PROTEST IN SPORT: LEARNING FROM THE GREATEST
Author: Ken Wolf
Sport has been around a long time. As has protest. Therefore, it makes sense you can trace protest in sport back thousands of years. So, why do we get so gummed up when somebody refrains from singing, or kneels, or tweaks their uniform, or declines a visit to a white house? We don’t live in a kingdom where you need to honor thy king. Whether you’re Tim Thomas or Megan Rapinoe. Most people I know claim to not like political correctness, but I know lots of people who get in a real tizzy when somebody does something politically incorrect, like protest.
Imagine if a famous athlete today joined the Nation of Islam, refused to fight in a war, and said, “my enemy is the white people.” Muhammad Ali (Cassius Clay before his Muslim conversion in 1964) did just that. And while he’d be stripped of his title and livelihood, his freedom threatened and often his life, the man would end up being a national and world hero. Ali and his messaging both evolved over time, but even some of his less controversial words make current day protest in sport pale in comparison. We can learn from The Greatest.
Patriotism is subjective. Our nation was founded on protest. Colin Kaepernick initially sat during the anthem to protest the ‘oppression of minorities.’ He was encouraged by former Green Beret Nate Boyer, who had a brief stint in the NFL, to kneel instead. This would put him next to his teammates and also honor fallen soldiers. People continued to take offense and see it as disrespect to the flag, country, and troops. None of which was his intention. He was ostracized from the league and called anti-American, amongst other things.
Pretty light protesting by Kaepernick compared to that of Ali. We’re triggered so easily in these days of hyper-partisanship. Rule number one in understanding protests is you can’t make the protest out to be something it’s not. It’s not your protest. You don’t decide the meaning. A lot of the uproar would stop there if that rule was followed.
I’ve seen LeBron James told, “shut up and dribble,” after voicing his opinion. Athletes have a platform. The more famous, the bigger. If that platform is used to share an opinion on something they’re passionate about, something we can improve upon in society, then it seems a highly patriotic and moral thing to do. At least to me. Some have the idea that athletes aren’t qualified to speak on such matters. We’re all qualified if something has affected us or we can empathize with the struggle of others and be knowledgeable enough to talk intelligently about it.
Ali’s mission likely led to the most iconic protest moment in sport history: Tommie Smith and John Carlos raising their black gloved fists during the anthem while accepting their medals at the ’68 Olympics. Smith later said it was more a ‘human rights’ salute than a ‘black power’ one. Both were ostracized, as was Peter Norman, who’d stood in solidarity with them, in his home country of Australia. All three had worn Olympic Project for Human Rights badges. All three would also be recognized for courage later in life.
Kaepernick was given the Sports Illustrated Muhammad Ali Legacy Award a year after The Greatest passed. His daughter approved and I’m guessing he would have, too. It says good things about our country that Ali could speak his mind and be his own man, yet still be loved and revered by so many. It’s hard to beat the patriotic moment of The Greatest lighting the ’96 Olympic flame in Atlanta after all his controversies and battles, including the Parkinson’s that made his body and the torch tremble. Sure made me proud to be an American.
Muhammad Ali was from Louisville, KY. The home of Hex Head Art. As always, the opinions in my writing are my opinions alone and not those of my fine metal artist friends.