“One gets a little tired of having the United States run down by athletes who are enjoying themselves at the expense of their country.”
You could be forgiven for thinking this is part of the contemporary take brigade up in arms over San Francisco 49ers’ quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s protest this past Friday when he refused to stand for the national anthem before a preseason game against the Green Bay Packers. But it isn’t. It’s part of a 48-year-old screed from an intrepid young journalist named Brent Musburger, then writing for the Chicago American, just after United States Olympic track athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos completed their iconic Black Power salute on the medal stand at the 1968 Mexico City games. Musburger continues:
“Protesting and working constructively against racism in the United States is one thing, but airing one’s dirty clothing before the entire world during a fun-and-games tournament was no more than a juvenile gesture by a couple of athletes who should have known better.”
Whenever athletes — and black athletes in particular — make the decision to bring their politics to the court or the field, they are greeted by angry fans, commentators and sportswriters raging about the inappropriateness of their gestures. Regardless of the perceived merit of their protest, their opponents argue, the athletic venue is not the time nor the place.
Despite the reverence given to Smith and Carlos’s protests today, contemporary columnists like Musburger raked them over the coals, just as they did with Muhammad Ali and countless protesting athletes who followed in their wake. When NBA guard Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf made a protest of the national anthem — very similar to Kaepernick’s — during the 1995-96 NBA season, he was met with widespread boos, threatened with suspension, and eventually unofficially banished from the league. Bulls sharpshooter Craig Hodges was similarly blackballed from the league after writing President Bush a letter urging him to turn his attention to injustices afflicting the black community and opposing the Gulf War.
Recent acts of protest have brought out the same reactions. Minneapolis police working security at a Minnesota Lynx game walked out on the job when Lynx players wore shirts demanding justice for Philando Castile, a St. Paul-area school cafeteria supervisor shot and killed by local police, and Alton Sterling, a man shot and killed by police in Baton Rouge. St. Louis Rams players who showed solidarity with Ferguson protesters with a “Hands up, don’t shoot” gesture were condemned in an angry letter from the city’s Police Officer’s Association. Missouri football players who threatened to strike last winter in response to racism on campus were met with proposed state legislation to revoke the athletic scholarships of students who protested.
The message is clear: For athletes, there is “a time and a place for protest,” and that time and place is never and nowhere. They are crossing a line by bringing their political concerns into the supposedly apolitical world of sports, or disrespecting our veterans or unnecessarily “airing our dirty clothing” for the world to see.
But if anything, the storm Kaepernick has kicked-up by simply sitting down for the national anthem proves how rabidly political the sports arena truly is. Sports — or more accurately, the production of sports by bodies like the National Football League — exist to express and reinforce a specific set of cultural values. In American football, these values are headlined by patriotism and militarism. Watch the ceremonies before games featuring fighter jets screaming over the stadium, covered by a gigantic American flag held up by men and women in uniform, a stance the networks and leagues have defended as non-political for over half a century.
And to be sure, this is no accident. As Sandy Padwe reported for the Philadelphia Inquirer in 1971, “The National Football League has an employee who once received the assignment of checking on league teams to make sure the players were in the proper National Anthem formation: parade-rest, helmets under arms, lines straight.”
This all serves to create a climate in which Kaepernick’s protest isn’t interpreted as a statement against police brutality, but as a vicious attack on our culture and our troops. In this climate, there can never be a time or a place when NFL fans will accept the validity of a protest like Kaepernick’s. But that just makes Kaepernick’s gesture all the more powerful.
It is ludicrous to tell Kaepernick to “stick to sports” when sports are so inherently political. He is not, as Musburger might put it, attempting to “run down” America with his stand. If anything, Kaepernick is holding up a mirror, forcing us to confront the injustices black people in this country face every day. He’s using his platform to fight for justice in this country. What could be more patriotic?