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Missouri Football, and 4 other times athletes stood up for racial equality

Flickr- RonAlmog

The world of pro athletes gets a lot of flak. NFL players and domestic violence... Lance Armstrong and doping... Racist comments from the owner of the LA Clippers... FIFA’s sweeping corruption scandal... and I’m sure you could think of many more. With all that money and ego and power swirling around, things are bound to get ugly.

Which is why it was so inspiring when the University of Missouri football team used their power for good in early November. It was a shining example of how athletes can use their influence, popularity, and resources, to bring about positive change. Particularly on race-related issues.

For those who missed the story, students at the University of Missouri had been protesting for the resignation of the school’s president over the way he had handled (or more accurately, failed to handle) a series of racial incidents on campus. Black students had been verbally assaulted and feces were smeared on the wall of a residence hall in the shape of a swastika, among other disturbing events. Students were upset, one even staged a hunger strike, but still the school’s administration was slow to respond.

Until a core group of black players from the university football team joined in on the protest and threatened to boycott. The players’ demands were clear: either university President Timothy Wolfe resign or they wouldn’t play any more games. The black players were backed by their teammates and coaches.

Football is a major money maker for schools. If the players went forward with their strike it would’ve cost Mizzou over $1 million for just one forfeited game. Plus the football team’s announcement garnered some serious press attention, and it wasn’t exactly glowing PR.

The players announced their boycott on Sunday. By Monday, Wolfe resigned.

It was a decisive victory, one that broadcasted an important message. Hate and racism cannot be ignored. Apathy and inaction are unacceptable responses. Without the push from the football team (and potential financial loss), there is little doubt the university administration would have continued to drag its feet.

To show you how influential athletes have become, here are four more times when they advanced social causes:

1/ Tommie Smith and John Carlos at the 1968 Olympics

The world was watching when the men’s 200-meter dash finalists took the podium to receive their medals at the 1968 Summer Olympics. The bronze winner was US athlete John Carlos, an Afro-Cuban from Harlem, New York. Peter Norman, from Australia, took the silver. And Tommie Smith won the race, an African American from Texas, who (at the time) set the world record with a time of 19.83 seconds.

1968 had been a politically tumultuous year, from the Prague Spring in then Czechoslovakia to the Massacre of Tlatelolco in Mexico. In the US there were protests against the Vietnam War, the continuation of the civil rights movement, the emergence of Black Power movements, and the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. The Olympics brought many of these tensions, especially about race, to the forefront. Leading up to the Olympics there was an international debate over whether South Africa, still suffering the injustices of apartheid, should be allowed to attend. When several African countries and black athletes threatened to boycott the games if South Africa were to attend, the country was told not to participate.

It was in this charged atmosphere that 200-meter winners Tommie Smith and John Carlos decided to demonstrate at their medal ceremony. The two men went to the podium shoeless, wearing only black socks to represent all the blacks living in poverty. Smith wore a black scarf to represent black pride and carried a box containing a piece of an olive tree to represent peace. Carlos unzipped his tracksuit in solidarity with blue collar workers exposing a necklace with beads meant to represent the many blacks and slaves who were lynched or killed without proper burials. Smith, Carlos and Norman all wore Olympic Project for Human Rights badges, after Norman had expressed solidarity with his competitors.

But the most famous moment came when the Star Spangled Banner played, and Smith and Carlos bowed their heads and raised their fists, each covered by a black glove, in the Black Power Salute. It was an image that made front page news worldwide and sent a powerful message of justice, pride and solidarity to a far-too unjust world.

Though Smith and Carlos received harsh criticism and dangerous threats following their protest, and were expelled from the Olympic Games, history has remembered their act of bravery. In 2008 they both won the Arthur Ashe Courage Award in honor of their actions.

2/ The Phoenix Suns and immigration

For years the NBA has celebrated a “Noche Latina” in honor of the growing support and popularity of the NBA throughout Latin America and among Hispanic communities in the US. As part of the special event, several teams from cities with large Hispanic populations (LA, New York, Miami, Phoenix) wear jerseys with their team name in Spanish.

But in 2010, the Phoenix Suns sported their “Los Suns” jerseys for a more political reason. Arizona had passed a controversial and restrictive immigration law that would require police to question anyone they suspected of being in the country illegally. At the time, the Suns were in the the playoffs, and decided to use the highly-watched, televised opportunity to speak out. The Suns’ owner called the law “flawed” and “mean-spirited” and then the team took the court in their “Los Suns” jerseys with pride.

It’s not often that an NBA team gives voice to the underrepresented members of their community. Even Obama took notice and backed the team’s move. Plus it didn’t hurt that Los Suns won the game.

3/ AC Milan players walk off the field mid game

In 2013, a friendly match between AC Milan and Pro Patria turned into a protest. Pro Patria had been hurling racial insults and slurs at several of AC Milan’s black players, including Ghanaian midfielder Kevin-Prince Boateng. When the taunting continued even after the game announcer urged fans to stop, Boateng kicked a soccer ball into the crowd, shedded his uniform, and walked off the field. His teammates followed him in support.  

As the player tweeted:

Boateng recieved support from other pro footballers, including Cristiano Ronaldo, who lamented existing racism within the game. Black players had suffered insult and abuse from fans on teams around the world, and while it’s easy for players to just keep their heads down and continue the game, Boateng’s move signaled just how unacceptable intolerance is.

4/ NFL and NBA respond to police shootings of black civilians

When the US was hit with a too-long list of police killings of black men, the nation reacted. Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Eric Garner. Their names have become rallying cries, launching movements like #BlackLivesMatter and “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot,” that symbolize the pain and anger of people sick of racism and injustice.

But the movements got an extra boost of attention when US pro athletes went out of their way to show their solidarity in very public ways.

It started in 2010 when Dwyane Wade posted a photo of himself sporting a hooded sweatshirt on his Twitter and Facebook page following the shooting of unarmed black teen Trayvon Martin in Florida. Martin had been wearing a hoodie at the time of the shooting, and many understood that the hoodie-- as a racist symbol of blackness, of toughness, of ghettoness, of suspicion--  had everything to do with why Martin was shot.

Following Wade’s post, teammate Lebron James posted a photo of the entire Miami Heat in hoodies, their heads bowed, hands in their pockets. It was a powerful image of a team of largely dark skinned men confronting the problematic stereotypes and racism tied to the Martin shooting.

And when the Miami Heat does something it certainly gets noticed. The hoodie became a national movement, as Americans chose to wear hoodies everywhere. New York even hosted a “Million Hoodie March” and a Chicago Congressman revealed a hoodie from beneath his suit on the House floor.

The Heat’s action paved the way for future demonstrations. In 2014, following the shooting of Michael Brown in Missouri, five St. Louis Rams players took the field with their hands raised in the “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot” pose that had become a symbol of Brown’s wrongful death.

As player Jared Cook said: “I just think there has to be a change. There has to be a change that starts with the people that are most influential around the world.”  

And it was no small moment. Some law enforcement agents were so angered with the move that they burned St. Louis Rams gear in response.   

Later that year, when Eric Garner was killed by a police officer who had put him in a chokehold, Chicago Bulls player Derrick Rose took the court for warmups in an “I Can’t Breathe” T-shirt. Garner was heard repeating the line several times during his arrest in video footage.  Other NBA players, from Lebron James to Kobe Bryant, followed Rose’s example, wearing the shirts during warmups.

The athletes sparked controversy, bringing  visibility and support to an issue that matters. They were steering the national conversation in the right direction, and empathizing with communities in a visceral way that politicians are often unable to. 

It makes sense that athletes are uniquely positioned to bring heightened levels of attention to racism. Sports are one of the world’s biggest unifiers-- appreciated, played and enjoyed by people of every language and country.

Historically, sports have been able to bridge racial and socioeconomic boundaries in ways other industries never could. Today, the world of sports is more mixed than most professions. 68% of NFL players are black. This figure jumps to 78% in the NBA. In Europe, black players account for around a quarter of the UEFA.

After all, in its most basic form, sports is a meritocracy. It’s not about where you’re from, how well-off your family is, or your “connections”… it’s about how well you can play the game. And more often than not, athletic talent is racially diverse. At the end of the day, fans want to root for their team, whomever the players may be.

Though racism has undoubtedly been (and will continue to be) a recurring issue in pro-sports-- from integrating teams, to intolerance from fans--  stories of overcoming this racism abound.

And progress has been made. Decades before the University of Missouri football team helped oust their school’s president, a group known as the Black 14 tried to inspire change at the University of Wyoming. But with very different results. It was 1969, and 14 black players on U Wyoming’s football team wanted to wear black armbands to their game against Mormon university Brigham Young, in protest of the Mormon Church’s policy that African Americans were not allowed to become priests. When the players shared the protest plan with their coach, he angrily kicked all 14 of them off the team. The dismissed players went to the university administration to plead their case, but the decision was upheld.

It’s a relief to know that in 2015, black athletes were supported rather than discouraged and punished.

Taken together, what these athletic demonstrations teach us is that it’s never “not our place” or “not the right time” to voice concerns over injustice, in any of its many forms. No matter our job or place in society, and no matter what the context or situation, as human beings we have the duty to stand up for the rights of ourselves and others. While not all of us have the news cameras flashing, or get thousands of retweets, when we choose to speak out, it’s no reason not to do so.

When it comes to speaking truth to power and advancing justice, every voice matters.