A mantra often repeated by the status quo (or the merely uncomfortable) is to “Just Stick to Sports,” as though sports has always been a benign arena of mere entertainment, devoid of any political or social resonations. This last weekend, and more than likely for many weekends to come, sports, with the most specificity – the NFL – became the locus of a national conversation about politics in a way that only a social media fueled environment could achieve. Kneeling for the national anthem mutated from a relatively peripheral issue to the center of national conversation as a result of the remarks in Alabama of the ever-polarizing President of the United States.
Currently a controversial unemployed quarterback and a handful of active NFL players went from being curious fodder in the third block of Pardon the Interruption to being “Sons of Bitches” in a speech by the most powerful person on the planet.
Overnight, a protest aimed squarely at racial inequality and police brutality morphed overnight into a referendum on freedom of speech and, if you tend towards cynicism, into a PR coup for the billionaires who refuse to employ that certain quarterback. Regardless of the spin, no one can deny the systemic impact of football players’ action this past weekend – either kneeling or locking arms or remaining in the locker room.
And yet the refrain still echoes in the public discourse – “Just Stick to Sports.” It is a phrase deeply rooted in the status quo and a desire to escape the current political climate for just a few hours on Sunday. That time is over and, in fact, has never really existed. Sports has always been at the forefront of social change and America is better off because of it.
In 1908, at the height of Jim Crow, Arthur “Jack” Johnson – the Galveston Giant – became the first African-American heavy weight boxing champion of the world. Johnson was so hated by the boxing establishment and the fans thereof – white guys – that he was implicated and charged with violating the Mann Act in 1912 despite little evidence. Johnson had a proclivity for white women and that could not be tolerated and the charge was clearly racially motivated. In a documentary, respected film maker Ken Burns would refer to Johnson as “the most famous and notorious African-American on earth.”
In a tragic yet hauntingly poetic ending to his life, Johnson died in a car crash in rural North Carolina after angrily racing from a diner where he had been refused service due to his race. In 1946, it was still the case that he could only be taken to a black only hospital in the South and therefore didn’t receive immediate care at closer hospitals. He died at age 68.
In the summer of 1936, James Cleveland “Jesse” Owens travelled to Berlin, Germany to represent the United States in track and field at the Olympics hosted by Adolph Hitler and the rising Nazi state. A young film maker and Nazi propogandist, Leni Riefenstahl, would record and immortalize Owens’ victories in the 100 m, 200 m, 4×100 m relay, and long jump over the Aryan master race of Germans, much to the displeasure of Hitler. It turns out, Riefenstahl was a much better fascist than a Nazi, emphasizing the glory of physicality over the overt racism epitomized by the Third Reich.
Ironically, while newspapers proclaimed Owens was “single-handedly crushing Hitler’s myth of Aryan supremacy,” Owens himself was not invited to the White House following his victories in Berlin, a White House then occupied by the lionized liberal of the New Deal, Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
While Johnson and Owens could be considered merely actors on the stage of social progress, without overt intention (a stretch but a possible interpretation), Jack Roosevelt “Jackie” Robinson clearly stands at the fulcrum of racial awareness and social change in America. In 1947, Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in Major League Baseball and became arguably the most important figure in the Civil Rights movement pre Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King, Jr. Both the images of white opponents attempting to spike Robinson on the base paths (he played first base his first season – think about that) and his southern team mates – Pee Wee Reese most notably – embracing Jackie as “theirs” highlighted both what was wrong in America and what was right in America seventeen years before the Civil Rights Act was passed.
Born on January 17, 1942 to Cassius Marcellus Clay, Sr. and Odessa Grady Clay in Louisville, Kentucky, Cassius Marcellus Clay, Jr. would shake up the world in more ways than just winning the heavyweight boxing crown from Sonny Liston in 1964. After converting to Islam and changing his name to Muhammad Ali, he would refuse induction into the U.S. military at the height of the Vietnam War. He would subsequently be stripped of his title and denied a boxing license until the U.S. Supreme Court overturned his conviction for avoiding the draft.
Ali famously questioned “Why should they ask me to put on a uniform and go ten thousand 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?”
It’s important to remember in this football crazed sports world of 2017 that for most of the twentieth century, up until the mid-sixties, the three most prominent sports in America were baseball, horse racing, and boxing. It adds a layer of context when considering the impact of both Jackie Robinson and Muhammad Ali on the culture. Ironically, Robinson criticized Ali at the time for his stance on the war and military service. So, it’s not new, by any means, that a critique of racial injustice can get sidetracked by reverence for the flag.
So Many Others
The list of politically active or politically important by circumstances could go on for pages. The Summit in 1967 with Bill Russell, Jim Brown, Muhammad Ali, and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Tommie Smith and John Carlos raising their fists on the medal stage at the 1968 Olympics. The Battle of the Sexes between Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs. Martina Navratilova coming out as an openly gay woman in 1981. By the time Michael Jordan declared that Republicans wear sneakers too and Tiger Woods toed a corporately safe line on race, fans began to wonder why they didn’t speak out.
So, no. We don’t just stick to sports and we shouldn’t start now.