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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.
When NFL owners look at out-of-work quarterback Johnny Manziel, they see themselves. Or at least they see their ne’er-do-well son or nephew: the one who was raised in cushy wealth, partied too hard, maybe got in a few legal misunderstandings with the girls, but deep down is a “good boy” and always worthy of a second chance. Playing ability isn’t even part of the conversation. They want him in their club. When NFL owners look at out-of-work NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick, they see a threat.
When Philando Castile’s killer, Officer Jeronimo Yanez, was found not guilty on Friday – despite the fact that Castile’s murder was livestreamed on Facebook – shock immediately spread from the streets to social media. Some celebrities in the world of sports and entertainment used their expansive platforms to spread the message that a great injustice had occurred. They decried the fact that a man had been killed solely because of a police officer’s reaction to the color of his skin, and there would be no penalty for that killing.
Donald Trump is bragging about his ability to keep Colin Kaepernick unemployed. But Trump isn’t hurting Kaepernick. If anything, Trump may have done Kaepernick one hell of a favor. By boasting about his ability to strike fear into the hearts of NFL owners he may have revealed evidence of “collusion” or what is known as “tortious interference,” or “the intentional interference with contractual relations.” Trump could have inadvertently handed Colin Kaepernick a lawsuit on a silver platter – or put tremendous pressure on the NFL to find one owner willing to bring Kaepernick into training camp.
Sunday, Oct. 16, was the 48th anniversary of that indelible moment in 1968 when John Carlos and Tommie Smith put their heads down and fists up on the Olympic medal stand as the anthem played, their friend the Australian silver-medalist Peter Norman standing in solidarity with their protest. Forty-eight years later to the day, in Buffalo, New York, Colin Kaepernick made his first start of the 2016 season as his 49ers took on the Bills.
On Sunday, a small group of National Football League players risked their careers, their endorsements and their livelihoods. They did so through the simple act of refusal. They stood in the proudest tradition of athletes who have used their platforms for social change, and they have already felt a backlash that would ring familiar, almost note-for-note, to anyone acquainted with what that last generation had to endure.
Two more teams have come together to make a political statement. The Minnesota Lynx and the New York Liberty of the WNBA have chosen to advocate an idea that really should not be radical but somehow is, in the United States of 2016: the idea that Black lives matter. These are public and visible displays of real solidarity: white players joining with their Black teammates, wearing the same shirts and standing alongside them in a show of multiracial unity against anti-Black bigotry.
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.
I am writing this from the Bay Area, where tent cities are now slowly re-forming under bridges, and where there is still a palpable buzz about Beyoncé’s performance in the Super Bowl halftime show (sorry, Coldplay). In fact, it’s a topic with far more currency here than the actual dud of a game, and for good reason. This is the 50th anniversary of the founding of the Black Panther Party for Self Defense in the Bay Area.
More than 100 million people tuned in to watch Super Bowl 50 Sunday night. In addition to seeing the Denver Broncos beat the Carolina Panthers, viewers also witnessed one of the most political halftime shows in the Super Bowl’s history as the legendary singer Beyoncé paid tribute to the Black Panthers and the Black Lives Matter movement. Her dancers posted a photo on Instagram holding a sign reading “Justice for Mario Woods.”
Tim Wolfe makes $459,000 a year and the school would have to forfeit $1 million just for missing this weekend’s game against BYU. Black football players in particular have a social power often unseen and not commented upon. It’s there all the same. These athletes are a sleeping giant. At Mizzou, just 7 percent of the students are Black but a whopping 69 percent of the football players are.
After just under an hour of deliberation, a Manhattan jury acquitted Atlanta Hawks guard Thabo Sefolosha of misdemeanor charges ranging from obstructing government administration and disorderly conduct to resisting arrest last week. The charges stemmed from a late-night confrontation with the New York Police Department last April that left Thabo with a broken leg.
NBA player Thabo Sefolosha had his leg broken by the New York Police Department, an undisputed fact that is still stunning to contemplate. This week, Thabo has been in criminal court as prosecutors attempt to imprison him for the crime of “resisting arrest.” In actuality, he is being prosecuted for not going away quietly: choosing instead to fight back. His testimony, and the testimony of witnesses, could mean that they will not get away with it.
On the weekend that marked the one year anniversary of the police killing of Michael Brown, there was another disturbingly similar case making the social media rounds: another unarmed young black man shot dead, another police officer on administrative leave holding the smoking gun, another rush to convict the dead. But there was one difference.
Serena Williams just won her 21st Grand Slam. That’s the same number every other active women’s player has collected combined. In her last 28 matches, she is 28-0, and at the US Open this August, Ms. Williams will be favored to win the sport’s first calendar Grand Slam since Steffi Graf did it 27 years ago. At 33, Williams actually seems to be gaining strength. As a political symbol and an athletic powerhouse, Serena Williams is ‘the greatest’ in her sport.
$55 million is what the U.S. Justice Department has wasted on what we can now officially call the failed prosecution of Barry Lamar Bonds. The Major League Baseball home run king, assumed steroid user and Hall of Fame pariah on Wednesday had the government’s last thread holding him down – an obstruction of justice conviction – finally snipped on appeal.
Over the last month, we have seen a veritable “Sports World Spring” as athletes have spoken out on politics in a manner unseen since the 1960s. They have been inspired by the #BlackLivesMatter demonstrations directed against the killing of unarmed Black men and women by police as well as the inability of the criminal justice system to deliver justice. Now, in the wake of the horrific killing of two NYPD detectives, everything has changed.
The marches in the streets are not done. The die-ins disrupting traffic are not done. Any kind of closure for the families of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Akai Gurley and so many others is far from done. Athletic protest actions have the effect of amplifying the impact of a new struggle for human dignity in the face of racism. It has found expression in all 50 states and in solidarity actions in cities around the world, all with the message that Black lives matter.
Speaking about police brutality 50 years ago, Jackie Robinson said: “One cannot expect [Black] leaders to sell the non-violence cause when followers see violence erupting against them every day of their lives. Not even new civil rights bills or statesmanlike speeches can counteract this.”
For a man who spent nearly four decades of his 76 years under the restrictive eye of the U.S. correctional system, few have ever touched as many lives as Rubin “Hurricane” Carter. The world-class boxer turned wrongfully accused prisoner, turned advocate for the rights of the unjustly incarcerated, has succumbed to cancer, but his memory and work will endure as long as there are people outside and inside the prisons of the world fighting for justice.
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