “Black Power” movement of the time.
As was the case with most civil rights protests back in the day, the gesture was largely met with criticism back home and from the International Olympic Committee.
Sportswriter Brent Musburger described Smith and Carlos as "a couple of black-skinned storm troopers" who were "ignoble," "juvenile," and "unimaginative." The IOC, meanwhile, expelled the two medalists from that year’s Games.
Public reception, however, gradually shifted in their favor as the decades passed.
In 1999, Smith was awarded the California Black Sportsman of the Millennium Award while he and Carlos received an Arthur Ashe Courage Award at the 2008 ESPY Awards.
Basketball Hall of Famer Bill Russell holds the distinction of winning 11 NBA championships in just 13 years, a record that will likely go down unbroken in history.
However, as Russell was busy winning titles with the Boston Celtics, he was not winning many hearts outside the hardwood, simply due to the color of his skin.
In an article by The Undefeated, Russell endured racist abuse that never escaped him from childhood until way past his glory days.
“One could make an entire Family Feud board out of the racist insults lobbed at Russell throughout his playing career: baboon, coon, the N-word, chocolate boy, black gorilla. That type of jeering wasn’t foreign to a man born in the Deep South,” the article said.
Discriminated against by the same fans who cheered whenever his team won yet another championship, Russell developed an understandably cold shoulder for them as he refused to sign autographs and “misrepresent himself.”
“I refuse to smile and be nice to the kiddies. I don’t think it is incumbent upon me to set a good example for anybody’s kids but my own,” Russell said.
In response, the FBI opened a file on the basketball superstar, calling him “an arrogant Negro.” Vandals also broke into his home, defecated on his bed, destroyed his trophies, and spray-painted the N-word on his walls.
Despite this, Russell never stayed silent and fought for his rights alongside fellow all-time great black athletes like Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, footballer Jim Brown and most notably, the next person on the list.
Last but not the least, “The Greatest.”
Boxing icon Muhammad Ali became inarguably the loudest voice the black sports community had at the height of the civil rights movement in the US.
Like his personality inside the square ring, Ali floated like a butterfly and stung like a bee against anyone and everyone who tried to hold him down for what he stood for, especially his own countrymen.
In 1966, as the US was preparing for the Vietnam War, Ali was arrested for refusing to be drafted into the military after citing personal and religious reasons. This led to one strong statement after the other which have been ingrained in popular culture.
"War is against the teachings of the Qur'an. I'm not trying to dodge the draft. We are not supposed to take part in no wars unless declared by Allah or The Messenger. We don't take part in Christian wars or wars of any unbelievers,” Ali said.
“Why should they ask me to put on a uniform and go 10,000 miles from home and drop bombs and bullets on brown people in Vietnam while so-called Negro people in Louisville are treated like dogs and denied simple human rights?"
Ali was soon stripped of his boxing license and missed 4 years of his prime as he took his battle to the US Supreme Court.
This act of defiance, however, inspired many other black Americans beyond what the confines of the boxing ring could ever offer.
"Ali's actions changed my standard of what constituted an athlete's greatness. Possessing a killer jump shot or the ability to stop on a dime was no longer enough,” wrote The New York Times columnist William Rhoden.
“What were you doing for the liberation of your people? What were you doing to help your country live up to the covenant of its founding principles?"
In the end, Ali retired not only as one of the greatest boxing champions in history, but also one of the greatest champions of black Americans’ fight for equality.
These few examples only prove one thing: athletes are not mere entertainers who play for the enjoyment of paying customers. Athletes are people, first and foremost, who also feel the same pain and oppression the common man goes through on a day-to-day basis.
Unlike the common man, however, they have the privilege of having a bigger platform where more people will likely listen to what they have to say.
These athletes have used that platform to echo important sentiments to their fellowmen. Instead of silencing them, people should simply respect their opinions and lend a hand to the fight against oppression in whatever form it may take. – Rappler.com