Forty-nine years ago this week, at the 1968 Olympic Games, Tommy Smith and John Carlos, African-American medalists in track and field, dressed against Olympic code and raised black-gloved fists in a well-planned protest against the treatment of black people in the US.
And now, the US is mired in another sports-fueled political debate about what role role athletes should play in our national conversations on politics, race, and society.
On one hand there are the activists, athletes like former 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who took a knee during the national anthem to protest police brutality in 2016.
These two camps are well-established in the US, where sports has a long history of protest and political statement-making. So too does the repression of political athletes by those who have traditionally held power over them.
And so, America is once again asking: should our athletes be outspoken social critics?
When individuals whose voices are marginalized — such as people living in poverty and those who experience discrimination for their race, gender, or religion — see their issues and concerns reflected in the national discourse, they can be empowered to take action to change the status quo.
Public figures can play a key role in directing this discourse by using their platforms to bring attention to issues facing these marginalized communities. Athletes, with their fame and adoration, clearly possess the clout to advocate for the voiceless.
However, it is not just their fame that makes athletes well-suited to this task. Ultimately, the historic dynamic of personal sacrifice in the face of overwhelming opposition that every protesting athletes faces makes the actions of these men and women all the more noble, and ultimately more effective in advocating for equal rights and justice.
Almost without fail, athletes who have used their platform to make political statements faced severe consequences from the powers that be.
In 1967, Muhammad Ali refused to be inducted into the military on religious grounds. He was subsequently arrested, stripped of his championship title, and banned from boxing in the US for three years.
Smith and Carlos were afterwards banned from competing in Olympic games after their protest in 1968.
Even after the radical 60s, many other athletes have suffered significant personal and career setbacks for protesting the status quo, even if these setbacks haven't come in the form of explicit firings or suspensions.
After helping the Chicago Bulls win an NBA title in 1992, Craig Hodges attended the traditional White House congratulatory visit wearing a dashiki and carrying a pointed letter for President George H.W Bush to address issues in the African American community. Hodges was cut by the Bulls in that off-season and never played in the NBA again.
Similarly, Kaepernick was cut from the 49ers at the end of last year’s season, and remains without a job despite his higher-than-average performance relative to many of the league’s employed quarterbacks.
These examples, among many others, highlight the Catch-22 facing athletes hoping to bring attention to social ills: while their status as famous athletes provides a platform for their message, speaking out can put at risk everything they have worked to achieve professionally.
In the instant that athletes discard their professional identity for a communal one, speaking, for example, as a pacifist-Muslim instead of a boxer or an African American instead of a quarterback, they humanize themselves to the nation in a powerful and relatable way, and in turn open themselves up to losing that professional identity altogether.
The paradox between the power and vulnerability of athletes who want to take public political stances is a unique dilemma in American celebrity. Other entertainers, like musicians, seem to face far less scrutiny for their political actions than athletes (entire music festivals have been dedicated to protest). They almost certainly suffer fewer professional consequences when they actively use their platforms for advocacy.
Perhaps this is due to sports’ reputation as a bipartisan, universally adored entertainment, a rallying point regardless of any significant ideological differences. If this is part of the draw of sports, than the oppressive reaction to protest and activism by those tasked with keeping the sports industry popular is logical.
But this is exactly why we need athletes to be activists. The power of disruption is an important one; often those who are oppressed lack access to the traditional channels of change, and the voice of famous athletes can help bring awareness to the toxicity of the status quo.
More importantly, the severe retaliation they face after speaking out only serves to highlight the way marginalized communities are held in oppression by unjust and unstable power strucutres.
Indeed, a peek back into history reveals that many of the uncomfortable conversations athletes sought to spark eventually took place nationwide.
Muhammad Ali was granted conscientious objector status in 1971, by which time the majority of Americans felt that it was a mistake to have gone to Vietnam. He was granted the Arthur Ashe Courage Award in 1997.
Tommie Smith and John Carlos were memorialized by a statue commemorating their actions at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of African American History and Culture for their stand against racial inequality. They were also awarded the Arthur Ashe Courage Award in 2008.
That athletes are willing to risk their images, their paychecks, and possibly their entire careers makes their statements all the more powerful. They speak out when it would be easier to say nothing.
Athletes' courage to take a stand, and potentially suffer significant personal setbacks in the process, exemplifies the same courage that’s always been needed to resist oppression in the US.
Kaepernick, and his fellow NFL players who risk condemnation or worse for participating in protests on the field, should be proud to be a part of the rich legacy of bravery and activism reserved for outspoken American athletes.
It’s only a matter of time before the patriotism of the #TakeAKnee protest is recognized. Critics of the movement now face a stark choice: accept the legitimacy of these protests and fight against injustice, or stay silent only to look back regretfully from the wrong side of history.