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Bigger than sports: Kaepernick and the tradition of radical athletes

Last year in game 3 of a 4 game National Football League pre-season series, quarterback Colin Kaepernick chose not to stand for the National Anthem. It wasn’t the first time he did this, but it was the first time a reporter noticed.

Like millions of other people across the country, it was after this game that Kaepernick said publicly he’d had enough of the injustice that people of color experience in the United States.

In the United States, the combination of professional sports and political activism is nothing new. However, by not only refusing to stand up for the National Anthem, but also calling out the U.S. government for the mistreatment of African Americans and war veterans on national television was one of the boldest political moves we’ve seen or heard in over a decade from a professional athlete.

Even recently, prior to Kaepernick’s protest, other athletes had expressed their political views about police brutality and racism. Some of these athletes took it to social media and/or joined the community in protest. We saw New York Knicks guard Carmelo Anthony marching with the people in Baltimore demanding justice for Freddie Gray. We also saw the NBA team Miami Heat post a team picture of everyone wearing a hoodie in solidarity with Trayvon Martin. In addition, we saw players like Kobe Bryant and Kyrie Irving wear “Can’t breathe” t-shirts before a game. Later, we saw three Women’s National Basketball Association teams wear Black Lives Matter t-shirts in support of the Black Lives Matter movement. Despite these actions, most of us have grown accustomed to most professional athletes saying and doing very little about injustice, racism and a corrupt presidential cycle.

But in 2017, we’ve crossed a line. The discussion about racism in America has not only intensified in our own communities, it has reached a critical mass in the sports world. We are now seeing more and more athletes take a stand about the killings of unarmed African Americans and grand jury decisions that have set fire in the streets as the nation watched another killer cop get away with murder.

Kaepernick is joining the ranks of Muhammad Ali with his refusal to fight in Vietnam and Tommie Smith and John Carlos with their Black Power salute at the 1968 Olympics. He’s also joining Craig Hodges, who won two NBA titles with the 1991 and 1992 Chicago Bulls.

Hodges did something no other athlete had ever done before. Hodges was known for his charitable work in oppressed and impoverished Black communities, and also known for calling out Michael Jordan for his lack of involvement in Black communities. After winning the 1992 NBA Championship, the team got to visit then-president George H. W. Bush at the White House. Hodges, unlike the rest of the team, showed up in a dashiki proudly representing his West African roots. He then handed the president a letter, addressing issues in African American communities. As a result, Craig Hodges never played professional basketball in the United States again and was titled an “embarrassment to the league” by many team owners and executives. Hodges never fully escaped being banned from playing in the NBA.

Kaepernick too has been accused of being un-American, unpatriotic, and a “traitor to the nation.” His situation highlights the cavernous gap that still needs to be crossed in confronting the brutal truth and legacy of racism in the United States. Kaepernick’s statement about police brutality is not some story line fabricated to drive up jersey sales and television ratings. These are realities known and felt by millions in the United States. There are videos clearly displaying cops killing unarmed people, taking innocent lives.

In addition, Kaepernick’s statements on the corrupt presidential election between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump also hit a nerve. If anything, Kaepernick is saying what a lot of us have been thinking. First, anyone that followed the 2016 election knows that Hillary Clinton is a racist, war mongering mouthpiece for Wall Street. Secondly, anyone with a pulse knows that Donald Trump is an out-and-out racist. That is why the media’s anti-Kaepernick campaign coverage from the start has focused on anything but the actual message and has since stayed there.

Kaepernick is a role model whose example shows that if you see and experience injustice you fight back. That if you learn that your government is sending you to fight wars overseas to destroy a country that poses no threat to your freedom, you fight back. If you see a cop get away with murder for killing innocent people, you fight back. Most of all, his situation shows the hypocrisy of a sport that has given second chances to players such as Greg Hardy and Ray McDonald, who were accused of domestic violence and Ben Roethlisberger, twice accused of sexual assault, and yet finds itself in crisis over a player protesting for the victims of racist violence.

Athletes speaking out is nothing new. During the 1960’s and 70’s, millions of African American workers were actively engaged in a struggle against the intense racism of U.S. society. The civil rights and Black power movements helped politicize huge sectors of the working class. In this historical context, great athletes like Muhammad Ali, Roberto Clemente, Tommie Smith and John Carlos inspired people across the world with their uncompromising solidarity with the oppressed. These sports heroes were often strong advocates in the struggle against racism. Now, in 2017, we are seeing more and more athletes displaying solidarity with every social movement that’s come in the last ten years, such as Occupy Wall Street, Black Lives Matter, Fight for $15 and NoDAPL.

But how did we get here?

Did someone personally call Colin Kaerpernick and all the other professional athletes to take a stand? The honest answer is “no.” We got here because of the power of the people. It was the people who took over the streets in protest in the 1950’s, 60’s, 70’s and 80’s and now to demand justice for the killings of unarmed and innocent people. It was the people who took over the streets when George Zimmerman walked away “not guilty.” We saw the same after Oscar Grant, Freddie Gray, Sandra Bland and the many others. It was the people, the fans and athletes, who spoke out and removed two racist NBA owners, Donald Sterling and Bruce Levenson, after they were exposed as a racists. The league already knew they were racist, but it wasn’t until the people spoke out that pushed the league to force them to sell the teams.

Big game protests

Professional sports are a media spectacle to be sure. Every year, millions of workers across the country turn their attention to the big game, the Super Bowl, the NBA Finals, the World Series and other prominent athletic events. These events are huge moneymakers for the capitalist class. Billions of dollars change hands as corporations vie for the best advertising slots, the most prominent billboards along the field, the biggest star’s endorsement of their newest product and so on.

But in 2017, the Super Bowl opened with a protest of fists in the air after the national anthem as Patriots free safety Devin McCourty and tight end Martellus Bennett expressed their solidarity with the struggle for justice.

After winning the Super Bowl, it didn’t come as a shock that Bennett and McCourty were the players with New England to reject the team visit to the White House. In the Patriots’ first game of the regular season, both players raised their fist after the national anthem. Now, up to four players have declined to join the team in visiting the White House and President Donald Trump.

Seattle Seahawks defense lineman Michael Bennett made a last-minute decision that came as an embarrassment to the State of Israel and the U.S. empire. Originally, Israel invited a group of professional football players to visit. Israel called this a mission aimed at improving the country’s image and that the visit would help against “the false incitement campaign that is being waged against Israel around the world” as Israeli Cabinet Minister Gilad Erdan put it. Edran leads the Ministry for Strategic Affairs and has waged a campaign to boost Israel’s image and counter the influence of the BDS movement. In Michael Bennett’s letter rejecting the visit to Israel, he expressed his solidarity with Palestine and cited the example of Muhammad Ali and the late boxing legend’s support for the Palestinians. Bennett said he too wants to be a “voice for the voiceless.”

It was the pressure from the Black community and many other social struggles that ultimately brought the attention to mainstream media of police brutality. Now, we are seeing professional athletes such as Michael Bennett speak out on the genocide of Palestinians by the hands of Israel and the U.S. empire.

How many more Fergusons, Oscar Grants and Trayvon Martins are we going to experience in our communities? Colin Kapernick and Michael Bennett along with millions of Americans are tired of this injustice. They are doing what many of us have done for decades—that is to protest and stand up for what is right—and we have to continue to organize and protest the injustices so that everyone, including professional athletes, working people and students, can join us in the streets to demand justice.

Speaking the truth was Kaepernick’s only crime. That is why he is being forced out of the sport, just as Hodges was. But the strength that Kaepernick, Hodges and Bennett have shown should provide strength in turn to our movement against injustice, oppression, poverty and exploitation.

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