Athletes and Activism: The History of Sports and Politics

By Alyssa F.

“Equal Pay! Equal Pay!” On July 7th, 2019, when the U.S. Women’s National Soccer Team won the FIFA World Cup, the crowd sitting in the stands chanted these words in an act of protest. The victory of the women’s team and how they repeatedly make statements to encourage equality to women, influenced the crowd to act this way. This is just one of the many ways that the athletes of a team convey their beliefs through protest and encouraged others to speak up too. The first of these acts of courage was recorded way back in 1883.

Moses Fleetwood Walker was an African American professional baseball player in 1883 where he played for an all-white baseball team. Because he was black and played successfully with and against white players, the men did not feel comfortable welcoming him to the league. They tormented him and made him feel uncomfortable, in hopes of forcing him off the team. Though he was not comfortable on the team, Walker continued to play through the entire season until he had to stop because of an injury. He never played on an all-black team throughout his entire career. Walker’s actions made other African American men want to join the baseball league and not be afraid to join white teams. When Walker showed that he was confident in his talent and self-worth, he encouraged other men who were like him to also take a stand. But he wasn’t the only one who wanted to stand up for their beliefs.

Another one of these men had enough courage to make a change. Paul Robeson was also an African American athlete who played defense for the Rutgers University football team back in 1916. He was taken for the team because of his huge size of 6’2” and 210 pounds. During the second game of the season, when the coach of the opposing team saw Robeson’s size and that he was black, he requested that the player be benched for the game. Robeson’s coach reluctantly sent him to the bench. Robeson did walk to the bench but refused to sit down. He told his teammates that he would not sit because the bench is not where he belonged and that he would not let other people decide where he goes. This made his teammates speak up to the coach and defend Robeson. Because Robeson stood up for himself, this motivated his teammates to put their spots on the team in jeopardy to stand for what is right. After this, Robeson was not the only one to take a stand for his rights.

Though Robeson’s protest was pretty popular, these two men wanted to take it a step further. Tommie Smith and John Carlos were two additional African American professional track runners who placed first and third in an Olympic track race. When they presented their famous protest, it took place during the Star-Spangled Banner in front of thousands of people. Back in 1968 when the two men were standing with their medals, standing up for the Star-Spangled Banner, they both took off their shoes, revealing their black socks and raising their black-gloved fists. This was a way to silently protest the hate shown to people of color in this country. This protest was supposed to be a small protest for the eyes of the people in the stands, but when photographer John Dominis saw this act of protest, he couldn’t help but to take a picture. He didn’t know it then, but that one photo rocketed to people around the world who also protested with Smith and Carlos. Their small protest inspired so many people to speak up about their feelings with them. This influenced other people to do similar acts such as through the Black Panther movement. Though they had a big impact, these protests did not fix all the problems that the people had, which is probably the reason for this next protest.

During an NFL football game in 2016, Colin Kaepernick took a knee during the Star-Spangled Banner. This brought a lot of attention and was seen by some to be disrespectful to the country. People went to major levels of refusing to wear anything that was the Nike brand after Kaepernick signed with them and even more people stopped watching the NFL because Kaepernick was not allowed to play. Kaepernick’s protest was made to just show people that he would not stand up and respect a country that doesn’t respect people like him. This modern-day protest affected the country in such a powerful way that it caused people to bond together and speak up loudly about their beliefs.

Over history, there seems to have been a pattern of athletes who see or know about a problem and look to seek a solution. They influence people of the country to speak up about their problems. They, in a way, shape the way we see politics in the country. These brave athletes are the people who can put aside their love for their sport to make a better change for the world.

Student Bio

Alyssa F.

2019 MSU Oranges Camp
2020 Summer Program
2022 MSU Summer Camp

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