The Washington Nationals shocked the baseball world by winning the 2019 World Series and proceeded to create a different firestorm during the traditional White House visit. This longstanding tradition started in 1924 by President Calvin Coolidge and the Washington Senators has now become an increasingly controversial political platform. Players boycott the visit in protest of the party or President in office. Questions arise as to whether athletes should respect the office regardless of the person in it.
Some question whether politics should be mixed with sports at all. Others question whether we even need them anymore? Whether Curt Suzuki should have donned a make America great again (MAGA) hat out of jest or conviction while Sean Doolittle protested by not showing up, or Ryan Zimmerman espoused how “safe” he feels under President Trump is somewhat irrelevant. They will all go on next season and collect their multi-million-dollar salaries. I’ll reserve my accolades for athletes who have risked their careers to stand up for their political injustice.
These modern White House antics and debates are increasingly nothing more than fodder for social media. The legacy of politics and sports dates back as far as 1883 when Moses Fleetwood Walker played in a baseball game after the opposing team asked that he not play because he was black. Athletes have found their careers ruined, derailed, or terminated prematurely by speaking out, standing up, or kneeling in protest. It’s easy for our youth to identify with Colin Kaepernick but the list of prominent athletes that used their stature to bring light to social injustice is long and revered.
One of the most iconic pictures from the civil rights movement is of the Cleveland Summit led by Jim Brown (HOF Running Back) in support of Muhammad Ali’s decision to avoid the draft in protest of the Viet Nam War. It included Kareem Abdul Jabbar (HOF NBA Center), Bill Russell (HOF NBA Center, 11 Time NBA Champion, and 5 Time MVP), Bobby Mitchell (HOF NFL Running Back), … among others.
It’s not surprising that the political wrath often falls on the heads of people of color. Although he is the most recent victim of protesting injustice he is a long way from being the first. Muhanad Ali is one of the most iconic sports figures associated with putting his career on the line. However, the litany of sports careers derailed by stances against injustice is long. These are just a few.
- In 1996 Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf, guard for the Denver Nuggets refused to stand during the anthem before games in protest of anti-Islamic rhetoric. He was suspended for his actions and received hostile responses and death threats.
- Craig Hodges – In 1991 the Chicago Bulls guard Craig Hodges used the Bulls’ trip to the White House dressed in a dashiki to deliver an eight-page letter to President George H.W. Bush outlining discrimination and asking the administration to do more for black communities.
- The Syracuse 8 – In 1970 Syracuse University student-athletes boycotted for access to the same academic tutoring made available to their white teammates among other demands aimed at “Leveling the Playing Field“.
- The Black 14 – 14 black players on the 1969 University of Wyoming football team were kicked off the team for seeking permission to wear black armbands in protest of both the Mormon Church’s refusal to allow African-Americans from joining the priesthood and the way some of them said they were treated during Wyoming’s game the previous season at Brigham Young University
- John Carlos & Tommie Smith (1968 Summer Olympics featured image) – John Carlos and Tommie Smith raised clenched fists during their medal ceremony at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City
Although the above list appears to be male-dominated, women, by their mere presence in sports create a political firestorm. That firestorm has dated back decades and culminated in Title IX which gives women athletes the right to equal opportunity in sports in educational institutions that receive federal funds, from elementary schools to colleges and universities.
In any event, politics and sports are inextricable. Although we tend to focus on the immediacy of events we cannot turn our backs on the long legacy of sports and politics.