When President George W. Bush stood on the mound during the 2001 World Series, a collective roar began to grow from the deep recesses of the old Yankee Stadium.
Only a few months removed from the biggest attack on US soil, the nation was still grieving. As fate would have it, the Yankees improbably defeated the greatest regular-season team in history to reach the World Series. President Bush looked over the crowd. He was alone in front of thousands of people who were fearful to leave their homes.
He represented strength to millions of people watching on television — Americans; scared their city was next. He looked out into the masses, delivered several thumbs up, reared back and threw a perfect strike. The images still give viewers goosebumps. The cheers became deafening. In an instant it seemed the nation had recovered.
President Bush’s pitch at the World Series was as much a political statement on the strength of our nation as it was a game’s ceremonial beginning. It was Bush’s defining positive moment. It was also the commingling of sports and politics. It restored America’s resolve. The nation would rebound. Bush made America better.
“There I was, the black grandson of a slave, the son of a black sharecropper, part of a historic occasion, a symbolic hero to my people. The air was sparkling. The sunlight was warm. The band struck up the national anthem. The flag billowed in the wind. It should have been a glorious moment for me as the stirring words of the national anthem poured from the stands. Perhaps, it was, but then again, perhaps, the anthem could be called the theme song for a drama called The Noble Experiment.
“Today, as I look back on that opening game of my first world series, I must tell you that it was Mr. Rickey’s drama and that I was only a principal actor. As I write this twenty years later, I cannot stand and sing the anthem. I cannot salute the flag; I know that I am a black man in a white world. In 1972, in 1947, at my birth in 1919, I know that I never had it made.”
When Jackie Robinson stepped onto Ebbets Field in Brooklyn, New York in 1947, slavery was over but there were very few other changes to the positive advancement of African Americans. Segregation and discrimination laws were still prevalent. Lynchings were still a part of everyday life. African Americans were still secondary citizens. Even the military still prohibited blacks and whites serving together.
Robinson’s inclusion in America’s Pastime forced a reexamination of American politics and rights for African Americans.
President Harry Truman would desegregate the military a year later. In 1951, Black students in Virginia protested their unequal status in the state’s segregated educational system. In 1954 the Supreme Court unanimously ruled public schools segregated by race was unconstitutional. Martin Luther King Jr. would start his march for civil rights a year later.
“If you break down barriers in one field, it directly impacts others, particularly economic, political and social,” said Julius Thompson, a professor of history and black studies at the University of Missouri. “So for me, it had implications in all these other areas in advancing civil rights and general human rights in the United States and other countries.”
Sports directly influenced politics.
Robinson’s entrance into sports’ hallowed cathedrals and the sacred game of baseball dissolved the notion that African Americans didn’t belong in our baseball stadiums, workplace or at school. The many who objected to Robinson’s inclusion based solely on color did not learn their lesson right away. It took decades before Robinson would take his place in history as an American icon, rather than someone who didn’t belong. Robinson made America better.
When Billie Jean King stepped on to the court at the Houston Astrodome in 1973 — in front of the largest crowd to ever witness a tennis match — she knew it would be the most pivotal event of her life.
“I … knew it was very important I win the match if I wanted people to take women’s tennis – and women – seriously.”
The 70s became a breeding ground for minorities yearning for equality. A groundswell for women’s rights began on the heels of the Civil Rights movement. Women began to see that they had more power than they realized.
In 1972 Helen Reddy sang, “I am woman, hear me roar.” Those ambitious women who attempted to alter the landscape of the professional world were usually met with objection, cynicism and chauvinism. Women weren’t allowed to apply for their own credit cards. A working women earned 56 cents for every dollar a man earned.
In the months leading up to the match, Riggs would up the ante with misogynistic comments alienating some and emboldening others.
“I’ll tell you why I’ll win. She’s a woman and they don’t have the emotional stability,” he said at a press conference announcing the match.
What turned out to be more spectacle than competition. King beat Riggs in straight sets. A humble Riggs would say post-match, King “played too well.”
“I thought it would set us back 50 years if I didn’t win that match,” she said later. “It would ruin the women’s tour and affect all women’s self-esteem.”
Her groundbreaking match with Riggs would set the tone for the feminist movement. The 70s became the decade when women began to establish themselves outside of the domestic arena that traditionalists had long isolated.
In 1977, courts recognized sexual harassment in the workplace.
In 1978, The Pregnancy Discrimination act prevented women from being fired simply for being pregnant.
Sports was politics. King refused to know her place. She made America better.
— Brennan Gilmore (@brennanmgilmore) September 24, 2017
The NFL has taken a stand recently that has received national headlines. Despite each owner’s desire and competitive nature to win, they united this season. 32 owners, general managers and head coaches made the conscious decision to leave Colin Kaepernick off their rosters.
He doesn’t belong.
When Kaepernick sat down last year — later kneeling — he made it clear why. It wasn’t a protest against the flag. He was not protesting the national anthem.
“I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color,” Kaepernick told NFL Media. “To me, this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way. There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder.”
Immediately, people tried to change the narrative.
They said he was ungrateful. They told him to “stick to sports.” The most damning of all was that he was unpatriotic.
A nation that recognizes Robinson, Muhammed Ali, Tommie Smith and John Carlos as national heroes thought Kaepernick was disrespecting the nation by fighting to make America better.
So he clarified.
“I have great respect for men and women that have fought for this country. I have family, I have friends that have gone and fought for this country.
“They fight for freedom. They fight for the people, they fight for liberty and justice for everyone. And that’s not happening.
“People are dying in vain because this country isn’t holding their end of the bargain up, as far as giving freedom and justice, liberty to everybody. It’s something that’s not happening.
“I’ve seen videos. I’ve seen circumstances where men and women that have been in the military have come back and been treated unjustly by the country they fought for and have been murdered by the country they fought for, on our land. That’s not right.”
Soon after, Kaepernick stopped doing interviews. The narrative continued to shift from Kaepernick’s message of racial inequality and police brutality to a spoiled player. Many questioned his true intentions. His character discredited. His message invalidated.
When I see Kaepernick in the hood mentoring young black males on making better lifestyle choices then I will know his sincerity. Opportunist pic.twitter.com/5rlOGM4w0C
— David A. Clarke, Jr. (@SheriffClarke) September 16, 2017
According to the Chicago Tribune, Kaepernick has donated nearly $2 million to youth, education and community programs. But in the world of “Fake News” the truth is secondary to who controls the flow of information.
It’s telling that after Kaepernick’s initial protest, he spoke with former Seattle Seahawk and Green Beret Nate Boyer and altered sitting to kneeling.
“We sorta came to a middle ground where he would take a knee alongside his teammates.
“Soldiers take a knee in front of a fallen brother’s grave, you know, to show respect. When we’re on a patrol, you know, and we go into a security halt, we take a knee, and we pull security.”
Despite Kapernick’s absence from a roster this season, people like Michael Bennett continued the message. This was not about the flag or the anthem. It was about black bodies. A message black athletes have delivered since they were allowed to voice their opinions and concerns. Yet the message is still filtered through to the point where it is unrecognizable to its origin.
The NFL has all sorts of rules and regulations. The only way out for them is to set a rule that you can't kneel during our National Anthem!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) September 26, 2017
Ratings for NFL football are way down except before game starts, when people tune in to see whether or not our country will be disrespected!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) September 26, 2017
When the President initially voiced his opinion about Kaepernick in March, it raised a few eyebrows. The administration seemed to be working in concert with certain owners to keep an opinionated black quarterback off the field.
When he doubled down on that statement recently, calling NFL players sons of bi***es, it again changed the story.
Kaepernick’s message has been diluted. The constant 24-minute news cycle regeneration has reframed his initial voice so many times, few realize they are fighting against their own beliefs. Players disrespecting the flag and its anthem by kneeling, locking arms or staying in the tunnel for the anthem has become the talking point du jour.
The debate is now centered on the disrespect towards this country, the veterans and first responders. As if someone polled all veterans and first responders and found they collectively object to this form of expression.
The NFL capitalized. They linked arms in a show of “unity.” Not for Kaepernick and his plea for equality and equal treatment of all American citizens, but the NFL unified against Trump.
We forgave the seven owners who donated over seven million dollars to Trump’s inauguration fund. These owners hijacked a protest dedicated to protecting and serving all races, and made it about them and “The Shield.”
NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell said he was “proud” of his players. Many owners came out with statements condemning Trump’s depiction of its athletes. None talked about the original message or the fight for equality. All the while, Kaepernick was still a free agent. A martyr to a message that was now lost.
— ABC News (@ABC) September 26, 2017
The right to voice your concern for this nation and its people are one of the freedoms that makes our country great. Athletes like Jack Johnson, Jesse Owens, Robinson, Ali, Smith, Carlos and King used their platform as athletes to spread social awareness for causes they deemed would make America better.
Colin Kaepernick is no different than these men. All these men faced blowback from the public at large for their respective stance. All opposition to these men was rooted in some form of abject racism or sexism cloaked in tradition, respect and patriotism.
Robinson challenged America. Ali conscientiously objected America. Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised their fists at America. Athletes have always politicized sports, providing a voice to the voiceless. The field or arena became a stage to highlight the atrocities that are as much a part of our American history as George Washington, slavery and the signing of our constitution that protects each person’s rights of freedom.
Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Alton B. Sterling, Philando Castille.
These names symbolized a fear in African Americans that has always paralyzed that community.
“It seems like there’s a kind of national conversation going on right now about those who are paid to protect us, who sometimes end up inflicting lethal harm upon us,” Ta-nehisi Coates said back in 2015 at the historic Union Baptist Church. “But for me, this conversation is old, and I’m sure for many of you the conversation is quite old. It’s the cameras that are new. It’s not the violence that’s new.”
Kaepernick has a unique vantage point. A black man raised by adopted white parents. He straddled two worlds. An almost impossible task, considering all youths struggle with identity.
Kapernick is now a symbol to the world. A symbol of a renewed movement towards mixing politics with sports to make America better.
Celebrate Martin Luther King Day and all of the many wonderful things that he stood for. Honor him for being the great man that he was!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) January 16, 2017
Many have turned to Martin Luther King, Jr as an example of the “right way” to protest. They point to his love over hate mantra and his civil and peaceful disobedience. I wonder if Trump would agree with King’s view on protesting?
“A riot is the language of the unheard,” said King.
How would those who oppose Kaepernick’s stance feel about King had he lived today?
“Whites, it must frankly be said, are not putting in a similar mass effort to reeducate themselves out of their racial ignorance. It is an aspect of their sense of superiority that the white people of America believe they have so little to learn. The reality of substantial investment to assist Negroes into the twentieth century, adjusting to Negro neighbors and genuine school integration, is still a nightmare for all too many white Americans…These are the deepest causes for contemporary abrasions between the races. Loose and easy language about equality, resonant resolutions about brotherhood fall pleasantly on the ear, but for the Negro there is a credibility gap he cannot overlook. He remembers that with each modest advance the white population promptly raises the argument that the Negro has come far enough. Each step forward accents an ever-present tendency to backlash.”
What would those who attempt to invalidate Kaepernick and others reach for racial and social justice view King’s words on the fated attempt at being American?
“First, I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: ‘I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action’; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a ‘more convenient season.’ Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.”
Kapernick’s message is not anti-American. It is the essence of America. No different than Bush standing on that mound as a symbol of America.
Trump and his followers conflate the idea that patriotism is solely tied to standing for the flag and our anthem. At Trump’s rhetoric’s core is the idea that the only way to be great is to put America first. That the constitutional right and the freedoms we have are the bedrock to what makes our country great.
Take care of OUR people.
But what does it say about this philosophy when you ignore an entire race of people. Those people who use their constitutional freedoms to speak out about what they view as unbalanced, undervalued and wrong. A group of individuals sacrificing their livelihood to get a message across. Players, activists, husbands, wives, mothers, fathers, sons, daughters, brothers and sisters who all just want to — in simpler terms — Make America Great.