Russ Crawford: Reflections on Athletic Activism

The following has been provided by Russ Crawford, associate professor of History, Ohio Northern University. June 22, 2017. (Condensed and reprinted from June 1 post on Sport in American History)

On April 20, 2017, the Sport and Society Initiative at Ohio State University hosted the Athletic Activism and Social Change panel moderated by Vince Doria and featuring speakers Tommie Smith, Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf, and Malcolm Jenkins.

It began with a short video prepared by the SSI student assistant Aric Thompson and set to Jimi Hendrix’s version of the Star Spangled Banner. It showed Jenkins, Lebron James and others at the ESPYS, Jackie Robinson’s 1944 refusal to sit in the back of a bus, Mohammad Ali, and other athletes who have protested racial injustice in America.

Smith took the stage first to speak of his background and the 1968 protest at Mexico City. An engaging speaker, Smith described his 1968 action on the medal stand as a “cry for freedom,” and, in contrast to those who viewed his action as a “negative message to our country or an insult to America,” as “a plea, through faith, and there was no hate involved.” He maintained that when an individual perceives a wrong, he must act to address that, which was echoed by the other speakers.

Abdul-Rauf, who played basketball for the Denver Nuggets and other NBA teams, followed Smith and told the audience how he had grown up with an “inferiority complex” concerning his education. He was put in remedial classes through high school and college, but after LSU basketball coach Dale Brown gave him the Autobiography of Malcolm X and he later converted to Islam, he began reading “profusely.” He drew inspiration from reading everyone from Noam Chomsky to George Washington Carver, and his study made him “angry,” but also helped him “develop a consciousness.” His reading inspired him to act – particularly a quote from Arundhati Roy that he paraphrased as “Once you see something, you can’t unsee it. To be silent, to say nothing is just as political an act as speaking out.”

The final prepared remarks were delivered by Malcolm Jenkins, a former OSU Buckeye and current safety for the Philadelphia Eagles. He mentioned that before this past season, when he heard of police shootings of unarmed black men, he would express his outrage by tweeting about it. But there was always something new, and a new hashtag that would distract him. That ended with the 2016 shootings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile by police, which convinced him that he must move out from behind the hashtag and take some sort of action. Growing up in middle class Piscataway, NJ, he knew the history of black athletes protesting, but “felt detached from it” since he hadn’t personally been exposed to racism. After determining to take action, he decided to meeting with a Police Commissioner in Philadelphia to hear about the issues officers dealt with.

Doria also mentioned the 2015 Missouri football protests and other instances to indicate that some player protests have been effective and asked the panelists if they thought protests could affect change. Jenkins mentioned that players developed “social capital,” and that prominent players can influence the behavior of corporations and their leadership.

The moderator then posited the example of “Equality” a Nike commercial featuring Lebron James and Serena Williams, and noted that some corporations had begun advertising the promotion of social justice. He wondered if this would become a trend. Here Doria, and the rest of the panelists, should read Thomas Frank’s book Commodify Your Dissent: Salvos from the Baffler (1997). Frank based the book on the ideas in his 1994 article “Dark Age: Why Johnny Can’t Dissent?” in which he argued that marketers had started co-opting the messages of revolution to sell their products. The current crop of socially-conscious commercials is nothing particularly new, as we have seen with oil companies such as BP publicizing their love for the environment.

The questions left some issues unexamined. For instance, everyone who spoke accepted that people disliked politics mixing with sport. However, many have noted that American sporting events are filled with patriotic displays. Michael Butterworth, in “Militarism and Memorializing at the Pro Football Hall of Fame,” explored how the sports leagues such as the NFL use war imagery and feature military displays. On April 16, 2017, NBC sports writer Craig Calcaterra was criticized for tweeting the image of a large flag covering the outfield of a baseball field with the message “Will you keep politics out of sports, please. We like our sports to be politic-free.”

Therefore, when people complain that they do not want politics to intrude into sports, they most likely mean that they dislike the intrusion of politics different from theirs. Data compiled by Mike Shannon and Will Feltus of Scarborough Research indicated that the fan base of the NBA skews heavily toward the left, while football fans, particularly college, but to a lesser extent those of the NFL, lean to the right politically.

Political reactions to Kaepernick’s protest also split along party lines. President Barack Obama gave qualified support to Kaepernick. Then-candidate Donald Trump did not support Kaepernick. He told a Seattle radio host that “I have followed it and I think it’s personally not a good thing. I think it’s a terrible thing. And maybe he should find a country that works better for him, let him try. It won’t happen.”

Although many argued that a variety of reasons had led to the NFL’s rating’s decline, Trump’s contention that Kaepernick’s protests have hurt the NFL has been borne out through some public sampling. Rassmussen Reports found that thirty two percent said they were less likely to watch an NFL game because of the protests. A Seton Hall Sports Poll found that fifty six percent responded that “players not standing for the anthem” led them to watch less NFL football. On Twitter, a trending topic after the regular season started was #boycottNFL. According to @Orwellian_Dilemma “NFL players have the right to hate America. America has the right to hate them back.”

After the protests at the University of Missouri, student enrollment has declined markedly, and recently the university reported a more than seven percent drop in enrollment, which has resulted in four hundred jobs being eliminated, and several dormitories being closed.

Another issue not addressed by the panel was do leagues also have the right to protect their brand by prohibiting such protests? Smith was suspended from the U.S. Olympic Team and expelled from the Olympic Village. The NBA suspended Abdul-Rauf, and after the season the Nuggets traded him away. The NBA still has a rule requiring players to stand for the anthem, but some teams at the start of the 2016-2017 season linked arms during its’ playing, which seems to have been an acceptable compromise. After Megan Rapinoe knelt in solidarity with Kaepernick, U.S. Soccer left her off the team for the SheBelieves Cup before later restoring her to the national team. The organization then mandated that players stand for the Star Spangled Banner. Kaepernick remains a free agent after opting out of his contract with the 49ers.

Clearly leagues, like the empire, can strike back. The same holds true for consumers, whether they are educational, as evidenced in the MU case, or fans, as in the case of NFL boycotters. Therefore, while protests may raise important issues, they do not come without a cost to institutions and to the athletes themselves.

The panel covered little ground that had not already been well trodden, but was a good example of what the SSI has added to the exploration of the connection between sport and society.

Russ Crawford is Associate Professor of History at Ohio Northern University in Ada, Ohio. His area of specialty is sport history, and his current project is a history of women playing football. Along with several chapters on sport history, he has published two books. Most recently, Le Football: The History of American Football in France, was published by the University of Nebraska Press in August of 2016. His first book, The Use of Sport to Promote the American Way of Life During the Cold War: Cultural Propaganda, 1946-1963, was published by the Edwin Mellen Press in 2008.