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The 1960s and 1970s saw a hurricane of political athletes: legends like Muhammad Ali, John Carlos, Tommie Smith, Curt Flood and Billie Jean King. But nothing, literally nothing, in the history of sports and politics can compare to what happened on Sunday. Expressions of dissent broke out in every single NFL game during the playing of the National Anthem. Some players kneeled, some sat, some raised fists and some linked arms. But all of them were standing in opposition to Donald Trump. Announcers and commentators discussed their actions sympathetically. The booing one might expect from fans was sparse.
The reverberations. Not the rumbles, the reverberations. The death of Muhammad Ali will undoubtedly move people’s minds to his epic boxing matches against Joe Frazier and George Foreman, or there will be retrospectives about his epic “rumbles” against racism and war. But it’s the reverberations that we have to understand in order to see Muhammad Ali as what he remains: the most important athlete to ever live.
Gabrielle Douglas, is, at age 16, making a transition to being more explicit. She’s also learning that this comes with a price. Douglas should be praised for speaking out about what she faced. But instead it’s earning an outrageous response.
As Gabby told the New York Times in June: “I have an advantage because I’m the underdog and I’m Black and no one thinks I’d ever win. Well, I’m going to inspire so many people. Everybody will be talking about, how did she come up so fast? But I’m ready to shine.” Shine she did. Dominique Dawes, the great African-American gymnast who won team gold in 1996, exclaimed: “I feel like Gabby is my child or something. I am so anxious for her to win. I know it will have an enormous impact on encouraging African-Americans and other minorities to go into the sport of gymnastics.”
Let’s stop perpetuating the idea that athletes have forfeited their right to say whatever they damn well please. To Chris Douglas-Roberts and Rashard Mendenhall: Yes, athletes DO have a right to have perspectives, and I hope we can continue to hear what’s on your mind.