Athletic Activism: When The Worlds Of Politics And Sports Collide

Joel Harvey

Donald Trump would like to keep politics and sports separate. The two things don’t mix according to the President, but he’s yet to comment on whether being a celebrity businessman and politics is a good mix. Or if badly selling Stone Cold stunners and politics is a good mix. Or if grabbing… well, you get the gist.

Trump’s opinions come off the back of a highly publicised row between him and sports stars in the past week. He called on NFL owners to fire any players who took a knee during the playing of the American national anthem; a form of protest that started when Colin Kaepernick began to sit out the anthem in 2016 to highlight police brutality against African-Americans. Over the course of the year, other players followed Kaepernick’s lead, and the kneeling protest has been brought to mainstream attention. Naturally, that meant a certain President would have something to say about it too:

What has followed since is a powerful storm of indignation and players standing (or rather, kneeling) up for their right to protest. Trump has found himself on the receiving end of some unprecedented (or should that be, unpresidented?) hits from high-profile athletes like LeBron James. All of which has thrust political activism onto the field of sports. And it’s not for the first time either, as history has shown us…

The Nazis And Sports

Back in 1935, England would host the German football team for a game at White Hart Lane, the ground of Tottenham Hotspur. For a club with a strong Jewish fan-base, this was understandably met with some protest. However, the match largely went without incident – as local fans and players stood by in face of Nazi salutes:

A year later though, at the Berlin Olympics, an American named Jesse Owens would deliver his own protest to fascism and bigotry. The African-American athlete went to the summer games to show up Adolf Hitler and his propaganda of an Aryan “master race”. And Owens won an incredible four gold medals in the shadow of the Nazis and their racism. This was a resounding f**k you to the führer and his politics of hate.

The Sixties

This was the decade where social activism and the protest movement really came of age. America was in the midst of social upheaval and change, as black citizens demanded the end to segregation and racial injustice.

In the sporting world, the biggest sports star on the planet at the time, Muhammed Ali, made a powerful statement himself. One which reflected the attitudes of many, when he refused to be drafted to fight in the Vietnam War:

Ali was using his sporting fame to make a political statement. Instead of pummeling opponents in the ring, he was aiming a one-two at the establishment. It was a powerful message and it resonated with the public, unlike any message that might’ve come from the mouth of a politician.

Ali was a true idol, a man that many ordinary people respected and admired. And here he was, telling his legions of fans that their government did not speak for him. And this terrified the powers-that-be. Especially, as more athletes would follow in making such statements to the people.

At the 1968 Olympics in Mexico – with racial tensions still on a knife-edge at home in the States – American runners Tommie Smith and John Carlos won gold and silver respectively in the 200m final. Their podium protest of raising a salute to the Black Panther movement became one of the most iconic images in sporting history:

Like Jesse Owens 32 years before them, this was a stand against the ruling political class. It was a message to the people, in a way that no other message to the people could’ve been delivered. Politics and sports had now found themselves woven together by athletes who were using their talent to bring awareness of social injustices to the world.

Politics And Sports In The Modern Day

The current crop of sporting stars had been more silent on touchy political issues in recent years. But the increased attention on the ‘Black Lives Matter’ movement after the deaths of Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown, has changed things dramatically. No longer prepared to stay quiet on such important issues, African-American athletes started to speak out.

These protests, like the ones that came before, were a powerful reminder to the establishment that they could be severely damaged by sports stars. Those men and women who have a platform and a voice, and were ready to use it.

And this is precisely why politics and sports should mix. It remains vitally important that those in the sporting community speak out when they can. Many of these athletes are born from ordinary families. They come from working-class, low-income worlds, and due to their talents, they’ve become very public figures. They’re on the global stage now, and they’re heroes to those neighbourhoods that they grew up in; those streets and towns whose voices aren’t usually heard in the world.

The sports stars of today must be allowed to use their spotlight, if they see fit to do so, to raise awareness of causes and issues close to them. To speak up for the voiceless. And no-one, not even political leaders, should be allowed to shut them up.

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