Athlete Involvement in the Civil Rights Movement
Kaepernick Leads the Charge
There have been many forms of athlete involvement throughout the movement, including marches and protests, donations to enhance black culture, and various posts on social media platforms to educate the public on the problems surrounding racial injustice within the United States. One of the first instances of athlete involvement in civil rights can be dated back to 2016 when 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick sat during the national anthem in an NFL preseason game. Kaepernick’s actions spurred controversy between the league and its players, athletes in other sports, politicians, and even the president of the United States. In Kaepernick’s first interview after sitting during the anthem, he stated, “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people of color.” After the season, Kaepernick opted out of his contract with San Francisco, hoping for a better situation on his behalf. The 2016-17 NFL season would also be Kaepernick’s last, as he remains unsigned to this day.
Fast forward to 2020, people in the United States began to realize the issues Kaepernick voiced four years before were, in fact very real, and that nothing has really changed since then. If anything, Kaepernick has gained even more support from the movement in 2020, and more athletes have been vocal since Kaepernick voiced his concerns back in 2016.
Voices in the NBA
Kaepernick isn’t the only professional athlete to voice his opinion for social justice, either. NBA Star, LeBron James, has been vocal for years about his frustration with the unfair treatment of African Americans in the United States. In 2018, a week of emancipation by black players in the NBA was not taken well by some members of the press. For his involvement in civil rights when a conservative talk show host used the remarks, “Shut up and dribble.” Instead of a rebuttal, James commented that the hosts’ remarks only fueled his drive to inspire those who looked up to him, stating, “I will not shut up and dribble…I mean too much to my family and all these other kids that look up to me.” Other star players such as Kevin Durant, James Harden, and Stephen Curry supported James’ stance on social justice and have also voiced their opinions of being activated in the fight towards equality.
As members of the NFL knelt in their support of racial equality, the NBA, however, took a different approach. The NBA already had a policy in place requiring players to stand during the national anthem. Still, unlike NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, NBA commissioner Adam Silver supported his players and their drive for racial equality. “I’m incredibly proud of the players for using the platform they have on social media to speak out on issues, and I was proud of LeBron’s and Kevin’s response to the comments that were made about them,” Silver said. “It’s not lost on me or anybody in this room that there is an enormous amount of racial tension in this country, an enormous amount of social injustice, and I do see a role for this league in addressing those issues.”
The NBA and its players have been at the forefront of this movement for several reasons. One being that the league is majority black, about 74 percent of the NBA’s players are African Americans, and two being that NBA players have fully guaranteed contracts. By having fully guaranteed contracts, NBA players may be inclined to voice their opinions publicly without having a fear of being cut from their teams and without being paid. Compared to the NBA, NFL contracts are only partially guaranteed and depending on the terms of the agreement, a player can be cut due to his actions off the field at any time. That’s not to say NFL players aren’t using their voices, because they are.
LeBron was also active in his call for social justice in 2016, when he joined fellow NBA players at the ESPYS to voice their frustrations about the treatment of blacks in the United States. James joined superstars Carmelo Anthony, Chris Paul, and Dwayne Wade to construct an opening speech about shootings that had happened that year in Florida, Louisiana, Texas, and Minnesota. Their speech aimed at highlighting the impact that professional sports have had on racial activism. Some of the problems they focused on were racial profiling, police brutality, gun violence, racial inequality, and racial divide. In the days after the ESPYS, players around the league wore t-shirts in warmups sporting the phrase, “I can’t breathe.”
The NBA Heritage
Another reason why the NBA has led the charge for activism in the sports world is its diversity and roots. The NBA is extremely diverse, and when boiled down to the core, there is a brotherhood between its players in the present and the past. The ideas of obligation, social responsibility, and desire to speak up about societal issues have been passed down between NBA players for decades. Some particular names that come to mind are Bill Russell and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Russell, an 11-time champion with the Boston Celtics, was one of the first African American superstars in the sport and was one of the pioneers for combating racism nearly 50 years ago. Russell was also the first-ever black head coach in all American professional sports.
During his career, Russell was one of the first athletes to voice his opinions on such societal problems, even despite putting his career in jeopardy and also his safety. Russell was awarded for his efforts in standing up for his beliefs with the 2019 Arthur Ashe Courage Award at the ESPYS. Russell is also a recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the United States’ highest civilian award. Perhaps Russell’s legacy off the court is even more significant than the one on the hardwood, as many athletes have looked up to Russell for inspiration. He also may have paved the way for athletes to act today, as Russell was stoic in his demeanor in the face of racism. Those who disagreed with him even went as far as vandalizing Russell’s home in the 1960s.
Despite the obstacles Russell faced, he never turned to arrogance or violence to get his message across. In the aftermath of the events, Russell stated, “Not only am I tall enough to make a lot of people uncomfortable, but I am also black, and infamous as an athlete.” The Hall of Famer’s most recent impact on the civil rights movement came earlier this month when Russell took to social media to criticize the president and his stance on kneeling, “You are divisive & a coward. It takes true courage 2 stand 4 what is right & risk your life in the of a #pandemic.” In his post, Russell also compared the BLM movement to that of the civil rights movement of the 1960s.
In addition to Russell, NBA legend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar has never been one to shy away in advocating for social justice. In response to Colin Kaepernick’s effect on corporate America, Abdul-Jabbar responded, “It makes a real difference when corporate America can see what’s going on and support the right side of any issue. Colin Kaepernick is protesting against black people being shot down for no good reason, he has no disrespect in heart for the United States of America.”
The Movement Today
With two significant crises affecting the United States, and the world, nothing has stopped athletes from being involved with the call to adjust racial inequality. In the wake of George Floyd’s death, athletes have used their platforms like never before. At the forefront of the movement is a 14-year NBA veteran, Stephen Jackson. In his NBA career, Jackson most notably played for the Indiana Pacers, San Antonio Spurs, Golden State Warriors. Today, Jackson is a warrior on the frontlines of the civil rights movement in America and has led numerous marches and rallies throughout the country. The NBA vet has also posted relentlessly on social media, calling for involvement and awareness of the issues that have plagued this country for decades.
Longtime friends, Jackson and Floyd, grew up less than 90 minutes apart from each other. Although he didn’t ask to be put into this position, Jackson has always been a vocal leader, and one never afraid to voice his opinions during his time in the NBA. Aside from Jackson, many other athletes have been heavily involved in social activism following Floyd’s death. Stars Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson were seen marching in Oakland, as was Trailblazer’s point guard, Damian Lillard. Compton native Demar DeRozan and Russell Westbrook organized numerous marches in the streets of South-Central Los Angles. On the east coast, the Pacer’s Malcolm Brogdon and Celtics forward Jaylen Brown were seen leading protests and spoke about the country’s inability to address police brutality. The movement hasn’t been inclusive to gender, either. In Washington, Wizards and Mystics players hosted protest marches and spoke about similar issues as well.
If athletes were not seen at these rallies and marches, they took to social media to voice their concerns. Many have donated to charities supporting the movement, endorsed black-owned businesses, and have advocated for much-needed change across an array of social issues. If one thing is for sure about the athletes today, it’s that they are not afraid to fight for what is right in their eyes. They will not continue to allow their people to fall at the hands of a corrupt system, but instead, they advocate for change in a country that has promised equality for all of its people.