Pro Players Protest for Racial Equality
At the 1968 Mexico City Olympics, Tommie Smith and John Carlos famously raised their right fists during the playing of the United States National Anthem, a gesture synonymous with protest and the Black Power movement.
This moment paved the way for future athlete protests of social issues, which have ramped up in recent years. Since 2016, professional athletes, starting with football players, have been peacefully protesting police brutality and racism by kneeling, raising fists, and linking arms during the playing of the national anthem. This demonstration gradually caught fire among players, but also stirred controversy among sports administration, fans, and even the government.
The national anthem protests started when former National Football League (NFL) player Colin Kaepernick knelt during the national anthem in protest of racism. Tyler Cipriano ’19, Hopkins Football captain-elect, commented: “When I first saw [Kaepernick] do it I figured he was just kneeling for selfish reasons because he wasn’t particularly successful that season.” Following Kaepernick’s initial protests, more players on various teams began to kneel, as well. Cipriano stated, “As more players began to kneel, I realized that there was a deeper meaning, and that the players were truly making a statement to spark a conversation about race.”
The movement continued to expand past the NFL and into other leagues. After the idea came to prominence in football, athletes across other sports started to participate in the peaceful protests. United States Women’s National Soccer Team star Megan Rapinoe took a knee before a match between the United States and the Netherlands. This prompted the U.S. Soccer Federation to implement a new policy, mandating that players representing the country on national teams must “stand respectfully” during the playing of the national anthem. In the NBA, players and coaches have to, by league rule, stand for the national anthem. “I don’t think players should be forced to stand for the anthem,” said Ashley Chin ’19. “This is America, and peaceful protest is a right. If a player wants to sit or kneel, let them. But they should also take responsibility for any consequences that might come along as a result of their choice.”
Contrary to these rules and regulations, in the NFL, where the protests began, league rules only state that players and coaches “should” stand for the anthem, which therefore means it is not technically mandatory.
Adding his support, in September of 2017, Bruce Maxwell of the Oakland Athletics became the first MLB player to protest, taking a knee during a pre-game performance of the anthem. The next day, before Game 1 of the WNBA Finals, the whole Los Angeles Sparks team stayed in the locker room during the playing of the anthem, while members of the Minnesota Lynx locked arms on the court. The next month, J.T. Brown of the Tampa Bay Lightning became the first NHL player to participate in the protests, raising a fist during the playing of the anthem before a game. These peaceful protests demonstrate “a powerful application of the principles our country was founded on,” Noah Sobel-Lewin ’19 stated.
However, the backlash towards these peaceful protests has been widespread and vicious, as even President Donald Trump has spoken against it. Trump tweeted that “[players] should stand for the National Anthem. If not, YOU’RE FIRED!” Teams such as the Seahawks, Titans, and Steelers responded to these tweets by staying in the locker room for the National Anthem, while others knelt and/or locked arms with each other, their coaches, and their owners. “I think the protests were successful in starting a nationwide conversation on racism,” stated Cipriano. “The fact that the President and major news stations are talking about it shows how big of an impact it has, and it only gives [the cause] more publicity.” Thor Illick ’18 added, “I think that NFL players have every right to use their platform to stand for something they believe in. Unfortunately I think the movement has been somewhat corrupted as the focus has moved from their message to the attention Trump has given it.”
Lionel Louis ’18 elaborated on Illick’s point: “It frustrates me that people make [the protests] about the flag or the military, which makes those who attempt to call America to do better seem like villains.” Although some owners, to stay out of the hot seat, have started to change their views and side with the president, the movement and its ideas have spread far and wide. Douglas Guilford ’19 stated, “Even though the players are receiving pushback now, the protests were helpful in starting a conversation.”
These effects are exemplified through teams in different leagues and sports around the country who are taking knees and speaking out in their own ways against inequality. Before Hopkins’ home football game against Capital Prep, the entire visiting team knelt during the playing of the national anthem. “I was surprised when their players knelt,” Hopkins Football Captain John Blumenthal ’18 said. “A part of me thought that they were just hopping on the bandwagon, but when I thought about it, their actions brought the issue close to home, and I realized the magnitude of it.” For these athletes, though, protesting and standing up for what they believe in can come at a price. “We already saw what happened to Colin Kaepernick: he was courageous. He stuck it to the man and stood for his beliefs. I applaud him for that. But look at him now - unemployed by the NFL and may not ever touch the field again,” said Louis.
“The athletes around America who have the same views as him may not have the same courage to risk their livelihood and their careers for this issue. I’m not saying if that’s right or wrong, but it’s true and I can’t really blame them for the hesitance to be as outspoken as Kaep,” Louis continued.
Although Kaepernick is out of the NFL currently, his former colleagues, team-mates, and fellow athletes across the sporting world continue to carry on the peaceful protests he started when he refused to stand for the national anthem. As the protests and conversations continue, the question becomes if the administration, government, and fans will actually institute change to help solve the racial issues the athletes are trying to bring attention to.