Today’s Black History Month spotlight is all about activism. Sports have historically been a connecting force that bring together people from all creeds and colors, blurring some social lines in the spirit of team unity. However, sports have also been an arena for athletes to address divisive issues and shine a light on social ills.
One of the most famously outspoken activist athletes was the late, great boxing champ Muhammad Ali.
Ali shot to fame as a charismatic heavyweight boxing champion, but gained notoriety when he protested the Vietnam War by refusing the draft, citing religious beliefs and moral opposition to the war. Standing by his beliefs cost him significantly: he was stripped of his title and banned from the sport.
Ali has become one of the most prominent symbols of resistance and political protest, setting the stage for other athletes. NBA great Bill Russell stood alongside Ali at the 1963 March on Washington, and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar joined Ali, Russell, Jim Brown and Willie Davis in the Vietnam protest.
Abdul-Jabbar and Russell became two of the NBA’s biggest social and political activists, transcending their Hall of Fame basketball careers to write and advocate for civil rights.
One of the most visually striking examples of the resistance movement in athletics was the raising of black-gloved fists at the 1968 Olympics by gold and bronze medalists Tommie Smith and John Carlos against the unjust treatment of African Americans.
In recent times, modern star athletes have begun to speak out more about injustices and use their platforms as ways to spark dialogue and effect change.
One of the most talked-about examples of activism was San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s season-long protest, during which he kneeled on the sideline during the National Anthem to bring attention to criminal justice reform and the unfair treatment of people of color in the U.S.
You can't buy this feeling, you earn this feeling. You can't buy this moment, you earn this moment. No one deserves championships, you must go out and earn championships. We earned this championship. No one can ever take that away from the 2016 @patriots football team. #theimaginationagency would only let me tag 20 people. Lol
Super Bowl LI champions Martellus Bennett and Devin McCourty are staging their own protest of President Trump and his administration, saying that they will not attend the White House with the rest of their teammates for the championship celebration.
LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Carmelo Anthony and Chris Paul gave a call to action at the 2016 ESPYS following a string of high-profile police shootings of black men. The NBA stars urged their fellow athletes to be more socially active.
“The system is broken, the problems are not new, the violence is not new, and the racial divide definitely is not new, but the urgency for change is definitely at an all-time high,” Anthony said.