History of Activism in Sports
A look back at critical moments in sports and social justice history.
By Mark Molz
Professional athletes, especially in the past century, have long used their platform to speak out on the social injustices demonstrated in our country.
Athletes have used their status to show they too are citizens who have a voice of reason and are affected by the injustices that take place. From Muhammad Ali, to Bill Russell, Billie Jean King, Tommie Smith and John Carlos, John Thompson, and more throughout history, we have seen a constant fight for justice and equality in professional athletes/figures in their respected platform.
Known for his great performances in the ring, Muhammad Ali was extremely critical in the fight for justice outside boxing. In 1967, after being selected in the draft, Muhammad Ali refused to enter the war. He believed it went against his Islamic faith, and he saw no benefits of leaving his country to go fight. Although he received criticism and was sentenced to five years in jail for draft evasion, he took a stance and stuck to his beliefs. He was supported by the likes of fellow athletes such as Jim Brown, Bill Russell, and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in his fight for justice.
Ali stated, “If I thought the war was going to bring freedom and equality to 22 million of my people, they wouldn’t have to draft me, I’d join tomorrow.”
An all-time Celtic great with 11 rings, Bill Russell did not only demonstrate his fight on the court. In 1961 Russell and a few other teammates walked out on a scheduled exhibition game in Lexington, Kentucky when black players on the team were denied service to eat in the dining room of the hotel they were staying in. Russell and his teammates took a stand long before it was deemed acceptable for Black athletes and individuals to demand change. Today we now see this happening all over, especially in the most recent NBA season.
Russell said, “it was important to me that everybody, everywhere, knows that the Black players are deciding they’ll stand up for themselves.”
Billie Jean King
Founder of the Women’s Tennis Association in 1973, Billie Jean King was a pioneer for gender equality in the athletic world. Becoming the first female athlete to earn over $100,00 in prize money, she was influential in decreasing the wage-gap in sports. After winning the U.S Open in 1972, but receiving $15,000 less in prize money, King was determined to fight for equal pay among both men and women. As a result of her hard work, the U.S. Open became the first major tournament to offer equal prize money in both the womens and mens league. She is also the founder of womenSports magazine and the Women’s Sports Foundation. She has forever cemented herself as one of the most important and influential female athletes of our time.
“Unless I was number 1, I wouldn’t be listened to.” Billie Jean King stated.
Tommie Smith and John Carlos
While partaking in the 1968 summer Olympics, Tommie Smith and John Carlos lowered their heads and raised their fist to show their support for equality and human rights. After placing first and third in the 200-meter event they took the podium displaying their black socks and a raised black-gloved fist. Their fist represented the Black power and Black unity in America, while their shoeless feet dawning black socks symbolized poverty in Black communities. They took a stand on one of the biggest stages in the world and will forever be remembered as one of the most powerful political statements in the history of the Olympics.
When reflecting on the act of protest, Carlos told The Undefeated, “A lot of people ask if I have regrets. I have no regrets,” Carlos said. “The people who have regrets are the ones who were there in 1968 and did nothing.”
In 1989 the NCAA voted to implement a rule denying athletic scholarships to the freshman athletes who failed to qualify for the academic standards under Proposition 48. John Thompson, the most dominant coach in Georgetown history, did not agree with the passing of this rule. Before their regular season game against Boston College Thompson proceeded to walk off the court in protest of the rule implemented. Like Bill Russell, Thompson took a stand during a time where athletes were still inserting themselves in the political world.
During his protest Thompson said it was “to bring attention to something that I think is a tremendous tragedy. I have every intention of talking to other people while I am in the form of this protest to try to identify what the reason for some of it was and also to try to get it changed in whatever sensible, reasonable manner I feel I am able to.”
This is just a small look back at some of the few important figures in activism. Whether it is Ali, Russell, King, Smith and Carlos, Thompson, or others that have paved the way for activism, sports has always been a platform for individuals to speak their mind. Today we have seen individuals such as Megan Rapinoe, Colin Kaepernick, Lebron James, Serena Williams and more light the way for making a change in society and the sports world.
It is important not to forget the individuals who took a stance during times where they were the minority. Everyone has the right to speak up and advocate for change, and athletes will not “shut up and dribble,” but rather use their stage to stand up for what is right.
For more information regarding the research of this article please visit the links below.
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