The po­ten­tial and his­tory of ath­lete ac­tivism

On tak­ing a knee and other po­ten­tials of sports ac­tivism

The McGill Daily - - News - Ai­dan Gilchrist-Black­wood Sports Writer

Dur­ing the 1995-96 NBA sea­son, the Den­ver Nuggets’ star ath­lete, Mah­moud Ab­dulRauf, re­fused to stand when then U.S. na­tional an­them was played be­fore his sport­ing events. Ab­dulRauf, a Black Mus­lim, as­serted that the an­them was a sym­bol of the United States’ racist and op­pres­sive his­tory. Is­lam called for stand­ing against all forms of in­jus­tice, he said, and he could not con­tra­dict his faith by stand­ing to hon­our the flag.

Soon, the NBA sus­pended Ab­dul- Rauf with­out pay, and the Nuggets traded him. By the time he was 29, Ab­dul- Rauf was un­able to se­cure a reg­u­lar ros­ter spot and his NBA ca­reer was over. Sev­eral years later, Ab­dul- Rauf’s home was burned down by an ar­son­ist. White su­prem­a­cists had pre­vi­ously spray painted “KKK” on a sign near the house.

Twenty years later, the world of sports con­tin­ues to strug­gle with and re­sist ac­cept­ing its po­lit­i­cal na­ture. Last year, San Fran­cisco 49ers quar­ter­back Colin Kaeper­nick’s de­ci­sion to take a knee dur­ing the na­tional an­them at­tracted con­sid­er­able at­ten­tion within and out­side sports me­dia.

“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 told NFL Me­dia in Au­gust. “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.”

Draw­ing in­spi­ra­tion from Black Lives Mat­ter, Kaeper­nick called for an end to po­lice vi­o­lence against Black peo­ple and an­nounced plans to do­nate $1 mil­lion to anti-racist com­mu­nity or­ga­ni­za­tions.

The po­ten­tials of sports ac­tivism

“Kaeper­nick had a dif­fer­ent kind of ef­fect, a dif­fer­ent kind of a reach, an elec­tric ef­fect more than any­thing we’ve seen in re­cent years,” said Dave Zirin, The Na­tion’s sports ed­i­tor, at a Fe­bru­ary 17 panel ti­tled Tak­ing a Knee, Tak­ing a Stand that took place at Con­cor­dia. “And it’s not be­cause he kneeled but be­cause of the con­tent of what he said.”

In­deed, from dozens of NFL, NBA and WNBA ath­letes, to soc­cer play­ers and swim­mers, to the en­tire foot­ball team at a San Fran­cisco high school, Kaeper­nick’s ac­tions have sparked a wave of sub­se­quent demon­stra­tions, with play­ers across the U.S. tak­ing a knee.

This series of protests has se­cured cov­er­age even from what Shireen Ahmed, writer and ac­tivist, called the “may­on­naise fac­tory” of main­stream sports jour­nal­ism, dom­i­nated by white male writ­ers. At the Con­cor­dia event, Ahmed noted an ex­am­ple: ESPN has launched a weekly fea­ture doc­u­ment­ing NFL ath­letes kneel­ing dur­ing the an­them.

As noted by Zirin, the wide me­dia cov­er­age, as well as the sheer mag­ni­tude of the pub­lic back­lash against Kaeper­nick, demon­strates that white peo­ple are en­gag­ing with the re­al­i­ties of po­lice bru­tal­ity on an en­tirely new scale.

“I call it the power to punc­ture priv­i­lege,” Zirin ex­plained, speak­ing of the im­pact of ath­lete ac­tivism, “be­cause [...] it brings [anti-op­pres­sive] ideas into spa­ces where peo­ple have the lux­ury to not think about Black Lives Mat­ter, or LGBTQ is­sues, or rape cul­ture on col­lege cam­puses.”

With ath­lete ac­tivism, as Zirin ex­plained, priv­i­leged peo­ple have to con­front dif­fer­ent so­cial jus­tice is­sues be­cause so­cial jus­tice is­sues make their ways to their lives through sports.

Sports ac­tivism and sol­i­dar­ity across bor­ders

Due to sports’ global and far­reach­ing na­ture, one of the big­gest ad­van­tages of ath­lete ac­tivism is its po­ten­tial to con­test sys­tems of op­pres­sion across bor­ders. In Fe­bru­ary, six NFL play­ers boy­cotted a fully sub­si­dized trip to Jerusalem or­ga­nized by the Is­raeli gov­ern­ment. The pur­pose of the trip, ac­cord­ing to an Is­raeli gov­ern­ment of­fi­cial, was to fight the Boy­cott, Di­vest­ment and Sanc­tions move­ment and the gen­eral “dele­git­imiza­tion of Is­rael” through host­ing “in­flu­encer and opin­ion-for­mer” Amer­i­cans, like ath­letes, in Is­rael.

“One of my he­roes has al­ways been Muham­mad Ali. I know that Ali al­ways stood strongly with the Pales­tinian peo­ple, vis­it­ing refugee camps, go­ing to ral­lies, and al­ways will­ing to be a ‘voice for the voice­less’,” said Seat­tle Sea­hawks player Michael Ben­nett in a state­ment, be­com­ing the first to boy­cott the tour. “I want to be a ‘voice for the voice­less’ and I can­not do that by go­ing on this kind of trip to Is­rael.”

Like Kaeper­nick’s kneel­ing, Ben­nett’s re­fusal to le­git­imize a sym­bol he saw as un­just – in this case, a pub­lic­ity trip to Is­rael – demon­strates the power of sports ac­tivism in shap­ing a more just po­lit­i­cal fu­ture.

Ben­nett is not the only ath­lete to cite Ali as an in­spi­ra­tion. The leg­endary boxer and ac­tivist has also in­flu­enced the ac­tivism of Ab­dulRauf, Kaeper­nick, and Ben­nett. A Black Mus­lim, Ali risked his life and ca­reer to speak out against in­sti­tu­tional racism and im­pe­ri­al­ism dur­ing the 1960s and 70s, be­com­ing par­tic­u­larly well-known for his vo­cal op­po­si­tion to the Viet­nam War.

Ben­nett also cited John Car­los, one of the ath­letes rais­ing a fist in a Black Power salute at the 1968 Olympics. Ben­nett quoted Car­los in his state­ment as say­ing, “There is no par­tial com­mit­ment to jus­tice. You’re ei­ther in it or you’re out.”

The tra­di­tion of Black ath­lete ac­tivists – Ali, Car­los, Ab­dul-rauf, Kaeper­nick, Ben­nett – who draw upon each other is why, at the Con­cor­dia event, Zirin cau­tioned against sim­pli­fy­ing ath­lete ac­tivism to a par­tic­u­lar po­lit­i­cal mo­ment.

“It’s a big mis­take to say the re­nais­sance of po­lit­i­cal ath­letes is be­cause of Don­ald Trump, just as it would be a big mis­take to say that this re­nais­sance of po­lit­i­cal ath­letes is only hap­pen­ing be­cause Colin Kaeper­nick took a knee,” Zirin said. “Kaeper­nick’s de­ci­sion was only the lat­est in­ci­dent in a whole gen­er­a­tion of ath­letes who refuse to just shut up and play.”

Shoul­der­ing the bur­den of ac­tivism

Speak­ing about Ibti­haj Muham­mad, a Black Mus­lim woman and a fencer on Team USA who was de­tained by U.S. Cus­toms, Ahmed chal­lenged the ten­dency in so­cial jus­tice move­ments to place the bur­den of ac­tivism on peo­ple who are al­ready marginal­ized.

“Is it fair to ask Ibti­haj Muham­mad [...] to keep push­ing for more? Do I ex­pect [marginal­ized] ath­letes to take a stand? [Move­ment lead­ers] are the most un­der­paid and over­worked in so­ci­ety. They mo­bi­lize and or­ga­nize and re­al­is­ti­cally is it fair to ask them to do more?” Ahmed said. “Ab­so­lutely not [...]. The bur­den that [marginal­ized ath­letes] in­herit to hu­man­ize them­selves on top of be­ing com­pet­i­tive ath­letes is al­ready hard enough.”

Ahmed also gave the ex­am­ple of for­mer Mon­treal Cana­di­ens and cur­rent Nashville Preda­tors de­fence­man P.K. Sub­ban. Sub­ban, a Black man, was fre­quently de­rided as “cocky” and “self­ish” dur­ing his time in Mon­treal even though he do­nated tens of mil­lions of dol­lars to char­i­ta­ble causes in the city.

While we should not ex­pect marginal­ized ath­letes to en­gage in po­lit­i­cal ac­tion, Ahmed said, we ought to sup­port them and am­plify their voices if they do choose to en­gage. As some ob­ject to “mak­ing sports po­lit­i­cal,” Ahmed noted, “[Priv­i­leged peo­ple] who ac­tu­ally say that are ones who don’t have to deal with is­sues like class, gen­der or race.”

“Be­cause I’m sorry but I’ve never seen a Black ath­lete or a Mus­lim woman or a trans ath­lete that has said to me ‘let’s not talk about pol­i­tics in our sports.’ Never hap­pened,” she con­tin­ued.

At the end of the day, sports do not take place in a vac­uum. By cap­i­tal­iz­ing on the po­ten­tials of sports, po­lit­i­cal ath­letes from Ali to Kaeper­nick have put their bod­ies on the line in or­der to con­trib­ute to the broader fight against in­jus­tice.

“Kaeper­nick’s de­ci­sion was only the lat­est in­ci­dent in a whole gen­er­a­tion of ath­letes who refuse to just shut up and play.” —Dave Zirin The Na­tion’s sports ed­i­tor “The bur­den that [marginal­ized ath­letes] in­herit to hu­man­ize them­selves on top of be­ing com­pet­i­tive ath­letes is al­ready hard enough.” —Shireen Ahmed Writer and ac­tivist “I’ve never seen a Black ath­lete or a Mus­lim woman or a trans ath­lete that has said to me ‘ let’s not talk about pol­i­tics in our sports.” —Shireen Ahmed Writer and ac­tivist

Ma­rina Djur­d­je­vic | The Mcgill Daily

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