The National Football League’s national anthem demonstrations have proven, once again, that politics and sports are often inseparable.
In 1936, Adolf Hitler saw the Olympic Games in Berlin as an opportunity to promote his ideals of racial supremacy. Rather than boycott the Games, the United States chose to send their best athletes regardless of skin tone and religious beliefs. As a result, African American sprinter Jessie Owens won gold and triumphed over the warped philosophy of Nazism.
On April 15, 1947, the Brooklyn Dodgers signed Jackie Robinson to play second base for an American professional baseball team. In a front office move that was meant to signify the social progressiveness of the franchise, Robinson broke the color line and heralded the end of segregation in America’s favorite pastime.
In 1968, Tommie Smith and John Carlos, after winning gold and bronze medals, respectively, in the 200-meter running event, turned on the medal ceremony podium to face their flags during the American national anthem. Each athlete defiantly raised a black-gloved fist and showed the world what self- determination for people of color looks like.
In 1971, the game of ping-pong was used to open up diplomatic relations between the U.S. and the People’s Republic of China. The so called “Ping-pong diplomacy” was so successful that it resulted in the lifting of the embargo against China on June 10, 1971.
The 1995 Rugby World Cup was an event that helped unify a post-apartheid South Africa. Following South Africa’s victory, Nelson Mandela, the newly-elected President of South Africa, wearing a Springboks rugby shirt and cap, presented the Webb Ellis Cup to the white South African captain — a symbolic act that opened up a way forward for a profoundly traumatized and fragmented society.
More recently, after the tragedy of 9/11/01, a tattered flag rescued from the World Trade Center site waved in the sky above the old Yankee Stadium. The World Series of 2001 not only provided solace to a nation in mourning, it also provided an opportunity for New Yorkers to rally around their beloved team in an act of heroic solidarity.
It is clear from this thumbnail sketch that political demonstration has been an integral part of the history of sports throughout the world. So with that said, I found Mike Pence’s decision to walk out at half time of an Oct. 8 NFL game because of the anthem protests to be an overt political demonstration. What makes the Vice President’s protest legitimate and the NFL player’s protest inappropriate? Why can he use the sports arena to voice his opinion but the players should remain silent and obedient? Was that just another example of white people dictating the terms of who gets to speak and under what conditions their voice can be heard?
One thing is for certain: a protest where no one is moved to action is useless. The nonviolent strategy that the NFL players have employed certainly makes many fans and casual viewers uncomfortable (think how the restaurant sit-ins of the ’50s and ’60s made some people feel), but it has achieved what all social justice protests set out to do: it has forced people to make a choice. Because these demonstrations are so blatant, uncompromising, and persistent, they are making everyone take a side — including players, coaches, owners, advertisers, and, most importantly, families at home. In a major way, sports has provided yet another catalyst for addressing and transforming social change.
Photos: (1) Jesse Owens stands atop the medal platform after receiving gold at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-G00630 / Unknown / CC-BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons; (2) Nelson Mandela congratulates South Africa’s “Springboks” Captain Francois Pienaar during the award ceremony for the 1995 Rugby World Cup, Getty Images, courtesy RugbyWorldCup.com; (3) Cleveland Browns players take a knee during the national anthem prior to an August 2017 preseason NFL game, courtesy Yahoo.com.