Take A Knee:
The Long Legacy of Athlete Activists
The many ways protest has played a key role in American sports.
By Kat Pitré
Katherine Pitré (VCS 2021) is an avid writer, reader and sports fan. She enjoys rooting against the Penguins, long walks on the beach, and disassembling the patriarchy.
Illustration by Reilly Branson
Sports are both a product and a reflection of our culture. With the renewed, widespread strength of the Black Lives Matter movement and racial justice advocacy, some athletes have been at the forefront of inspiring change within their sports communities. Sports have always intersected with politics, a fact which seems to be forgotten in the new age of “leave politics out of it” sports fans. For some fans, sports are seen as politically neutral events that provide an escape from social, cultural, and political stress. But we can’t view sports in a vacuum and ignore its complicated political history.
Race, gender, and identity have a long complex history in sports. But I do understand why, for some fans, it’s difficult to cast a more critical eye on their favorite pastime. It’s painful to look at something you love and work to address the real, systemic issues that have caused decades of harm to a large number of people. Will we now have to pull the curtain off players whose racism is conveniently “forgotten” to preserve their athletic legacy? Are we done apologizing and making excuses for individuals just because they’re good at something? The sports world is going through some much-needed growing pains right now, and these are the sorts of questions athletes and fans alike are beginning to ask themselves. In order to get a sense of why it matters for athletes to use their platform to speak up, let’s first discuss one of the most prominent athletic activists: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.
Alongside his long and impressive professional basketball career in the NBA, Abdul-Jabbar is an advocate for social justice and has gone to extraordinary efforts to engage conversations about race politics in the United States. In a 2019 editorial for The Guardian, Abdul-Jabbar elaborates on his experience: “In 1968, I boycotted playing on the men’s Olympic basketball team as a protest to the overt racism and police aggression that was resulting in deadly riots across the country. Instead, I worked with underprivileged youth in New York City, teaching them basketball.”
He goes on to discuss the power of modern-day acts of protest within the athletic community, commending athletes who choose to kneel during the U.S. national anthem before sports games. “That’s what those love-it-or-leave-it ‘patriots’ furious about athletes who protest don’t understand: we aren’t insulting the country or what its professed values, we’re focusing attention on those who don’t live up to the promises of what the country stands for.”
And while big-name athletes such as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Colin Kaepernick, and Megan Rapinoe have been bringing awareness to social justice issues, they are not the only ones to do so. Race Imboden, an American foil fencer, took a knee during the anthem after his foil team won the gold medal for the United States during the Pan-Am Games this past year. Imboden explained that his actions were “following in the footsteps of Colin Kaepernick, Megan Rapinoe, Muhammad Ali, John Carlos, and Tommie Smith: Black, LGBT, female and Muslim athletes who chose to take a stand.” Imboden admits that he doesn’t carry the same recognition as other athletes who have protested in this way, but says he believes “it is time to speak up for the American values that my country seems to be losing sight of.”
In the wake of the 2017 Super Bowl, many members of the New England Patriots players knelt in solidarity with Colin Kaepernick’s peaceful protest, and announced that they would not accept the White House invitation meant to celebrate their win. Martellus Bennett was one such player and, in response to the public outcry generated from the announcement, explained that "I was a Black man yesterday, and I’m going to be a Black man tomorrow."
The WNBA has seen its share of political expression from players as well, with several players being fined for wearing t-shirts that supported Black Lives Matter. After the fine was announced, many players chose to discuss police brutality and police shootings in their postgame news conference rather than discussing basketball. Breanna Stewart, of the Seattle Storm (WNBA), attended a protest at LAX in response to Donald Trump’s Muslim travel ban in 2017. In the upcoming season for the WNBA, players will have the names of Black women who have died at the hands of police printed on the backs of their jerseys. National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) players, some of who kneel consistently during the anthem, have worn armbands, t-shirts, and other articles of clothing with “Black Lives Matter” and messages of solidarity during the 2020 Challenge Cup.
Sports and political activism have always intersected, and the resonance of calling for better representation, inclusion and visibility has real, powerful social effects. Many athletes have huge social media platforms, which connect with a larger community of people. There is a power in having that sort of following, where the athlete’s voice is guaranteed to be heard. By using their power to empower others and their privilege to better understand, empathize, and engage with communities who aren’t as readily represented in sports, real change can be initiated.
For those who experience discrimination, being able to see themselves and their political concerns reflected on the field is a powerful, legitimizing moment.
Famous white players can sometimes reach a larger audience that otherwise may not have been reached. Jonathan Toews, a lauded NHL player, released a brief personal statement that stayed well within the bounds of what other NHL players had previously said. But after that tweet, Toews trended on Twitter for three days. White male voices can travel in spaces that other voices may not. The surprising staying power of Toews’s relatively basic statement shows that people listen to certain voices and, importantly, that the support of high-profile members matters.
For individuals who experience discrimination based on race, sexuality, gender, religion, etc., being able to see themselves and their political concerns reflected in the sports industry or on the field is a powerful, legitimizing moment. I still remember the first time I ever saw female athletes on TV outside of the Olympics. I was 10 years old, and until then I hadn’t even realized that girls could play sports professionally, because I never saw it. Athletes represent more than just themselves.
Over and over again we see sports leagues, broadcasters, journalists and athletes reckon with incidences of racist behavior and language. Time and time again fans have been told that the perpetrators of these actions are listening and growing, but when many issues — such as coaches, management, and even fans making racist remarks — keep being pushed aside, diversity initiatives and PR statements of inclusion begin to feel disingenuous. There are many groups working to combat these issues, such as Hockey Is For Everyone and You Can Play. We need more diversity initiatives across all sports and a wide variety of under-served communities in sports. Real change comes from concentrated action on all levels of the industry, not just the players. League officials say that they’re listening, but the real act of listening is a different thing. Performative re-posting and vague statements of “solidarity” cannot replace actionable change. It takes time to listen and grow as an individual and culture, but we also can’t ignore the long-held bond that exists between sports culture and racism.
It can be hard to see it when racial and gender inequality are rampant at all levels of the sports industry. Kim Davis, the NHL’s Executive Vice President of social impact, growth initiatives, and legislative affairs is an example of how a culture can change with better representation in the executive suites. Davis explains, “our overarching thesis is that there are many roads to fan development, and one of those critical roads is an engaging community in new and different ways.” Through monthly themes such as the NHL’s Black History Month and the Gender Equality Month, Davis hopes that change through exposure and uplifting voices will help create change within hockey culture and fulfill fan requests for better representation.
Slow-going change in sports culture can leave fans frustrated and bereft, and Davis understands that sentiment. She says, “change never happens fast enough, particularly when you have pent-up demands for it.” The new Hockey Diversity Alliance, WNBA jerseys, NWSL public displays of support and charity funding, and other social justice efforts across major sports leagues show that change is happening and that if athletes lend their voices together towards a cause, they just might be heard. f