Tradition of social injustice movements led by African American athletes

Tradition of social injustice movements led by African American athletes

Dejonae Richards, Staff Writer


African American athletes have a tradition of beginning movements that stand up to racial injustice, from desegregating sports to police brutality. From Jesse Owens to Colin Kaepernick, athletes often help lead social movements through their influence in the sports world.

In 1990 NBA player Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf refused to stand for the National Anthem, even though the NBA requires their athletes to stand, saying “the flag was a symbol of oppression and that the United States had a long history of tyranny, and standing for the national anthem would conflict with my Islamic beliefs” in a conference meeting. The NBA suspended Abdul-Rauf for his refusal to stand, and Abdul-Rauf lost out on $31,707 per missed game.

Two days later, a compromise with the league was reached: under these terms Abdul-Rauf would stand during the national anthem, but be allowed to close his eyes and look downward. During the National Anthem, Abdul-Rauf silently recited Islamic prayers for those who are suffering from all walks of life and ethnic backgrounds.

Another example of African American athletes who have stood up for racial equality are John Carlos and Tommie Smith. During the 1968 Olympics, after receiving their medals, both track stars turned to face the flag as the national anthem played, and raised a black-gloved fist until the anthem had finished.

“The gesture was not a Black Power salute, but a human rights salute,” Smith said to reporter Joshua Haddow in an interview with “Vice.”

According to reports, International Olympic Committee (IOC) president Avery Brundage deemed Smiths’ and Carlos’ salute to be a domestic political statement unfit for the Olympic Games. Brundage ordered Smith and Carlos be suspended from the US team and banned from the Olympic Village. When the US Olympic Committee refused, Brundage threatened to ban the entire US track team, which led to the expulsion of Carlos and Smith.

One of the more famous political statements made by an African American athlete is from boxing champion Muhammad Ali, who in April of 1967 refused to fight for the U.S in the Vietnam war, was afterwards stripped of his Championship title. Ali was convicted of draft evasion, sentenced to five years in prison, fined $10,000 and banned from boxing for three years.

Ali stayed out of prison while his case was appealed and returned to the ring in 1970. The following year, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned his conviction for evading the draft.

African American athletes have used their spotlight, however momentary, in society to make political statements — and sometimes at great cost. They felt their message was important enough that the consequences didn’t matter, yet some people believe that politics and sports should be kept separate.

“Athletes should stick to only doing their jobs on the field, and if they want to make political statements, they should do it on their own time,” junior Sha’Nyah Johnson said.

Others say that athletes should speak out if they wish. “Athletes have the right to exercise all their rights, but if it affects their job, they need to make it so won’t affect it [their work],” junior Keelie Gossett said.